Playgrounds face new transatlantic threat

Recent proposals by the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) have sent shock waves around the world of children’s play. ASTM is one of the world’s largest international standards developing organizations. The ASTM Committee which deals with playground surfacing has recently proposed that the safety requirements for playground surfacing should be made more stringent. On the face of it, this sounds a good move. But is it, and who would benefit most? Many individuals and organisations have expressed their deep concern to ASTM. See the attached article OBSERVATIONS ON IAS for further insight.

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Thoughts on European playground safety standards

With co-authors Bernard Spiegal, Tim Gill and Harry Harbottle, a new 2014 publication has been produced which takes a critical look at the impact of European play equipment safety standards upon play provision in the UK.

Abstract: “The provision of stimulating and engaging play space for children and young people is increasingly recognized as an important societal goal, not the least because it provides the young with opportunities to develop and gain experience in experimenting with risk. Research in several disciplines now suggests that achievement of this goal has however been impeded in recent decades, and reasons commonly cited have included fear of injury and avoidance of litigation. International standards on play equipment have also been promulgated and justified in terms of securing young people’s “safety,” most usually narrowly defined as injury reduction. There appears to be a widespread presumption that measures aimed at injury prevention are necessarily beneficial overall for young people’s welfare. In this article, we subject European standards for play equipment and surfacing to scrutiny. In particular, we examine underlying motives, consistency of purpose, use of evidence, philosophical leanings, scope, practicalities of application, systems of management, and legal ramifications. From this, we identify a number of fundamental issues that suggest that as a consequence of compartmentalized thinking and misunderstandings, these standards have invaded areas of decision making beyond their legitimate territory. The consequence of this is that play provision is skewed away from what are properly play provision objectives. In such circumstances, local decision makers are often disempowered, and their ability to provide optimal play spaces thereby circumscribed.”

Nightmare In The Park
Nightmare In The Park

What this means, simply put, is that Standards on play safety have colonised areas of decision making which should be the domain of local play providers who know what their local communities need and want. It is fine for Standards to prescribe technical issues like the strength of supporting beams and the like, but things like maximum heights should reflect user capabilities and needs. Teenagers, for example, need more challenge than toddlers, yet Standards appear to focus on the needs of pre-teens for whom some safety advocates wish to restrict maximum fall heights to less than 1.5 to 2 metres. Secondly, it will be apparent that many playgrounds have come to resemble factory environments laden as they are with their metal stairways, evenly-spaced steps, handrails and crash barriers, and rubber surfaces (for further information on playground surfacing see D. J. Ball, ‘ Policy issues and risk-benefit trade-offs of ‘Safer Surfacing’ for children’s playgrounds, Accident Analysis & Prevention 2004, 35(4), 417-424).

Examination of the illustrations in ‘Managing risk in play provision’ (second edition, 2013) shows an alternative, much more naturalistic form of play which is more stimulating and child-friendly. The following pictures give an idea of the sort of possibilities which exist. These are, of course, obviously not risk-free, which may be another reason why standards setters, who tend to believe in injury risk minimisation, would shy away from them.

Play and nature…

Play and nature Play and nature Play and nature

Further thoughts on the utility of risk matrices

This is a new paper, co-authored with colleague John Watt, and published in the journal Risk Analysis (2013, Risk Analysis 33(13): 2068-2078). It examines that widely-used tool the risk-consequence matrix, sometimes simply referred to as a risk matrix. These devices are everywhere and there are hundreds of versions around which vary mainly in the number of cells in the matrix (these commonly range in size from 2×2 to 10×10) and the colour scheme used to denote the different combinations of risk and consequence. Exponents of these devices believe, amongst other things, that they help users prioritise their activities.

