Friday, 4 November 2011

I Never Thought I'd Say This

After watching the men who are reroofing the building across the road from me, I'm beginning to come round to the idea of health and safety legislation. It's an old building and there was nothing on it but a layer of terracotta tiles like fish scales, resting on a wooden frame, which is now exposed, looking faintly like a fish skeleton. The men are applying sheets of chipboard and then some kind of flashing they roll out and hammer in place. I hope they will put new tiles over the top eventually.

They are doing the whole thing without safety equipment of any kind, nipping up and down the slope without a moment's hesitation, springing over to grab a tool and then dashing back to where it's needed, stopping frequently for fags and chats in which they act out their conversational anecdotes ("So he was over here, and I had to leap round the corner to get out of the way, like this", "No, it was this big, I promise you and I hardly managed to reel it in before it flipped over quick as a flash - here, I'll show you the way it was"), with broad gestures and large movements. The drop to the street is a good three storeys.

I can't look out the window most of the time, even though I know this is normal here - a group of men turned up to fix my wooden blinds last time I was over and one of them got sick of waiting for the other to finish with the ladder, so he just hoisted himself up into the open window space and swung out, holding onto the rope that operates the blinds to steady himself - four storeys up, no helmet, no harness. They laughed when I gasped and left the room. 'Women - such timid creatures', they guffawed among themselves (or was it, 'Soft Westerners'?).

I suppose though that they are taking responsibility for themselves, rather than expecting legislators to take care of them. Also they live in a country where slabs of salted fat appear to be an accepted part of the national diet. Perhaps that alters your perspective slightly. Maybe you aren't that bothered by whether you're going to fall off a roof or not, if, as Synge would say, you're busy 'shaking the fat of [your] heart' :


  1. I can't believe how many of your fascinating postings I've missed lately. I've been sleeping a lot.

    Anyway, your piece above reminded me of how bamboo scaffolding is or was used on the subcontinent - maybe not so much in India now, but in Bangladesh. It goes up many floors in the construction phase - amazing structures.

    Women workers balance large piles of bricks on their heads - you will have seen these - and walk them step after weary step to the top. 12-14 hours/day. Their babies lie sleeping on the sidewalks below. There's certainly no concept of H&S when labour is plentiful and cheap.

  2. Hello Denis, miserable news in your last tweet. Hope it was a one off. I've seen bamboo scaffolding in Shanghai and workers who seem as expendable as ants, judging by the safety standards.

    I haven't met them, but I've got to know the three fellows in the pictures over the last couple of weeks. The one who is sitting is almost always sitting. The one who is bending over and getting on with the work wears a piratical earring and is rather dashing. The other standing one aspires to be as dashing, but lacks an adequate level of basic dash in his genes, I think. They all do only as much work as they need to in order to stay in employment, which is an attitude I admire, (partly because I am always a pathetic grovelling try-hard when I work). Of course, were I employing them, I wouldn't admire that spirit quite so much.

  3. About 1991 the block where I worked in Washington, DC, began to be rebuilt. I was impressed by what I saw of the casual attitude toward safety--use of power tools with no eye protection, for one thing. What most impressed me was when they had to remove some cornice to run a trash chute. A worker would lean out the window and operate a jackhammer with one hand while he held on with the other.

    It's all well and good when it works, but a first cousin of mine is a widow because something went wrong when her husband was doing some of his own tree trimming.

  4. I'm torn, George, between thinking these things should be regulated and thinking that survival of the fittest will do its work one way or another.