For some time now I’ve been living on an island. The commonly accepted definition of an island is a stretch of land surrounded from all sides by water. It is on this medium-sized island that I also work in an insular workplace. My manager is called John. John’s flagship life focus seems to be Health & Safety. In all fairness, life on the island itself is based on responsibly upholding Health & Safety norms. I suspect it comes from the constant threat of being washed away into the sea. If he wasn’t so taken with Health & Safety, John would stand out. John does not stand out. His back is slightly crooked and his voice dampened. Before being our office manager, John used to drive the local school bus.
I don’t want to stand out either. I am just as passionate about Health and Safety. Otherwise I wouldn’t have moved to the island. I used to feel unhealthy and unsafe. I used to think those around me were unhealthy and unsafe. You can therefore imagine my surprise when John asked me to train as the new Health & Safety Marshall. I argued against it. I protested. Childishly, I confessed I wasn’t yet cured of unsafeness and unhealthiness. John listened. John smiled. John fatherly professed his pledge of allegiance to my unearthed capabilities. John reached out with his fatherly hand and the job description. I would later remind him of this moment.
To formally qualify as Health & Safety Marshall beyond John’s fatherly trust, my task was to design and implement a Health & Safety re-vamping plan-procedure for our office. Our office has an open layout with cubicles where, every day, up to 40 diligent people bring their valuable contribution to the world. They all walk through the same door and swipe in using a swipe-in machine where they place their palm over a scanner, following which they type in unique individual codes. Next to the swipe-in machine there’s a bottle of hand sanitizer.
This is where I had to start. I was later to remember the moment.
Three weeks of excited theoretical innovation and restless nights later, John finally approved my plan and I was able to start by replacing the hand sanitizer with a newer brand, less susceptible to evaporation and more efficient in killing bacteria. The receptacle was bigger too and glued to its shelf for permanency purposes. I added a sign plate reminding employees that it was both company and office statutory policy to use the hand sanitizer after every use of the hand swipe machine. Since I was in the area, I fitted a new, stronger spring on the door, to prevent careless employees from leaving it on the latch when they went out on their cigarette breaks. I did the same to all exits and entrances, for fire doors need to be fully capable of being, in turn of course, sealed tight and fully open. Eerie inbetweenness… Leaving a fire door on the latch is a serious health & safety hazard, my mentor John once told us. So is smoking, I added. I banned smoking on a 10 meter radius around the building.
I then carried on to rearrange the general landscape of the open plan floor by using cubicle panels to draw a new emergency route, like an octopus saviour spread throughout our office floor, nook and corridor. But a safe and healthy working environment doesn’t end at fire routes. Alas! I realised that, despite their inner genetic propensity for health and safety, my colleagues needed a gentle guiding hand to help them abide by the rightful path of their principles. Equipped with a screwdriver, I personally visited every workstation and secured the backrest of every single office chair in an upright position adapted to what I considered to be consistent with the ideal posture of the human spine. On our island, chronic back pain is the silent killer of efficiency, and the foremost reason for staff absence, albeit it could be ousted so easily. Subsequently, I proceeded to oil and check the stability of every chair wheel and tread tire. Finally, I decided against mobile chairs altogether, on which point John agreed for reasons of work efficiency, and replaced them with solid plastic monolith models recommended by an educational organisation who’d used them with success in counteracting the effects of ADHD in young students.
I must admit staff didn’t automatically acquiesce to my innovative platform without a slight hint of adversity. When, after replacing the chairs, I led a workshop on the correct placement of palms on the newly introduced memory foam wireless keyboards, it was suggested, and not without malice I hasten to add, that I tape everybody’s hands to the keyboard for the entirety of the working day. Being so engrossed in my plan to improve working conditions, I failed to pick up the proponent’s jocular tone and spend a few good seconds looking through the 450-page amended version of the Health & Safety Protocols and Procedures Manual for any specification against applying adhesive tape straight onto human skin. This appeared to displease my fellow workers even more, and were it not for John’s prompt intervention, I fear somebody’s remark that adhesive tape would be better employed to join my face and the Manual for eternity might have been advanced to experimental status.