Risk matrix
An example of a Risk Matrix

We do not share this view. Along with a growing number of authors we find these matrices to be misleading and verging on or worse than useless. As the abstract says:

“Risk matrices are commonly-encountered devices for rating hazards in numerous areas of risk management. Part of their popularity is predicated on their apparent simplicity and transparency. Recent research, however, has identified serious mathematical defects and inconsistencies. This article further examines the reliability and utility of risk matrices for ranking hazards, specifically in the context of public leisure activities including travel. We find that (a) different risk assessors may assign vastly different ratings to the same hazard, (b) that even following lengthy reflection and learning scatter remains high, (c) the underlying drivers of disparate ratings relate to fundamentally different worldviews, beliefs and a panoply of psycho-social factors which are seldom explicitly acknowledged. It appears that risk matrices when used in this context may be creating no more than an artificial and even untrustworthy picture of the relative importance of hazards which may be of little or no benefit to those trying to manage risk effectively and rationally.”

Risk-Benefit Assessment: The Latest (August 2014)

With colleagues Tim Gill and Bernard Spiegal I have been working on ‘A short guide to implementing risk benefit assessment’ on behalf of the sponsors who are Play Wales, Play Scotland, PlayBoard Northern Ireland, Play England and other members of the Play Safety Forum. This guide has now been completed and is available here.


The sport of orienteering and safety – the debate

The following article was written by myself and son Laurence and was published in the orienteering journal CompassSport with whose permission it is reproduced here.

The article originated from a blog which appeared after the last minute cancellation of an orienteering event in 2012. The blog contained some contrasting views about the cancellation e.g.

Safety at events is a matter for officials and not individuals.

Anyone unwilling to take responsibility for their own safety should not come to my events.

The last minute-cancelation of Southampton Orienteering Club’s 2012 ‘November Classic’ after heavy rain prompted a lengthy online debate during which many viewpoints were expressed. The cancellation resulted primarily from genuine concerns about the risk associated with crossing a swollen brook. What interests us here is not the decision by SOC, but the ensuing debate. Our curiosity is heightened because we both work in the risk field and the issues raised by orienteers, like those italicised above, reflect a wider ongoing debate about health and safety (H&S) and public life.

In this example the primary contest is seemingly represented by just two viewpoints. One is largely supportive of the impact of new H&S procedures on the sport (e.g. safety should always have priority), whereas the other is doubtful if not alarmed (e.g. O is becoming a health and safety-driven sport and is more prone to cancellation). In the following Table we have paraphrased the sentiments expressed, with the left column containing those inherently supportive of H&S initiatives and the right column somehow questioning their appropriateness.

Accepting Questioning
Safety always takes priority O by its nature is a challenging and risky sportCompetitors know this and expect to face hazards continuously and should accept participation at their own risk
Accidents are foreseeable and need to be tackled Some accidents are inevitable
The sport has changed in many ways, mainly for the better O is turning into a health and safety driven sportCancellation of events is more likely than it used to be
The primary safety mechanism is the management of the eventCompetitors should only take responsibility for small risks What keeps you safe is your own common senseIf management is seen as creating a hazard-free environment competitors may compensate by taking more risks
Written rules and protocols are beneficial Proliferation of written rules and guidance can undermine safety in specific situations
Safety at events is a matter for officials and not individual participants Anyone unwilling to take responsibility for their own safety should not come to my events
Risk assessments are fit for purpose New risk assessment procedures are problematic
Event officials should not be questioned on decisions Decisions may be questioned
Liability has to be considered Liability is a secondary issue

From this summary a familiar situation emerges. The views in the left column fit well with standard H&S beliefs as held in the workplace environment, from whence the beliefs largely originate. In those industrial settings the general and arguably worthy aim has become one of minimising risk of injury. Those on the right, however, are more akin to views of people who organise public events including adventure sports, or run venues open to the public including parks, forests, wilderness areas, waterways, sites of cultural heritage, seaside locations and the like.

Temperatures rise in situations where exponents of workplace-originated H&S procedures, including risk assessment and management systems, maintain that their primary goal of minimising risk should necessarily hold sway in beyond-the-workplace settings, say, adventure sports and sites of cultural heritage, and that industry methods of assessing and managing risk are universally applicable, regardless of the location or activity. Temperatures may rise further when this is justified by statements such as ‘safety is paramount.’

Understandable though the pro-safety position is, for who wants to be cavalier about injuries, a counterpoint is now being made by many agencies dealing with these kinds of more public activities. This is that safety (from injury) is but one of many legitimate goals and that it should be a matter of policy which is paramount. But what are these other goals? Examples given include: the opportunity to have fun; to experience challenge and risk; the pursuit of health, whether physical, emotional or social, through leisure pursuits; the preservation of sites of natural beauty or cultural heritage without alteration; and, above all, the freedom to choose what one does subject to one’s own common sense decisions.

