Carlisle Castle is under siege. Not from rampaging Vikings, insurgent Scots or Parliamentary rebels, but from tall scraggly blades of grass.
For months now, the castle's caretakers have refrained from trimming the verges around the venerable Norman fortress because of the risk involved in running a lawnmower over its steep slopes. And as the castle's once-immaculate lawn gets a little scruffy around the edges, locals in the northern England city have expressed their disbelief.
"It just looks shabby," city councilor Gareth Ellis said in a telephone interview from just outside the castle grounds Friday, describing what was once a "golf-like" lawn overgrown with grass that reached a couple of feet tall in some places.
English Heritage, responsible for the castle's upkeep, said its changed its lawn mowing policy following a health and safety seminar and was looking for new ways to keep the sloped areas trim. Meanwhile, the notion that the occupants of the keep — whose bloodstained history stretches back to Roman times — were too skittish to mow the lawn made headlines.
The story was one of several that have recently focused attention on Britain's health and safety culture. Many talk about an ever-encroaching "nanny state" — and to read the papers, Britain seems like a country obsessed.
Coast guards fill out risk assessment forms before going off on rescue missions. One chain of ice cream parlors is refusing to pour sprinkles for fear they might fall and slip up a customer. A local authority has banned welcome mats on the grounds they're a fire hazard.
Playground sandboxes? Scrapped — they might hide broken glass or animal waste. Tossing your mortar board hat at graduation? Don't — it might hurt a fellow student on the way down.
There's no doubt health and safety concerns do occasionally run wild. An AP reporter invited to visit Big Ben, for example, was given a three-page form detailing the risks involved in climbing the famous clock tower's winding staircase. And last month a local council decided to pave over a set of weathered stepping stones across the shallow River Dove — which featured in Russell Crowe's "Robin Hood" — because they were uneven.
Even the Health and Safety Executive has acknowledged that "behind many of the stories, there is at least a grain of truth." Several years ago it launched a campaign called "Get a Life" to remind officials that its rules weren't about creating "a totally risk free society."
Britain's new Conservative-led government has pledged to tackle the issue, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying earlier this summer it was time for reform. "These laws are intended to protect people, not overwhelm businesses with red tape," he said.
Cameron has tapped David Young, Margaret Thatcher's former industry minister, to review health and safety laws with the stated aim of knocking some common sense back into the system.
But many health professionals, along with the Trades Union Congress, which represents some 6 million workers, are concerned that the report, due out later this month, will draw on health and safety excess stories to weaken regulations aimed at protecting employee rights.
Most of the media reports "are just complete and utter rubbish," said Hugh Robertson, the congress's policy adviser on health and safety issues. He said Cameron's review was an attempt to fix something that wasn't broken.
"To make policy based on newspaper headlines is bad government."
Rob Strange, head of Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, which represents some 37,000 health and safety professionals, lamented what he said was a media campaign against his profession that was misleading his readers with inflated tales of out-of-control bureaucrats.
"This formula of exaggeration, half-truth, generalization and myth-making has created a great British joke, the one about 'elf n safety gone mad,' Strange wrote earlier this year in an editorial carried by The Independent on Sunday. "It's entered our social fabric, something to be shared and tut-tutted at over breakfast tables, in bars and, worse, in workplaces across the country."
He pointed out that Britain had seen an 81 percent fall in workplace deaths and a 72 percent fall in other reported workplace injuries over the past 35 years — something he said was rarely reported on because it wasn't a "sexy story."
Meanwhile, the Health and Safety Executive is going on the offensive, posting a "Myth of the month" to its website. Among the most persistent myths: Its officials had outlawed toothpicks at restaurants or knitting in hospitals on safety grounds. Others include reports that health and safety rules barred students from carrying out chemistry experiments in classrooms or that children had been banned from throwing snowballs.
The website noted that "in reality (the executive) has banned very little outright, apart from a few high-risk exceptions like asbestos, which kills around 4,000 people a year."
Britain's business community isn't as vocal about the issue as the drip-drip of media stories might suggest. The Confederation of British Industry declined comment when approached for this article. Another business organization, the British Chambers of Commerce, traditionally skeptical of red tape, sounded a dovish note.
"There is a lot of embellished mistruth about regulation," said chambers economist Steve Hughes. "In comparison to other countries, the U.K. performs quite highly."
The chambers' 2010 "Burdens Barometer," which tracks the price of complying with the country's major regulations, puts the cumulative cost of some 144 major regulations to the British economy at 88.3 billion pounds since 1998. But Hughes said that still compared favorably to other countries.
He pointed to the World Bank's 2010 report on regulation and red tape, which ranks the United Kingdom as the easiest place in Europe to do business, just ahead of Denmark, Ireland and Norway — and far beyond its G-8 competitors Germany, France and Italy.
As for genuine cases of health-and-safety overreach, Robertson, the union adviser, suggested that was small change compared to the challenge of keeping employees safe at work.
"No one was ever killed by an over-elaborate risk assessment," he said. "Over a million people are either ill or have some form of health problem as a result of their work. That's the real scandal."
The World Bank's report on regulations: http://bit.ly/9kMavb (.pdf)
The British Chambers of Commerce "Burdens Barometer" report: http://bit.ly/9P8vTj (.pdf)
Institution for Occupational Health and Safety's facts and figures page: http://bit.ly/9xHIfU
Health and Safety Executive's "Myth of the month" website: http://www.hse.gov.uk/myth/index.htm