Safety management and public spaces

Following up on our paper on adventure activities, Wiley will shortly be publishing a more-broadly focused paper by David Ball and Laurence Ball-King which looks at the impact of safety management on public space and public activities. By public space we mean anything from city squares to parks, woods, forests, theatres, riverside locations, countryside, canals, heritage sites, and even cemeteries. Public activities refers to organised sports from tennis to triathlons, or to fundamentally individual activities like play.

Readers will be aware of the furore over the impact of safety on such spaces, some of which furore is justified (see for example HSE’s ‘Myth of the month’ site at The Löfstedt review of Health and Safety is tackling the impact of this upon businesses. But we believe that many of the so-called ‘Myths of the month’ referred to on the HSE website stem from impacts of safety regimes on public life. For example, riverside walks pose the obvious hazard of water and from a safety-dominant perspective should be fenced off. But that might well detract from the beauty, naturalness and hence the enjoyment of those places. Likewise, some deplore the occasional deaths which arise in sports, but maybe that is the price we have to pay for having those activities which, incidentally, promote copious amounts of good health – physical, emotional and social. This is not to say that safety in public life is unimportant, but it is to say that it is not the only thing, and that other things matter too.

The paper describes what we see as an epic policy struggle which has been fought in Britain over the last couple of decades to reassert the purposes of public life and public places so that they are not overlooked, sidelined, or otherwise trampled upon in the dash to implement safety management systems. Sectors looked at include children’s play provision; countryside management; heritage locations; land management including, especially, arboriculture; and outdoor education.

If you would like to see the full paper it may be purchased from Wiley’s online library via the following URL:

DOI: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01900.x

Or contact us.

Children and young people’s play

I first became involved professionally in children and young people’s play provision back in 1986 when working for the Scientific Branch of the Greater London Council. It happened by accident when some colleagues left and I was asked to absorb their activities into my own. I recall saying, ‘This is not going to take long – it’s a three month job.’ How wrong can you be?! Twenty five years later the topic rolls on and interest, if anything, is at an even higher pitch than ever.

Back in the 80s and 90s most of the questions on play were about safety – ‘How can I make my playground safe?’ – being the typical question, and many people believed the answer somehow lay in impact absorbing surfaces for playgrounds. The publication, in 1989, of ‘A holistic approach to accident and injury prevention in children’s playgrounds’ caused something of a stir since it contradicted the then conventional wisdom that rubber surfaces would prevent playground injuries.

Having finally persuaded at least some people that this was both the wrong question and the wrong solution, and having been joined by others who have independently come to the same realisation, the new question of the 2010s is along the lines of: ‘How can I make my playground into a good experiential opportunity for children and young people?’ At least the question is becoming more wholesome, although the safety conundrum lingers on.

In 2002 I received a contract from the Health and Safety Executive to review what was actually known about the safety of playgrounds in terms of accident statistics, and to interpret this in terms of general UK safety policy. The output of this was published by the HSE and can be found on its website at from which it may be downloaded. At about this time, and hopefully assisted by the HSE report, the Play Safety Forum (PSF), to whom I am one of several advisers, published the first edition of its ground-breaking policy statement entitled ‘Managing risk in play provision – position statement’. In contrast to the messages of the previous decades which were largely about making playgrounds safe, the PSF’s position was starkly different. Children, it said, needed and wanted exposure to risk.

Two further publications by Play England and the government in 2008 took this a step further. These were ‘Managing risk in play provision – implementation guide,’ and ‘Design for play.’ These documents contained singularly important messages. The most important perhaps being:

  • risk assessment in the play sector should be replaced by risk benefit assessment (RBA)
  • that play spaces need natural features as well as manufactured equipment
  • that good play space is achieved not through a process of ‘design, install and forget,’ but rather one of ‘design, install, monitor and adjust’

