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Health and Safety responsibilities – are they really responsible for the death of steeplejacking?
Posted by David Cant on September 17, 2014

A Steeplejack vs Health and Safety Equipment

Purple RopeAn interview published on the Spitalfields Life blog recounts the life and times of George Cossington, a steeplejack who died recently. Cossington came from a family of steeplejacks who had worked on many of London’s most famous buildings, carrying out repairs, constructing frames and helping build at height.

Despite claiming to love his job, Cossington retired at the age of 45 after a change in regulations demanded that he wear a safety helmet on site. “There was none of this Health and Safety **** then, you learned to be careful,” he told the interviewer.

A man who shunned safety equipment

Cossington always had a head for heights, “In my day, you weren’t called a steel erector, you were called a spider man. I used to run up a sixty rung ladder in less than a minute and come down in less than twenty seconds – you just put your hands and feet on the sides and slid down!

George does admit in the interview that some items of safety equipment, like early safety harnesses, but his family found them cumbersome, impeding their ability to work. As a result they usually chose to work one hundred feet above the ground without any form of safety equipment.

Were things really that different?

Despite operating without harnesses or proper scaffolding, George and his family always checked each other’s boltwork and rigging before anyone was allowed up in the air. “It was all done properly, even without today’s safeguards.,” he explains. In many regards this is no different from current standards which would demand similar checks be performed before working at height could begin.

Cossington also describes the apprenticeship training that all steeplejacks were required to go through before they were allowed to begin climbing, “I started off as a tea boy. You learn as the months by, and then someone else becomes the tea boy and you learn how to adjust swivel bolts, rigging up steel beams, and how to sling a beam for the crane to lift. It takes well over a year before you start going off the ground. You had to learn rigging, slinging, welding, acetylene burning, and rope splicing. It takes five years to become a steeplejack.

Again, modern best practice demands that employees engaging in dangerous activities, particularly those at heights, undergo rigorous and extensive training before beginning work. Employees working on building sites today will receive much of the same training as George Cossington and his family, the only difference being that the training will include a great emphasis on the correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Health and Safety – not all bad

The reality is that many of the health and safety changes to which George was so against, actually did little more than formalise existing best practice principles designed to protect employees. Health and safety did not kill traditional steeplejacking, but it certainly forced many steeplejacks to improve the way they worked, no matter what George Cossington believed.


David Cant is a Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner extraordinaire. He has a wealth of Industry experience and is the MD of Veritas Consulting. David also Blogs about Health and Safety here Health and Safety Consultants

His aim is to flavour Health and Safety with integrity, served with a side of humour You can find David on - Twitter and Google also Linkedin

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