Category Archives: Health and Safety

Prepare yourselves for the crazy spider story season

It’s that time of year again, when the media warms up for a summer of ‘False Widow’ scare stories. Not for nothing is Steatoda nobilis known as the Daily Mail Spider. For although it’s more-or-less harmless to most people, it gets rolled out every single year with the same old lame tales of impossible injuries and reactions to a supposed spider bite.

Prepare yourselves!

Really, there’s little or nothing to worry about if you’ve got false widows in your house or garden. And here’s why. Continue reading

Lone walker: trouble?

Another steaming pile of news about ‘health and safety gone mad’. And for once it might even be right. This week in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph a seemingly nutty story breaks about Telford and Wrekin Council.

Lone walker © Take a peek

It seems that David Ottley, Telford & Wrekin’s sports and recreation manager, wrote in a letter to a member of the public:

Our Town Park staff approach adults that are not associated with any children in the Town Park and request the reason for them being there. In particular, this applies to those areas where children or more vulnerable groups gather, such as play facilities and the entrances to play areas.

Continue reading

Health and safety… gone mad?

We’ve heard it all before… health and safety gone mad! Council bureaucrats stifle fun for little Johnny. And all that. It’s a tedious debate for all concerned. Usually the argument against health and safety is that common sense should prevail. And of course it should. Really. But that means common sense both on the part of the provider, and, crucially, the user. Lest we forget, here are some good reasons why rangers and their ilk can sometimes be a bit cautious about the risks that people will willingly take in public places.

El Caminito del Rey is a walkway dating from 1901, now fallen into disrepair, pinned along the steep walls of a narrow gorge in El Chorro, near Álora in Málaga, Spain. Continue reading

Killed by a falling tree: what are the chances?

The Ranger worked as a Tree Officer for some months not too long ago, and got quite an insight into the arcane world of TPOs and irate householders. A bit different from being a real Ranger, where pretty much everyone is glad to see you. A tree officer often has the thankless task of trying to preserve a tree against the wishes of the tree’s owner, who wants to fell the thing to get a sea view, or build a house. For some reason they rarely come out with the truth and say they want to fell it. They usually proffer some excuse, prefaced with “I like trees but…”. Perhaps the most common of these is the constant refrain heard by tree officers “But it’s a dangerous tree!“. Often the complainant then over-eggs the pudding with references to their little, blond grandchildren, innocently gamboling underneath the looming tree, which has regularly been heard to creak and groan ominously, and even, believe it or not, sway in the wind! It’s hard not to get cynical about some of these requests. It would be a lot better if they just came out and said “I want to sell off half my garden to build a block of eight flats on it.” Then at least we’d know where we all stood. But, can they always be wrong? Just how dangerous are trees, generically?

Tree fallen onto bicycle

Indeed, some individual trees are dangerous and need work. But that does not mean they all are. Often the dangers of trees are considerably overestimated. Just what are the chances of a tree falling on you and killing you? Chris Hastie, arboriculturalist and webmaster of the The UK Tree Care Mailing List recently got fed up with the assumptions that are made about such things. He writes:

After the storms the other month I was phoned by a journalist who questioned me about various things, mostly to do with a very large horse chestnut by the side of a busy road which managed to blow over and do no harm to anything except a lamp post. Trying to explain the nuances of risk management to her and knowing everything I said was going to be massively dumbed down, I started to wish I had a few soundbites at my fingertips.

So Chris took the question at face value and worked out some statistics. He started by pointing out that the chances of being killed by a tree in a public space in the UK is about 1 in 20,000,000 (according to the HSE’s draft Sector Information Minute). So, what about winning the lottery jackpot? Actually, Chris also demonstrated that rather than the 14 million to one which is usually quoted, the chances of winning it are actually better expressed as 1 in 268,920. This is because although the chances of winning with one ticket are indeed 1 in 13,983,816, accidental deaths are usually expressed as the chances of any incident happening to any person in one year. So, assuming a lottery player buys one ticket per week every week for a year, the odds are reduced to 1 in 268,920. Thus a regular lottery player is 75 times more likely to win the lottery jackpot than be killed by a tree in a public space. He goes on with some other sobering illustrations. The total number of accidental deaths in the UK number is over 12,000 per year. About 6 of these are due to trees. So you are 2000 times more likely to die from some other type of accident than by being hit by a falling tree. More specifically, 3,501 people were killed in road traffic accidents in the UK in 2005. So you are around 600 times more likely to be killed in a road accident than by a falling tree. The Ranger adds one of his own – the annual risk of death by lightning is 1 in 18,700,000. So you are more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than a falling tree. That seems to put things into perspective. Anyone else what to have a try? Cite your sources if you do!

HSE: “stormtrooper of health and safety fascism”

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian wades in again with the voice of common sense – this time in an article called “Those who walk under trees are at risk from these terrorising inspectors” he’s commiserating with the poor old National Trust who had a tree fall over on their land at Dunham Massey, and are worried about tree risk.

