I was asked for a picture of someone sampling diatoms to include in a presentation this week and dug out the image above, one of my favourites, taken by my son Edward when he joined me on a sampling trip to the Lake District some years ago. It shows me collecting diatoms from the littoral zone of Wastwater, with the Wastwater Screes in the background. I like the composition, which captures the grandeur of the location and have used it several times. Unfortunately, the Environment Agency did not agree with me. They did not quibble with the aesthetics but refused to use it on a leaflet about diatoms because I was not wearing appropriate health and safety gear. Seriously.
Let’s put this in context: I work for myself and have no employees. It is in my own interests to keep myself healthy and safe. If, when sampling the shallow margins on a warm summer’s day I choose to go barefoot and not wear a lifejacket or gloves, that is a decision that I can take, based on my on site assessment of risks and hazards. The Environment Agency is a large bureaucracy that has to adhere to health and safety legislation and minimise the risk of being sued for negligence in the event that a member of staff has an accident whilst out sampling. That creates a very different mindset and, inevitably, a rather top-down and inflexible approach to these matters.
We have had run-ins over the years with the Environment Agency over the years on these issues, usually involving the tier of management just above those who still remember the last time they wore a pair of waders. One of the most bizarre occurred just after a consortium I was leading had started to develop a Water Framework Directive-compatible method for ecological assessment. We needed samples from all over the country and these were to be collected by biologists working for the Environment Agency and sister agencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We budgeted for training workshops to make sure that these biologists knew how we wanted the samples to be collected; however, at our first meeting after the budget was confirmed, we were told that the biology teams did not have time to attend these training workshops.
We thought on our feet as the meeting progressed: we could, perhaps, produce a training video that could be distributed to laboratories instead of gathering them in one place. That sounded like a good idea but we had no idea how to go about this, or what it would cost. On the way back home I browsed WHSmith’s magazine racks at a train station and bought a copy of “What Video” magazine, which had a 30 day trial copy of Adobe Premiere on the front cover. I then got together with Marian Yallop, a member of our team from Bristol University, and we spent a day collecting diatom samples in the River Wylye in Wiltshire whilst a colleague from her department videoed us. I then used Premiere to splice these clips together and put them into PowerPoint presentations that took viewers step-by-step through the principles and practice of sampling diatoms. You can see those PowerPoints (now somewhat dated) by following this link. We spent about the same time on these presentations as we would have done organising and delivering workshops, so I thought that this was a good outcome, and that we should have generated some goodwill as a result. I was, however, in for a bit of a surprise.
Our project manager was pleased with the outputs, as was her counterpart in SEPA. However, a couple of weeks later, the official response filtered down to us: the presentations could not be used as we had not adhered to all of the Environment Agency’s health and safety procedures whilst collecting the samples. Our cardinal sin was not to wear gloves, a practice that we (and SEPA) regarded as a decision to be made by the sampler based on their own appraisal of the site but which the Environment Agency regarded as non-negotiable. Some acrimonious emails and telephone calls followed. Eventually, just before all of that hard-earned goodwill evaporated completely, a compromise was found, with a confessional slide being introduced at the start of the presentation. We managed to wave two fingers at the establishment by titling the slide “This slide was inserted by the Environment Agency” lest anyone thought that it was our idea.
Since then, the presentations have sat on the DARES website and people from far-flung parts of the world have come up to me to say that how helpful it was to see diatom sampling being performed, rather than just reading about it, so I think that the overall outcome was positive. But there is a useful lesson for us all tucked away for those of us who deal with large bureaucracies such as the Environment Agency. You always have to remember that most of the people who deal with your reports and outputs work at a sufficient distance from the project not to realise how contractors have moulded their work around shifting circumstances. These people will cheerfully undermine any goodwill that you have built up at the slightest hint that outputs do not fit perfectly into established procedures. It is probably not a deliberate attempt to sabotage a hard-won outcome on their part, but it happens. You often need a thick skin in this business. And gloves. Even when you don’t think that they are necessary.
Sampling diatoms from the River Ganges at Rishiketh, September 2016.