However, although the PSF fully endorsed RBA in these publications and had, at the time, the support of the HSE, it appeared sometime later that HSE was less confident of this concept and some personnel appeared opposed. After a somewhat protracted deliberation between the PSF and the HSE during 2011-12, partly at the instigation of Lord Young who had said that this negotiation over risk-benefit should take place (, the HSE in due course published on its website a high level statement on risk in play, and risk benefit assessment specifically, on 3 September 2012 ( The HSE statement includes the following paragraph:

“To help with controlling risks sensibly and proportionately, the play sector has produced the publication Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide which provides guidance on managing the risks in play. The approach in this guidance is that risks and benefits are considered alongside each other in a risk-benefit assessment. This includes an assessment of the risks which, while taking into account the benefits of the activity, ensures that any precautions are practicable and proportionate and reflect the level of risk. HSE supports this guidance, as a sensible approach to risk management.” (HSE, 2012)

Prima facie, it would appear that peace has broken out, although the road may yet have further twists.

Barbican Conference on Health & Safety Reform

Public Service Events ran a one day conference entitled ‘Health and Safety Reform – reducing the burden of red tape,’ sponsored by ARCO at the Barbican on 26 April 2012. The conference was chaired by David Ball and had an impressive line-up of speakers including Andrew Miller MP (member of Löfstedt review panel), Judith Hackitt (Chair of HSE), Luise Vassie (Policy Director, IOSH), Thomas Martin (joint-MD, ARCO) and Lynda Armstrong (Chair of Trustees, BSC). In the afternoon session panel members Stephen Williams (Director of Operation Strategy and 2012 Olympic Games, HSE), Roger Bibbings (RoSPA) and Gerard Forlin QC (Cornerstone Barristers) led the debate.

Messages to emerge included strong support for the Löfstedt review findings, notably that the underlying legislation was sound but that its interpretation was sometimes problematic and could depart from good sense and proportionality. In the words of Andrew Miller, the regime was overly complex with too much emphasis on paperwork. What was to be done? HSE’s contribution to the ambitious reform programme recommended by the Löfsted review included a comprehensive review of guidance with the aim of simplification while maintaining standards. In addition the ‘Myth Buster Panel’ had been set up, chaired by Judith Hackitt herself, and had already received its first batch of over twenty myths for scrutiny. One newly-emerged myth was summarily dealt with on the spot, namely someone’s proposal on safety grounds that holly trees be removed from school environments because of the (mild) toxicity of their berries. Judith’s response was an unreserved negative!

So the pervasive message was for a risk-based and proportionate approach to safety. But how to do this? As Luise Vassie described, what is needed is scientific evidence of the magnitude of risks in order to inform priorities, and secondly to check the effectiveness of H&S interventions.

From a personal perspective the overall drift of the conference was encouraging. The need to retain the concept of ‘reasonableness’ and ‘reasonable practicability,’ the need to prioritise on the ‘real’ risks (however defined), and the need to simplify perceived administrative demands including paperwork trails and tick-boxes which were more to do with secondary (liability) risk management than the primary focus which is safety and health. However, the task is not trivial. It requires a deeper understanding of many things which are seldom discussed or alluded to in the practicing safety world, including the nature and utility of evidence, the meaning of practicability, the behaviours of people, and the role of values in decision making. Many of these things have of course been intensively analysed in academia, but it has long been the case that the flow of academic thinking into the ‘real’ world has been erratic and sluggish.


The Future of Risk Assessment?

Risk assessment is used to hugely-beneficial effect in many industries, ranging from off-shore oil and gas to nuclear and transportation. It is also used to plan for health epidemics, food safety and flooding. Generally the methods deployed are highly sophisticated, science-based and provide useful information for decision makers.

In recent years risk assessment has also been applied to public space and public activities, often using, by necessity, much simpler protocols such as HSE’s ‘Five steps to risk assessment’ (, or devices known as risk matrices of the type shown below which may range from 2×2 to even 10×10 cells.

