Friday, 22 August 2014

Health & Safety at Work

Ignoring stress related illnesses and discounting entirely the debate on the health risks associated with excessive use of a mobile phone, my life as a desk-bound corporate slave was low risk. Most injuries were self-inflicted and consisted mainly of bruising to the head from bashing it against either the brick wall or the glass ceiling (I'm speaking metaphorically of course, I didn't work in a tiny, glass-lidded brick box).

Bruising still occurs on a regular basis in my new life (actually, it's been five years, but who's counting), but then I've always bruised easily, just ask my older brother. The Top 3 causes nowadays tend to be lack of co-ordination while man-handing a full wheelbarrow, miscalulating how many logs I can carry at once and generally bumbling my way around misjudging corners and angles. Spatial awareness is not and never has been one of my greatest strengths. However, I now have to contend with a myriad of hazards. It's not the obvious smallholding hazards that cause me problems - I know to keep my distance from a moving chainsaw, I know not to stand behind a tractor that has rusted, nearly non-existent wing mirrors, and I know that angry bees sting when you blow smoke in their eyes, kill their sisters and steal their honey. It's the small, seemingly insignificant until they get you hazards that really mess me up.

Let's start with the courgette. An easy to grow vegetable with a tendency to triple in size overnight but no obvious health risks unless you try to swallow one whole. Think again! Reach in to harvest your supper at your peril. The stems and leaves can be seriously spiky, and this year we appear to have grown the spikiest spiky variety in all of spikydom.

The criss-cross scratch pattern on my lower right arm is testimony to the damage a courgette can inflict. But these wounds are nothing in comparison with the hogweed burn. Mum, if you're reading this look way now....

Yes, that's my upper right arm. Yes I know you warned me about hogweed. Yes, I'm an idiot. And yes, I was hiding the scars under long sleeves when I saw you for lunch last week!

Like many people I knew to keep away from the highly toxic giant hogweed and I'd taken some care to check that the 2 metre high plants lurking out the back near my washing line were definitely common hogweed. What I didn't know then but certainly know now is that for some people, and in some circumstances, the common hogweed has similarly toxic sap. Something to do with furocoumarins. Not a new Chelsea FC player but the substance in hogweed sap that causes sensitization of the skin. Although not every common hogweed plant produces these, and when a plant does it's only in small amounts, the sap is photosensitive, meaning that strong sunlight on the sap on the skin can cause burning. There's no warning though because it's not until the next day, or the day after, that the burns really start to appear and to blister. Having failed to make the connection with my hogweed clearing activities, there were a couple of days when I variously thought I had contracted a serious skin disease, developed a nasty case of eczema or had become so absent-minded that I was burning myself while cooking without noticing (the latter being the most worrying possibility). By the time common hogweed came in to the frame, I was so relieved to have alighted on an answer that the scaring on my arms felt like a small price to pay for an afternoon of garden clearing stupidity in the sunshine.

Next on my hazards hit list is the nettle. An obvious candidate, but not for an obvious reason. Anyone who spent their childhood running and rummaging in the countryside is well aware of the dangers of the nettle, the sting of nettle rash and the magic properties of the dock leaf. What you might not be aware of is that the nettle has a revenge reflex. Once cut or pulled the plant remains a danger, so you bundle the cuttings and lift them oh so carefully into the wheel barrow. The bulk of the cuttings deliberately wave around to ensure that your attention is firmly on their whereabouts. This is a cunning ploy to distract you from the fact that one of their number is still on the ground, lying in wait. You take a step back, catch one end under your foot, flicking the other end upwards and into contact with the nearest patch of unprotected skin. Never fails. Of course, by this point you've already dug up all the docks.

If you've ever been trodden on by the trotter of a 90 kg pig, had the toe of your welly nibbled by a curious pig, or met an over-amorous sexual active boy pig, then you know that pig keeping can be a hazardous activity. Again, these are the obvious risks. Racing across the well rotivated ground of a pig run is tricky, especially if your ground is stony so the surface is littered with unearthed trip hazard boulders. I could walk the distance between gate and trough but that increases the risk of the aforementioned trotter trampling and toe nibbling, plus if I don't get to the trough before Mary, Mungo and Midge it gets really difficult to pour the nuts into the trough without interference and the longer you take to get the nuts in the trough the greater the levels of salivation and the greater the risk of being salivated on. Much to my embarrassment (although to my knowledge only the sheep and Teri saw it happen), I have also learned that it is hazardous to back away from the trough after feeding as it is highly likely to lead to you ending up on your bum in a strategically placed pig crater. Those pigs sure can dig!

There's no end to the hazards a smallholder faces on a day to day basis: hot jam splash-back; the sheep hurdle finger guillotine; precarious Jenga-style log stacking; the hungry chicken who really, really wants your sandwich/biscuit/crisps; bird box bumble bee nests; pickling vinegar fumes; the burp of a tipped over ewe; wasps in the raspberry bushes..... I could go on but I'm afraid the insurance company might be reading this.