Trees at Dunham Massey (c) Martin Jordan

Trees at Dunham Massey

With typical gusto Jenkins compares the Health and Safety Executive to stormtroopers, fascists, and, for good measure, Guantánamo Bay. But whilst his wrath is magnificent, he has allowed it to carry him to such heights of righteous finger-wagging that he weakens his own argument, thus offering ammunition to those who would further constrain tree-management with regulation. He writes:

The HSE is… continuing its inquiry, to pin a case on the National Trust for criminal negligence under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The crime, presumably, is neglectful ownership of any tree that might fall over in a high wind. If the Trust can be found guilty, lawyers for the bereaved family may sue it in the civil courts for damages. The cost in litigation alone will be enormous. The case has traumatised the National Trust and its park staff nationwide. They are responsible for 6m trees under which millions of human beings wander daily. Should they chop down every old tree, or only some, or close all treed areas to the public? Nobody knows. The case applies to all landowners in the public domain, which under the right to roam could rise to billions of trees. When Trust staff are asked what most concerns them, they no longer cite lack of money or visitor numbers or interfering management. They cite the HSE. This body, with its terrorising inspectors, its box-ticking approach to safety, and its agents enforcing its edicts to the letter, is feared and loathed with equal passion.

The Ranger, as a former NT manager and also currently in the position of being responsible for some of those ‘billions’ of trees, has to take issue with some of these assertions. It may well be that HSE are being heavy-handed here – or maybe they are not. Perhaps it will need a judge to decide that one. But either way Jenkins is ranting outside the realms of reality here. Let’s pick some of this apart.

The crime, presumably, is neglectful ownership of any tree that might fall over in a high wind.

An erroneous presumption. ‘Neglectful ownership’ is not in itself criminal. Any tree might fall over in a high wind. Yes, any tree. Even the best-managed and most recently inspected tree. Owning a tree which falls over is not in itself a crime and could not be. A crime, as Jenkins implies but neatly skirts around explaining, could be neglect of the duty of care that a landowner and employer has to take reasonable steps to ensure that their trees do not harm people. But that doesn’t really trip off the tongue, does it? Let’s proceed.

The case has traumatised the National Trust and its park staff nationwide… Should they chop down every old tree, or only some, or close all treed areas to the public? Nobody knows.

Quite the contrary. They know perfectly well what to do with their trees, in almost all cases. They may not always have done it – but that’s a different argument entirely. Park staff are very unlikely to be traumatised nationwide – although no doubt a few of those involved with the case at Dunham Massey are rightly a bit worried. The National Trust have one of the best and most well-known policies on tree safety that exists in the industry. It has been used since 1997, has been tested in legal cases, is widely copied, and was one of the first such policies to seriously address the issue of combining the public and trees in different conditions. The basic idea is to risk-assess trees and groups of trees, zone them, and inspect accordingly, recording the process. The policy gives an achievable strategy to achieve this that most public tree owners could reasonably easily follow. Not only do the NT have a presumption in favour of public access in areas with many trees, they also are very concerned to keep ancient trees going when many other less-enlightened bodies would fell them. No, the image of all tree-managers wringing their hands in miserable confusion is simply wrong. The question is not likely to be “What shall we do with our trees?”, but “Can we show we actually did what we know we should have done?”

When Trust staff are asked what most concerns them, they no longer cite lack of money or visitor numbers or interfering management. They cite the HSE.

Well, do they? And did they ever cite the former issues? If the Ranger knows the National Trust, one thing you won’t get from their staff is a consensus on anything. This one might, actually be true. But without a source it’s simply incredible.

…all landowners in the public domain, which under the right to roam could rise to billions of trees.

Finally, ‘billions’ of trees. Well, a quick look at the Forestry Commission website suggests that in England, there are some five hundred million publicly owned trees. It seems likely that billions are not really on the cards. Sorry, Sir Simon. NT staff are a canny lot, and their forestry people are some of the most enlightened in the country. If Jenkins had started his tirade with an incident involving, say, any one of many hundreds of local authorities, he might have given his argument a little more credibility. Not every organisation has the policy and practice of the NT, or if they do, they cannot demonstrate it so readily. Indeed, Jenkins may well be right in his fundamental point. But sadly, he has picked the wrong exemplar this time.

The Darwin Awards feature Scottish snakes

Oh dear, where’s St Patrick when you need him? Isn’t he done over in Ireland yet? It seems that in 2005 an unfortunate hillwalker called Robert McGuire was bitten by two adders while holidaying on the Isle of Arran. He spent six days in hospital. Pretty unusual – although the adder is the only snake found in Scotland it’s not particularly common. Even when encountered, adders usually flee and very rarely bite. And even when they do, the bite even more rarely causes an adverse reaction. And as for two snakes… well, what are the chances?

An adder (photo: Hammond Eggs)

However, perhaps this incident wasn’t as odd as it first seems, once you read the full story as recounted by the Darwin Awards. To give you an idea:

Mr McGuire described the moment he was bitten. “I was out for a walk with my brother Steve and his kids. We were going off to have a picnic at a local beauty spot. “The next minute, one of the kids ran up and said there was a snake in the grass. I just thought it was a grass snake. “I just bent down to pick it up so my brother could take a photo with his mobile phone. Suddenly a massive black snake just appeared, so I picked that up too. It was then that the second one just sank his fangs right into my hand and then the other one did the same to my other hand.” Mr McGuire told The Scotsman that he had not been particularly concerned about picking up the reptiles as he did not believe there were venomous snakes in Scotland.

