wollensky says No to a pain in the back1 January 2002
Musculo-skeletal disorders (of which occupational backache is a common example) affect great numbers of people in consequence of their working conditions and their responses to those conditions. The harm is caused in various proportions by workplace configuration and personal behaviour patterns. So much working time is lost because of these disorders that they add significantly to industrial costs, not least for utilities. The losses hurt at all levels, from outdoor labour to chairborne operations. Concern is expressed nationally and internationally, for instance in campaigns by governmental agencies, the European Union and the United Nations.
Experience accumulated over the years has produced sometimes-surprising results. Unfortunately not all these useful indicators have, despite the campaigns, become common or even professional knowledge. Thus too many doctors are still telling backache sufferers to take bed-rest although immobilisation has, in the last decade or so, been shown to do more harm than good. It makes the disorder more likely to recur. The better answer is gentle activity.
But think of a patient's confusion when advised by his doctor to take to his bed, if he has been urged by campaign posters and leaflets at his workplace to keep going. The sufferer may well distrust his employer's motives and rebel. Or he may decide that neither the doctors nor the health and safety campaigners know what they are talking about.
This is a case of progress so inefficiently made known and shared that those who bring it about earn obloquy rather than respect for their revisions and innovations. They are expected to pronounce static certitudes instead, and that is not what they are for. What they are for, and how they work, are matters that call (as much as do musculo-skeletal disorders) for awareness campaigns by national and international institutions. If such campaigns were vigorously mounted the agents of medical, scientific and technological progress - even perhaps including hydroelectric and nuclear power engineers - might gain understanding and tolerance, if not quite admiration, from the public.
But how credible would the campaigning be if many technologists, scientists etc were, say, a decade behind the times, as are the doctors advising bed-rest for backache victims? I scent a fundamental problem here.
Abandon basics, Big Brother!
The five weeks of power lapse in Auckland, New Zealand, back in 1998, were an outcome of such management shortcomings as might have shown up anywhere. So has observed a UK consulting economist, John Kay, in one of his penetrating expository articles in the business press. But the point he wished to make was nothing like so bland. It was that the power failures occurred in the only advanced country with an electricity distribution system that was neither owned nor regulated by government. New Zealand was then in the throes of an economic libertarian revolution marked by almost obsessive deregulation and privatisation.
According to Kay the New Zealand 'experiment' tested the not unfamiliar assertion that most economic ills issue from government and that withdrawal of government is a cure for them: and the exercise clearly failed to prove anything of the kind. For Kay, the power losses in Auckland were merely instances of that - countrywide - failure.
Rather varied experience of deregulation and privatisation has been reported from other parts of the world. I should not be surprised to find a correlation between degrees of disappointment at the outcomes and degrees of dogmatism in the economic reforms that created them. Economic fundamentalism is probably as inimical as any other extremism to the optimisation of life. I suspect that old-fashioned engineering-style empiricism is a better way of improving civilisation than is trying to realise any theoretical utopia.
'Big Brother' was the all-powerful dictator in George Orwell's classic crystal-gazing fantasy, 1984, which was first published half a century ago. My use of 'Big Brother' to personify government generally is a perhaps too-cheeky exercise of jester's licence, especially in connection with a government dedicated to liberation of sorts. But I think that Orwell himself might not have altogether disapproved in this context.