As part of our summer programme we managed to arrange a visit to the main laboratories of the Health and Safety Executive, at Harpur Hill near Buxton. Since our last visit some years ago, a brand new headquarters (opened in 2005) has been built to replace two separate facilities, one on the Harpur Hill site and another in Sheffield.
There has been a health and safety presence at Harpur Hill since 1911 with a variety of names. In the post WW2 period, it housed the Safety in Mines Research facility but now under the Health and Safety Executive it examines many aspects of working practice, accident investigation etc. As well as the HQ referred to above, the site of some 220 hectares in a remote environment is ideal for experiments such as impact tests and fire simulations.
It was this remoteness which made the area ideal for a WW2 facility – bomb storage. Reinforced tunnels were constructed (I think a “cut and cover” process was used) and the RAF personnel were housed in nearby Harpur Hill.
At the Laboratories, we were greeted by a member of the Training Unit who gave us a general introduction to the facility and then we were conducted round the building where staff members with particular specialisms outlined their work. The three main areas which we visited were the ones dealing with effects of noise and vibration, correct use of appropriate protective equipment and the Engineering Department to which items large and small from accidents are taken for further investigation of structural design faults, material weaknesses etc. We were also shown the Audio Visual Department which can produce a wide variety of video presentations for training, investigational and legal applications. High speed photography videos, for example, can show in detail the spread of an explosion or fire (we were shown the results of an experiment on the collision between two containers carrying flammable liquids)
Investigations into accidents etc are done both at the accident scene and in laboratory investigations. Some of these may involve the production of scale models: For example, the Kings Cross Underground fire involved the making and investigation of a model of the escalators etc. These days, some investigations involve the use of computer simulations but models may be required in the case of legal actions so that expert witnesses can demonstrate more clearly complex cases.
The Training Unit mounts a range of Health and Safety related courses such as handling of hazardous materials; biological monitoring; ergonomics; explosions and impacts; vibration induced health problems; human factors in accidents; road transport load security; correct use of protective equipment. Details and updates can be found on www.hsl.gov.uk/training .
Given the media publicity to what appear to be cases of ludicrous over-caution (often produced by misinterpretation of regulations by minor officials), it is easy for us to become disillusioned by matters of health and safety. Our visit to Harpur Hill showed us that there are many serious concerns to be addressed; a look at some of the ineffective/misused pieces of protective equipment emphasised this.
My final question to myself was what the HSL would have made of our underground ROC Posts with only one exit and inadequate ventilation measures ( and that’s before the arrival of fallout !!) If we hadn’t stood down in 1991, would the post filtration systems ever have been delivered ?
Secretary Ashbourne Section CROCA