These matrices, and the way they are used, are a source of worry for some eminent risk practitioners. For one thing they are usually qualitative in that there are no numerical values on either axis and both risk and consequence are subjectively-defined. What, for instance, does it mean to say something has a ‘medium’ likelihood? And in the case of public space is it the likelihood of something happening to one individual member of the public on a single visit, or on multiple visits over a year, or is it the likelihood that any member of the public might come to grief during, say, the next month? There are numerous possibilities but most matrices seem to leave this question unanswered despite having massive implications for their meaning.

Another technical anxiety is that users quite often number the cells along each axis from, say, one to three in the case of the matrix shown, and then multiply them together to generate a score for each cell. In this way the top right cell in the matrix shown would score 9, and the bottom left 1. This is troubling for several reasons. For one thing the axes are qualitative and labelling them from 1 to 3 produces ordinal numbers only (as in first, second, third etc), and not cardinal numbers. It never has made sense to multiply ordinal numbers together.

Another matter is that when numbers are multiplied, however ill-advisedly, they are sometimes said to be used as a means of prioritising and the aim of many risk assessors appears to be to shift hazards falling in the red-coloured boxes to the green ones. The requirement under the law, however, and which is deeply rational, is that control measures should be implemented if they are reasonably practicable. This is a much more sophisticated concept and is not replaceable by fiddling with coloured squares on grids. It could mean that hazards in higher-scoring boxes should not be subject to further control measures because there are none which are reasonably practicable.

An altogether different issue comes up when considering the risk assessment of public space and public activities, and this relates to the reason for their provision which is, obviously, their benefits. Public facilities, such as city squares, tree-lined streets, ponds and fountains, riverside walks, parks, playgrounds, forests, church yards, sites of cultural heritage, national parks, village fêtes, carnivals and sports of whatever kind produce benefits of all kinds ranging from health (physical, emotional and social) to intellectual stimulation, beauty and tranquillity. The problem is that these benefits get no mention in standard risk assessment protocols. It is as if the decision about whether, say, a public activity should be permitted or curtailed could be made purely by thinking about its inherent dangers and without any need to consider the benefits of the activity. This would be an irrational decision process. There is almost always some sort of trade-off between control measures and benefits when dealing with public places and public activities and it is essential that this be recognised, not ignored.

In effect, what has to be done is to weigh the benefits of, say, an unspoilt riverside walk and its risks, and make a decision on whether it should be left as it is or modified. This approach, of weighing risks and benefits, is what is increasingly being referred to as risk-benefit assessment (RBA). If you try to make this decision without thinking about either one of these commodities, the risks or the benefits, I for one could not conceive what was going on in the risk assessor’s head. But I suspect these for me unfathomable thought processes are quite common given that standard risk assessment protocols only refer to one side of this equation, leaving it open to ignore or forget the other.

Collectively these issues suggest that risk assessment as used in public life may require radical surgery.

The Manchester Hole Case

This involved the tragic death by drowning of a young school boy while on an adventure holiday in Yorkshire. The school party was exploring an underground cave in Nidderdale known as Manchester Hole when the cave experienced an highly unusual flooding event. The case was brought by the Health and Safety Executive who sought to prosecute North Yorkshire County Council who ran the outdoor centre. I was involved as one of several expert witnesses. The case was in court for six weeks, with ultimately the HSE losing, much to its chagrin since it seemed to challenge some of its fundamental beliefs.

A fuller account of the case can be found in Horizons volume 51 published by the Outdoor Learning Institute in December 2010 (, but the main issues raised in the case from my perspective as a risk professional were:

  • Should young people be deliberately exposed to risk?

HSE’s published position on this was decidedly ambiguous. According to its 1999 publication ‘Adventure activities centres: five steps to risk assessment’:

“Adventure activities aim to allow young people to develop by meeting challenges they do not necessarily face every day and to experience a sense of achievement in overcoming them. Some degree of risk is unavoidable if the sense of adventure and excitement is to be achieved. However, it is important to remember that adventure activities should only create a sense of adventure and excitement and not cause harm.”

This statement presents a field day for policy analysts, for on the one hand it implies that young people need to meet real challenges and in so doing some risk is inevitable, but then informs that adventure should be fake (only sensed) and  not cause harm (HSE’s emphasis). Apart from its obvious inconsistencies, this contrasts sharply with HSE’s previous support of the Play Safety Forum’s policy statement which says quite simply that “Children need and want to take risks…”.

