Throughout my time in University management in England I managed to avoid line management responsibility for staff whose lives were dedicated to Health and Safety and Risk Management. Very important areas of activity, but ones that never exactly stirred my blood. I was well and truly inducted into the arcane mysteries of the sect when I was required to attend a Health and Safety Committee meeting as part of my induction to my new university role in York. It was soon enough after my arrival for me still to be driving my car around York with windows and doors firmly locked to avoid being hi-jacked, and still making a point of backing into parking bays to the same end, both being legacies of having lived in South Africa for the previous 30 years. There were two substantive items on the agenda: a four-page paper titled “The Safe use of Ornamental and Christmas Tree Lights” (it was November after all); and a six-page paper titled “The Dangers of Working Alone”. Enough said.
But the management of Risk Management has now caught up with me in retirement, and is taking its revenge. When I accepted nomination as Chair of the U3A in York, the crystal ball a colleague gave me as a parting present when I left the University of Natal for a primarily ‘Strategy and Corporate Planning’ role at York St John failed rather dismally in its responsibility to alert me to the impending onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. U3A is gradually easing itself out of lockdown, and every tentative step has to be risk assessed. We are acutely aware of the extent to which the vast majority of our members are, by definition, in the ‘vulnerable’ category, and very conscious of our responsibility to try to make sure that, in resuming their U3A activities, they will be as safe as we can possibly make them.
In some instances, particularly with outdoor activities, that is relatively easy. So, for example, we just have to review the risk management measures advised by the Croquet Association, and make sure the members of our croquet group are aware of them and happy to abide by them. But even with outdoor activities there can be complications. We have a number of walking groups of various sizes. The Ramblers Association allows parties of up to 30, but we have group insurance through the Third Age Trust and their advice is still that only six people from different households should meet outdoors, as our cycling group is doing. So is it OK for our large walking groups to divide into groups of six, each with a sub-leader who has reconnoitred the route with the Group Leader, with a view to many more than a total of six going out on the same walk, but at five minute intervals?
The restarting of group meetings indoors makes the complications of outdoor activities pale into insignificance. We have an excellent relationship with the Friends Meeting House in York where our office is situated and where we rent meeting rooms for a significant portion of the well over 100 groups who meet indoors. The Friends will take responsibility for the regular cleaning of the meeting rooms, but what about the ‘touch-points’ between sessions: door handles, light-switches, window-catches etc.? And what about our office, storeroom, and equipment? Assorted Group Leaders, some probably about as absent-minded as I am, will be accessing the office at different times, taking PCs, projectors, cables etc. from the storeroom, and returning them at assorted times. Is it reasonable to expect them all to remember to clean all touch-points as they go in and out? And what about cleaning the equipment? None of this is insuperable, and we are expecting a very gradual return to indoor meetings from our understandably cautious membership, but it is taking a great deal of time – particularly for our Groups Coordinator.
A kindly neurosurgeon came to my aid on Wednesday. He didn’t offer to help with the solution to the problems of cleaning the touch-points in our office, but he did put the occupational hazards of being Chair of a U3A branch with ultimate responsibility for risk management in a time of Covid into perspective. His aim was clearly to make 100% certain that, in signing a consent form for a fusion operation on my spine, I was graphically aware of the risks involved. ‘See that thin line there,’ he says, pointing to a very thin line on the MRI scan up on the screen in front of us, ‘if I nick that, you die on the operating table. It has never happened to me – yet, touch wood, but it has happened to most of my colleagues, but only once.’ I was inclined to think that ‘happened to’ might, perhaps, be more appropriately applied to the patient rather than the surgeon. ‘You obviously have to be lying on your stomach, probably for around two and a half hours, so if we don’t have your head positioned correctly, there is a risk that you could be blind when you wake up,’ he continued, adding as an afterthought, ‘and if we don’t have your arms positioned right you could end up with permanent nerve damage.’ Those were by no means the only risks he enumerated, and he is not a man to pull his punches, but, oddly, he managed to be quite reassuring at the same time. Reassuring enough, at least, for me to try to fit my signature into the appropriate box on the consent form for an operation which, he hopes, will be in time to ensure I am not one of the 10 million people predicted to be on NHS waiting lists by Christmas. I just have to hope that there is plenty of coronavirus-free wood around for him to touch from time to time as he goes about his business.