Health and Safety in Practice: An Update from Room 813.

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This week, I led a seminar on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the room allocated was 813, meaning we were on the highest floor of the Humanities Block.

Before examining the conditions of Winston Smith’s arrest and the threats of Room 101, I discussed with students their options for escaping room 813 in case of fire. The first suggestion was a parachute, although no one had packed one. The second, less ironic suggestion, was to use the central staircase, with the students aware that the emergency exit was shut. Asked why that staircase was shut, one student replied “because there are no fires or emergencies, the university doesn’t need to keep it open”. I had to explain that the Ukrainian name for emergency exit literally means ‘spare exit’, thus the idea is that it is used only when necessary. It seems that this student had neatly internalised doublethink, the logic of the university authorities.

Asking the students what fire safety equipment they expected as a minimum, the leading student in the class responded ‘water supply’. It seems that expectations have been lowered to the university’s level. Asked what good a water supply is without a hose – since there are no hoses anywhere in the Humanities Block – one student replied that she could wet her clothes. Evidently, some fire safety techniques had been imparted to the students in the course of their Occupational Health and Safety classes, which third years also take. Wetting her clothes would probably prevent some degree of burning and make burning to death slightly less painful. As far as I could learn, the third years’ lessons on Occupation Health and Safety consist of exercises in basic physics, given the teacher’s specialism. I’m not sure if one of the questions is, “how long would it take a student weighing 55kg to hit the ground if she jumped from the window on the eighth floor of a burning building?”

Asked why the university holds it staff and students in disdain, the students looked quite shocked at the thrust of the question. Asked why they don’t complain, there was further evidence that the students had internalised the logic of the system. ‘They’d tell us there’s no money, so there’s no sense in complaining’. The university’s imagined word is final. There was some consternation, however, that the university’s Inner Party in the Central Block was protected by fire extinguishers and hoses, although there was little willingness to recognise that they were being left to fend for themselves in a death trap of a building, with their tuition fees being squandered elsewhere.

If the university has managed to impart any knowledge effectively, then its version of doublethink, crimestop and logical obedience is it.

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