  • Should risk be negligible?

The Prosecution argued that an acceptable level of risk of serious injury or death is that it should be “negligible.” Since the HSWA requires an employer to ‘ensure’ the health and safety of employees etc, so, prima facie, if an accident occurs s/he has failed. The burden then falls upon the employer to prove that they had done everything which was reasonably practicable to ensure health and safety. The HSE alleged that because an accident had happened this proved that all reasonable measures had not been taken and NYCC had to prove otherwise, which is a curiously circuitous argument for an agency which purports to have a risk-based philosophy.

Another issue of considerable interest was whether the concept of reasonable practicability should encompass consideration of the benefits of such activities. In a civil case it likely would, but this was a criminal case where the answer was less clear cut. However, Justice Wilkie, in directing the jury, explicitly identified as a material consideration ‘the benefits of conducting the activity,’ just as Lord Reid had done in a much earlier civil case.

  • Should adventure activities be managed like factories?

Oral evidence by the HSE in court was in part along the lines that health and safety systems should be designed, implemented and managed in a local authority environment in exactly the same way as in any other organisation, and frequent reference was made to one of HSE’s best-selling texts, known as ‘Successful health and safety management’ or ‘HSG65’, described on HSE’s website as an “over-arching guide on the essential philosophy of good health and safety.” HSG65 is, however, primarily written for industry, not public life, though it could be concluded from this case that HSE sees no difference. But there are differences. Local authorities are providing and managing public services for their public benefits. HSG65 was written in a benefits vacuum where such things are barely acknowledged if at all. This might conceivably be alright in an industrial environment – you wouldn’t expect factory employees to have to walk along a plank to get to the canteen, or office workers to abseil to the toilet, but in public life pitting yourself against these challenges can have benefits.

  • Have you got the right management system?

Another aspect of the HSE’s case against NYCC was targeted on alleged deficiencies of NYCC’s management system. To this end HSG65 was also frequently cited. The fact is, though, that HSG65 is an advisory document, the advice given is based on some unknown person’s opinion, the evidence-base that it is cost-effective is unidentified, and there is no legal requirement to abide by that opinion. It was not at all obvious that the kind of management system described therein was suitable for an education authority or a county council.

  • What and who make adventure activities as safe as they are?

Much time was allocated in court to arguments about the technicalities of risk assessment and who should be involved in performing this required task.

On the technical side, the prosecution’s witnesses described the essential intricacies and interlinking of generic, site-specific, and dynamic risk assessment, which, it was said, comprised a ‘three-legged stool.’ The intended inference was that all three legs had to be equally robust to avoid catastrophic failure, but there was also an impression created that this stool was the rock upon which the safety of adventure activities rested. From a personal point of view, and as I said in court, if my children were going on an adventure activity, I should not want to rely upon such a device. Far more important would be the skill, knowledge and competence of the team leaders!

With respect to who should be doing the risk assessments, HSE’s position was that professional health and safety people employed in NYCC’s headquarters should have had a greater role in compiling the adventure activity risk assessments, whereas defence witnesses, from around the country, poured varying levels of scorn upon this proposition.

The research on expertise, with which I have become familiar in recent years, has led me to believe that there are different kinds of expertise, some of which are appropriate for certain tasks, but not for others. At the bottom of the heap is ‘beer mat knowledge’ – the sort of wisdom you gain from reading about bird flu on the back of a beer mat! In sharp contrast, interactional expertise is what you get from, say, years of participation in canoeing. The implication here is that unless there is strong evidence that anyone on NYCC’s central health and safety team had maximal ‘interactional expertise’ as in potholing experience – through years actually potholing themselves or through years and years actually discoursing with cavers about technical matters – then the only deep expertise about the dangers and so forth would have lain with the adventure leaders themselves. This position accorded with the views of the adventure leaders who gave evidence in court.