While sympathetic to the pro- H&S position which is largely appropriate in its traditional settings e.g. industry, when it comes to public life we nonetheless cannot help gravitating towards the position of those seeking to maintain a balance between managing the risk of injury, and the other goals of promoting health-giving and resilience-building activities like adventure sports, and public life more generally.

Many organisations are now taking this debate forward as a matter of some urgency. The reason is that to accept unconditionally the injury-minimisation perspective leads into a cul de sac, one which will remorselessly seek to eradicate any safety hazards, and which does not contemplate that exposure to hazards may be unavoidable or, in some cases, even desirable, or that injury prevention measures may have unintended consequences.

From our experience we have found that the debate is driven by the following counter-beliefs, which we here adapt to the context of orienteering:
• The benefits of O, physical mental and social, are legion and need to be recognised and promoted
• Safety from injury is not automatically paramount and needs to be considered as one of a number of goals
• Adventure sports, including O, present risks of injury to all participants however managed
• In many sports and leisure activities exposure to risk is an integral part of the activity
• Risk exposure cannot be assumed to be undesirable
• Formal risk assessment of sports like O is very subjective, driven by undisclosed value judgements, and of uncertain benefit
• The main determinant of competitor safety is not some imposed management system but the competitor
• Competitors who think an event is ‘safe’ because of some imposed system may endanger themselves
• Participants in adventure sports do so because of the perceived benefits, including health, and the chance to confront challenge
• Risk assessment protocols which ignore benefits need to be reformulated

This sport can never be safe from injury
This sport can never be safe from injury

Fellow orienteers might also like to try an experiment. Next time you are out on a course, try consciously thinking about how your brain is handling the endless stream of hazards, from trip hazards to slopes and overhanging branches, with which you are confronted. You will soon tire of this, but may find, with some relief, that your brain is automatically carrying out its own risk assessments during every step you take, a process which has been learnt from day one of your life and may even reside in your genes. Perhaps the ultimate question, seldom asked, is to what extent and in what ways does the current paper-driven approach augment this innate process?

The safety of trees

treesafetyTrees are an essential part of our ecosystem and for most people are also things of beauty. As a part of their natural life cycle they shed branches and ultimately fall down. Very rarely, this may result in harm to property or individuals. These uncommon events tend to receive a lot of publicity, possibly because of their rarity. On behalf of the National Tree Safety Group, John Watt and I reviewed the evidence on tree fall and injuries in the UK over the last decade in order to quantify the actual risk. The full paper can be found in the Journal of Risk Research (2013: 16(1-2): 261-269).

In terms of fatalities, the statistics point to around 5.4 cases per annum. Given the UK population during the study period (1998-2008) averaged 60 million, this indicates an annual individual risk of below 1 in 10 million. To put this in perspective, the lead regulator (HSE) has said that risks even as low as one in a million per year are extremely small when compared with the background risks of everyday life, and that most people are prepared to accept risks of this magnitude from all manner of hazards in exchange for the associated benefits.

Given the billion or so trees in Britain, the likelihood that the present fatality rate could be reduced below the current level is exceedingly low even were some draconian measures introduced (like cataloguing every tree and assessing it every year and after every storm). So we do not believe that any changes to the status quo are warranted. However, it is clear that different views exist. Some think that trees should be tightly managed and e.g. removed as soon as any disease is found. Others see trees as having a natural lifespan which includes some decay which in itself may be a legitimate part of the ecosystem.

Reflections on the assessment and management of risk

The following is an article which appeared in the Activity Industries Mutual (AIM) Newsletter in autumn 2013, written by D. J. Ball and L. Ball-King, and which we reproduce here with permission of AIM.1

We are fortunate in being able to devote some of our work time to things in which we enjoy participating, namely, adventure activities. Consequently, over the last few years, we have had the rare luxury of being able to research the conduct of risk assessment and how it is applied and interpreted, not just in shops and factories, the finance sector, and the courts, but also adventure pursuits. This has identified a series of what we believe to be deep issues affecting a surprisingly broad swath of life beyond the conventional factory fence.