I did not let this superficial and transitory shift in mood dampen my spirits. I printed ten copies of the new Manual (which incorporate my plan as Annex 2) and placed them on each work pod. Furthermore, I printed two colour copies and placed them on a new multi-storey carrousel for workplace documentation that I had installed next to the supervisor’s desks. An Incidents, Accidents and Near Misses Logbook was placed at the entrance, next to the hand sanitizer. It was free to use and came with a chained pen.
Protecting the workforce is, after all, not the only duty of a Health & Safety Marshall. Once in such a position, one ought to consider protecting one’s most valuable asset – clients. For reasons of personal & sensitive data protection, John had once explained to me, our office was placed on the first floor of the building; passer-bys couldn’t peep through the window and onto our computer screens. As you can imagine, being on the first floor is by no means a silver bullet in the vital direction of data protection. For a week or so I looked at our semi-resident pigeons with a cautious eye. Not once, I must admit, I thought I saw a spark of brewing ulterior motives in the otherwise innocuous countenance of our windowsill visitors. Sadly I did not have the privilege of reflection time on the aviary issue because immediate life-threatening hazards kept percolating through the protective wall that was my manifest mission for health & safety. The tea & coffee jars.
Bland refillable aluminium jars.
I must add that on my island everybody drinks tea. Sometimes they drink coffee too. And some use sugar. But either way, one cannot stress enough the importance of using branded transparent containers when storing foods available to large groups of people. I had a conversation with John about this, and we both laughed, cried and dwelled in each other’s embrace thinking how mindless we had been to use common kitchen storage jars. Virtually anything could be put in there, waiting for the faltering hand of the ignorant mind. We were amazed and relieved that our previous contempt for allergy advice and nutritional information hadn’t yet landed the company in court. Subsequently, I forbade the use of aluminium jars and decreed the storage of all hot brew products in their original packaging. Because we are a green organisation, I stored the empty aluminium containers in the janitors’ storage quarters. Try to remember this bit as well. I, for one, will never forget it.
Actually I blame the jars for what happened. I’d like to blame Martha but really it wasn’t her fault. Shortly after the jar revolution, I also banned the consumption of hot drink outside the kitchen and recreational areas to avoid unnecessary spillages and scalds. Water only was allowed in the office space, exclusively in sealed containers such as travel mugs and cooler bottles. My colleague Martha was not best pleased. She was an avid tea drinker. When another colleague left – because of “insufferable narrow-minded regulations”, as some less considerate voices were heard whispering – Martha made for her chance to get even. She requested the newly vacated seat near the window. I assured her that the matter would be forwarded for consideration.
A proficient Health & Safety Marshall can always read behind the lines. He is aware and vigilant. Although rare, cases of suicide at work through auto-defenestration have not been unheard of. Her haste to occupy the seat might have indeed been just a puerile vindictive effort, however I had to properly assess her mental state. And I had to be quick. I sat down in front of her one day and I asked her about her life. I knew she was divorced with two children; nonetheless she’d always seemed content. I grabbed her hand and I promised her that life was still worth every breathing second, and that if she had any hidden plans she could always confide in me. I am not sure whether Martha might have gotten the wrong end of the stick, but far from despair and helplessness, I thought I read amusement on her face. She even joked saying she’d sue me if I ever made inappropriate communicational attempts again. With hindsight, I think the holding hand part might have been a tad into overkill territory.
I decided Martha was ready to switch seats. Even so, during our conversation I secretly peeped at her shirt label to check for measurements, then aptly used the information to compare her girth to the opening of the 30-degree span upwards sliding window. She wouldn’t have fitted through even if she wanted. She was double ready. She saw me staring at her back and threatened with a lawsuit again.
