Not too mad on political correctness

5th October 2007 at 01:00
"It's political correctness gone mad!" lamented Alan Partridge, the eponymous star of the television comedy show. He had just been told by the cashier at a petrol station that health and safety legislation forbade him from using the disposable barbecues he sold for a cook-up on the forecourt.

I laughed at that, but I was less than amused by a statement from a software publisher in this paper's coverage of the Scottish Learning Festival. "School science was more fun," they claimed, "in the days when pupils could play with blobs of mercury and make hair stand on end with high voltages."

Not being allowed to play with a toxic metal? Surely it's political correctness gone mad!

I did play with blobs of mercury when I was a lad, on the afternoon when my pal Scotty broke a thermometer. It never did me any harm, though I am a little taller on a hot day. In truth, I was not allowed to play with mercury. I just did, and would probably have had a stern telling-off from my physics teacher had I been seen to be doing so. The potential for harm was there.

As for high voltages, those who appear to want to sterilise school science through overuse of computer simulations ought to be made aware of the fact that the hair- raising Van de Graaff generator is most certainly not banned. What has changed in the past couple of decades is that teachers have more information on the safe use of such apparatus.

In the case of the VdG, I was there when the advice was revised, volunteering on a couple of occasions to have what is left of my hair raised during experiments to find out whether the energy stored by the machines was within safe limits.

I am on a health and safety learning curve in my new job. One thing I have already learnt is that the subject is awash with myths and misconceptions, as well as bizarre charges of political correctness gone mad.

Very little that wasn't banned when I was a boy is banned now. And if it is banned, then it's banned for a damned good reason. If in doubt, why not give us a call at the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre. On a good day, we can be found barbecuing outside our Dunfermline premises.

Gregor Steele

had to sit a health and safety exam, a tale for which the world is not yet ready

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