First, we would like to draw attention to continuing disconnects over the meaning of that, for us, crucial word – ‘risk.’ We define risk as the likelihood that some particular thing will happen as a result of exposure to some hazard. So, for instance, in the aftermath of some accident, the immediate question which springs to mind is ‘What was the prior risk of that event?’ leading to the follow-up question which is ‘Was that level of risk acceptable in the circumstances?’ Furthermore, we are not thinking here about the subjective risk (‘it looks dangerous’), but the objective risk (‘it might look dangerous but what is the reality?’).

Experiences in court, however, have shown that expert witnesses and enforcement agencies are not consistently applying this approach. Instead, the logic sometimes followed is what Professor Ragnar Löfstedt has called a hazard-based approach. Basically, this seeks to identify hazards and then to eliminate or control them. In contrast, a risk-based approach would identify hazards, assess the risk, and then decide what control is warranted in the circumstances. Which approach is correct? Mark Hoban, Minister for Employment, summarised the position in February 2013 when, in the context of the government’s reforms of health and safety including the Löfstedt review, he said: We need to implement the remaining measures in both reports as well as continue to identify areas where further reforms are needed to create a modern, simplified, risk-based framework for health and safety in Great Britain.”2

We take it as unassailable that the risk-based approach is fundamental to the national risk control philosophy. It is, after all, enshrined in the requirement of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act to do what is reasonable practicable. Second, assessing risk of some hazardous activity is, contrary to advice often given, not easy. As Professor John Adams has said “It’s not rocket science. It’s much harder.” We agree, and recent research supports this contention. Risk assessors, especially when parachuted in from some external setting, find it very difficult to quantify consistently the risk of harm from activities and situations. The primary means of quantifying risk include use of accident statistics (if they exist) and personal experience through immersion in the sector of interest. Thus, if you are an outsider, you will be in a weak position to assess risk. This is one of the reasons why AALA has been held in such high regard. As initially set up, it was staffed by sector experts who had been immersed in the industry throughout their lives. The danger was, when AALA was subsumed by the HSE, that a hazard-based factory culture of risk control would take over which was also comparatively uninformed about actual risk levels and more driven by perception. If your experience derives from shopping malls and office environments, the natural world can appear an horrendously dangerous place.

Third, we have observed a tendency in litigious settings for the prosecution, and their experts, to demand evidence of proper governance and appropriate management systems. The question, seldom asked, is ‘What is proper governance and a proper management system in the circumstances?’ You don’t need to be an expert in management to know that there are different management styles and one size does not best fit all circumstances.

Over the decades, health and safety has developed an increasingly autocratic, command-and-control
structure with numerous written protocols to be followed. While this may work in some situations the downside is that it shifts responsibility away from front-line professionals. We think that what is most effective in managing the safety of adventure participation is the training and experience of leaders who need more autonomy than might be expected of a factory environment.

These thoughts lead us to a number of considerations:

• it appears imperative to us that any new and future regulatory body for adventure activities be populated by persons with contributory expertise and thus drawn from the adventure sector
• that a risk-based philosophy must be pursued
• that it not be pretended that risk assessment is easy (that’s one reason why you need in-house experts)
• that there is a fundamental difference between managing risk in factories and the natural environment, the latter being undertaken in order to realise benefits3 and which implies the need to trade-off risk of injury against gains in things like health, enjoyment etc
• in seeking support or advice via external agencies it is important to ensure that they have the relevant insight into your sector

3. See article by James Willis, On Target, Autumn 2012.

Re-launch at Westminster of ‘Managing Risk in Play Provision – Implementation Guide’

On 29 October 2013 ‘Managing Risk in Play Provision’ was published as a second edition. Changes from the first edition were in the form of modest updates. Importantly the new edition carries the names of all Four Nations national Play Bodies – Play England, Play Scotland, Play Wales and Playboard Northern Ireland on the cover, demonstrating its acceptance across borders. Copies can be downloaded free of charge from the website of the National Children’s Bureau.


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.