I couldn’t, however, agree to Martha’s flower. Martha’s flower lived in a glass of water. She claimed it was a water plant. I claimed unnecessary open containers had no place next to electric appliances. In the end I conditioned her move to the window seat on her moving her flower to the recreational area. Now I wish I hadn’t. I also forced Martha to host our digital franking machine on her desk, under the rationale of her new desk being so much wider than the previous one. Work efficiency came into play, and, despite Martha’s complaint to John and her union, the franking machine was there to strategically fill in for the missing flower and block any attempted returns.
A digital franking machine is a large, heavy device that stamps envelopes in great numbers, thus making trips to the post office redundant, saving time, and, John’s favourite, increasing work efficiency. Not having to leave the building also means a reduction in the probability that an accident might take place. Or so I thought. Of course franking machines can break down. But our franking machine was new and didn’t. The air conditioning filters did.
It started with a smell. Martha noticed it, John did too. So did Clarke. But more about Clarke in a moment. Sifting through the 532 pages of our building manual (which was now easily accessible on the second level of the new carrousel), we discovered the source of the smell as being the result of clogged up aircon filters. Since the quality of the filters can affect that of the air within a precinct, I personally had the initiative of calling our Locality Area Chief Health & Safety Guardian. Mr Verncombe-Coldicott, as was his name, ordered us to keep a window open at all times so as to minimise the sustained inhalation of pathogens. Pathogens are tiny little devils. Since Martha was the most vocal plaintiff against the smell, it was agreed that her window would be the one kept ajar. Knowing this would place Martha in the middle of a pathogen exit highway, I showed no opposition. Now I wish I had. Mr Verncombe-Coldicott promised to visit our office later in the day to personally assess risk. Again, malicious voices were heard questioning the best use of remunerated time in Mr Verncombe-Coldicott’s case, as they had done previously in mine rather a few times.
And so we come to Clarke. With an “e” as he told everybody on the floor. Clarke with an “e” was our supervisor. He was accountable to John and we, in turn, were all accountable to him. I’ll allow myself a tangent here just to mention that, as Health & Safety Marshall Trainee, I was accountable to John as well, but I never really liked bragging about it. Either way, Clarke loved coffee. He always had it with a spoonful of sugar and no milk. On the day that our filters succumbed and our window was open, Clarke went to the kitchen to have his morning coffee. Needless to say Clarke was a great admirer of my recent work. He had always supported the idea of a brew-free office.
Clarke was alone in the kitchen. In fact, he wasn’t completely alone. The cleaner was around. The cleaner was not accountable to Clarke. The cleaning company was externally contracted.
So it happened that on that very day, our cleaner found the empty jars in his cupboard and felt a stringent need to put them to purposeful use. It also so happened that the dishwasher salt bag was tattered to the point of dissolution. Our cleaner had therefore moved the salt from the bag into the jar and, having just used the product for the dishwasher load, he had left the aluminium jar with the rest of the caustic salt on the kitchen worktop. Had I seen it… but regrets are a pointless heart ruffle.
An odd thing habit is in human psychology. Clarke certainly knew about coffee and tea now residing in labelled jars, however his instinct wronged him and his hand erred. Finding the white powder in the aluminium jar, Clarke scooped up a hefty spoonful and confirmed my findings that anything, indeed anything, could be stored within, making them a dangerous implement to have in the kitchen.
A crackly chocking sound was heard from the kitchen. When its rhythmical recurrence became evident, somebody suggested I should probably be the first one to act in my capacity as Health & Safety Marshal. I jumped from my desk and dashed ahead towards the kitchen. In doing so, I involuntarily embraced one of the panels I had used to remap the fire exits, and found myself gliding on top of it on a curved trajectory towards the cervical region of Helen from Finance & Billing. Helen, having read my guidelines regarding accidents, incidents and near misses, jumped in the opposite direction. She saved her vertebrae but upturned a few water bottles in the process. I said the containers were sealed. However travel containers are not all designed to withstand the pressure caused by an adult man and a wooden panel falling over them. As I landed over the desk, also breaking Helen’s monitor, the water started trickling down from the mouth of a bottle, in a shy minuscule stream winding picturesquely towards the wiring that led to the franking machine.
