By George, safety is serious

30th July 2010 at 01:00
I was driving down the A1 just south of Berwick the other day and didn't shout "Uncle George", despite having done so every other time I have been on that stretch of road since the late Nineties.

There were two reasons for my silence. One was that my passenger was a colleague from work who would not have seen the relevance of a Steele family in-joke. Secondly, the signs stating "262 casualties in the past three years" had been removed. That Steeles cry out "Uncle George" whenever we see a gloomy message about accidents has nothing to do with my own Uncle George. He is a cheerful, funny man who entertained us as children by rattling his false teeth along to the "Ying Tong Song" and sending up sectarian tunes by playing them on a bicycle pump.

The other Uncle George was a clown, sort of. He was billed as the children's evening entertainment at a Northumberland caravan park where we spent a short break. Sporting a bluish-grey patched suit and a bluish-grey patched face, Uncle George looked as if he was being viewed through a permanent haze of cigarette smoke. A large, greyish-red painted smile somehow made him look even more miserable.

"Ladiesngentlemen, before I start," he said in a flat voice that then launched into a litany of warnings about what might befall any children who wandered on to the stage. Electrocution. Crushing by heavy speaker stacks. I felt myself in greatest danger of losing consciousness and hitting my head off a drinks table or biting through my arm to relieve the boredom.

Given that one of the prime directives of the organisation that I work for is to dispense health and safety advice to science and technology teachers, I have to be very careful not to be Uncle George.

As a teacher, I fear that I was him on an annual basis, ever since primary induction visits to secondary schools became the norm. Often, their first- ever science lesson is an examination of the dangers of a big-school science laboratory. While tumbling speaker stacks don't feature, everything else does. Fire, explosion, burns from innocuous-looking clear liquids, poisoning and blindness.

I've ranted often enough before about those who dismiss health and safety as political correctness gone mad and who wrongly blame it for making science dull. That's not what I'm suggesting here. The first experiment pupils usually carry out in schools is a fabulous one, where they mix chemicals together and observe and record what happens. There are no fire, explosion or electrical hazards, so why did I mention them before the activity? What was I doing? Trying to show off by giving the pupils the impression that I lived with danger every day? Attempting to scare them into good behaviour? Do other subjects a favour by making science as dull as they can be?

A better idea might have been to introduce health and safety topics as appropriate. However, I am probably worrying about nothing. Some time after Uncle George's Cabaret of Fear, I went to a parents' night at my children's school. Leafing through one of their diaries, I found a report on the caravan weekend. Saturday night's entertainment was described thus: "In the evening, we went to see a clown called Uncle George. He was very funny".

Gregor Steele had to explain to his child's teacher what the "money wasting machines" were.

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