I must have shouted for help, or in any case, somehow transmitted the idea that action had to be taken urgently to prevent an electric fire, as per page 344 of our Manual.
Mike, a burly ex-builder with an impeccable client-oriented phone manner, all but punched Martha away and lifted up the machine, simultaneously plucking its wires out of its back. But destiny has its own Health & Safety plans and procedures. Mike had just returned from his cigarette break, more than 10 meters away from the building. His hands were slippery from the new enhanced hand sanitising gel. The franking machine, being made of plastic, could not rely on its friction coefficient to stop it from yielding to gravity. Slowly, in a sinusoidal curve, it started towards the open window.
I must stop for a second and add that, at this point, no one was really thinking of Clarke anymore. His vocal chocking had become like an exquisite film soundtrack that you never really notice is there, so well it fits in with the unravelling script. John, on the other hand, and please will you pardon my extended visual art metaphor, was staring at us with the air of a spectator to a world famous crime play: his keen eyes didn’t know where to look anymore so as not to miss the next detail of the story, while at the same time there was something vaguely content about his physiognomy, as if because he wasn’t quite part of what he was watching.
Coming back to the franking machine, I had measured it before and was pleased to note it was too wide to exit through the window opening. I did not, however, consider Pythagoras as applied within a 3D shape, namely a cuboid, and the rotational logic of internal diagonals. Before long it became indisputable that the cuboid that was the digital franking machine could actually squeeze through the window if projected under the right angle. And somehow, that angle had found its own way in life. It wasn’t a long way until down either. I had measured it when researching Martha’s chances at suicide.
Only the franking machine didn’t travel all the way. It stopped slightly earlier, inside a Ford Mustang.
Ever since its inception, the Ford Mustang was intended as a sports car for the working class man. One such man was Mr Verncombe-Coldicott, at the time visiting our office to assess the air filter situation. Ever since the first generation of Mustangs, designers have introduced the convertible model. A convertible car is universally accepted as a manner of impractical luxury pertaining to the upper classes. Had Mr Verncombe-Coldicott not suffered from an ardent desire to opt into the accelerated social mobility dialectic proposed by the American car industry, we’d be having quite a different story on our hands.
As it stands, oblivious to the fact that a series of quick breaches in health and safety had changed the day’s agenda, Mr Verncombe-Coldicott was just about to step out of his car when a heavy metal-plastic cuboid used to stamp letters remotely came through the inexistent roof of his car and remotely crushed his skull and a few fingers. The digital franking machine would have never penetrated through a fastback. Discombobulated pigeons, oblivious to exposed sensitive data on screens left flickering upstairs seemed to be thinking the same thing.
When we went downstairs, and this was before we called the police and ambulance, I was quite surprised to see how much the contents of a cranium resemble childhood sweets. A pink mix of protein, glucose, haemoglobin and other substances trickled down from the open temple of our Locality Area Chief Health & Safety Guardian, mixing with fragments of bone and populating the floor of what was an expensive version of a landmark automobile.
In my Logbook, I filed the day’s events as follows:
- Clarke’s incident as a Near Miss. Although he had spat blood and had to have his stomach pumped out in hospital, he survived, which, John suggested, was a positive outcome by all measures, but especially by the standards of recent developments.
- Martha’s almost-punch in the face by Mike had to be disproportionately classed as an Incident. Despite only having minor abrasions at face level, Martha, rather harshly in my view, filed a lawsuit against Mike and the company.
- Finally, we had to jot down the Mustang – franking machine unfortunate juxtaposition in the Accidents column, which made me sad since I had always taken pride in keeping that section clean. Perhaps the reason why, given my knack for metaphors, I had placed the Incident, Accident and Near Misses Logbook next to the hand sanitizer.
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