Well, fancy. Imagine those nasty snakes being cruel enough to bite him. And poor Mr McGuire is undoubtedly regretting the woeful state of his knowledge of UK snake populations. He’s probably had plenty of advice about herptile distribution now, so perhaps the Ranger won’t further add to the poor fellow’s troubles, except, of course, by drawing your attention to them!

Campaign for Real Risk

The Health and Safety Commission launches a campaign – no surprises there. But this one’s a bit different. It’s under the provocative title ‘Get a Life‘ and invites us to

…focus on real risks ” those that cause real harm and suffering ” and stop concentrating effort on trivial risks and petty health and safety…

The Ranger is delighted with this approach, and the common-sense advice given on the HSE website to try to put this into practice. Far too often he is faced with a complainant asking for unreasonably onerous precautions to be taken to ameliorate some tiny hazard. People need to learn that RISK is not the same as DANGER.

Walkers at Binnel Bay, Isle of Wight
A dangerous pastime – or is it a risky one?

Of course, it is dangerous to walk along the top of an unprotected cliff, as The Ranger recently did on a very exhilarating windy day at Binnel Bay on the Isle of Wight (see image above). But what is the risk? Actually, not much, if you take sensible precautions. For that reason, there are no fences at Binnel. However, elsewhere, where the cliff is unstable and the danger is not in itself obvious, the risk of an incident is much higher and areas are quite regularly fenced off. Hundreds of thousands of people enjoy this delightful unspoilt coastline every year. Of the very few that do fall off, the majority, sadly, do so either deliberately, or in the process of undertaking an activity so obviously risky that no amount of fencing or safety warning signs would have detered them in the first place. The Ranger is very pleased with the continuing development of the point of view that we are entitled to be exposed to a proportionate amount of danger, in order to appreciate the benefits of a natural environment.

Do you have a fundamental right to fall in a pond?

Remember this old chestnut? What a lot of trouble it causes, and what a lot of ineffective but expensive fencing and signage is provided by local authorities to little effect other than to appease insurers or fearful senior officers. The Ranger recently read this story:

The parents of a Flintshire toddler who drowned at a holiday park hope his death will prompt the government to introduce tighter controls on ponds.

A fenced-off pond in a country park

This is, of course, a tragic tale, and you can learn more about it here. However, the Ranger supports the coroner’s conclusion in this sad case:

It is healthy and natural for youngsters to show an interest in water, and [I do not] back calls from safety campaigners to fill in ponds. I can’t say that I recommend that all ponds should be filled up, because they provide so much pleasure to people and to children. I can only say that ponds can be dangerous places and people should be aware of that.

The Ranger is aware of a most illuminating judgement of the House of Lords in 2003 on this topic, which those of us who look after public water bodies might find interesting. It concerns the case of Mr Tomlinson, who sued Congleton Borough Council when he jumped into a lake in their country park and broke his neck. Mr Tomlinson lost his case. The resulting judgement strongly supports the view that some hazards are, ‘in themselves obvious’ and that a landowner is not always obliged to protect everyone from everything. This is a principle which it is sometimes necessary to remind people of when they begin campaigns for more signs, fences, barriers, insurance, and so on. The judgement contains many interesting and even a few entertaining parts, such as a comparison with the island of the Sirens, which concludes that “…the beach, give or take a fringe of human bones, was an ordinary Mediterranean beach. If Odysseus had gone ashore and accidentally drowned himself having a swim, Penelope would have had no action against the Sirens for luring him there with their songs.”. The judgement is highly relevant to all land managers, in fact mentioning rangers specificly at several points. It also refers to a host of other cases, some unlikely, such as the case of Miss Bessie Stone, who “was innocently standing on the pavement outside her garden gate at 10 Beckenham Road, Cheetham when she was struck by a ball hit for 6 out of the Cheetham Cricket Club ground”, and some which include situations which we are often presented with. Here is a short extract:

“…it is not, and should never be, the policy of the law to require the protection of the foolhardy or reckless few to deprive, or interfere with, the enjoyment by the remainder of society of the liberties and amenities to which they are rightly entitled. Does the law require that all trees be cut down because some youths may climb them and fall? Does the law require the coast line and other beauty spots to be lined with warning notices? Does the law require that attractive water side picnic spots be destroyed because of a few foolhardy individuals who choose to ignore warning notices and indulge in activities dangerous only to themselves? The answer to all these questions is, of course, no. But this is the road down which your Lordships, like other courts before, have been invited to travel and which the councils in the present case found so inviting. In truth, the arguments for the claimant have involved an attack upon the liberties of the citizen which should not be countenanced. They attack the liberty of the individual to engage in dangerous, but otherwise harmless, pastimes at his own risk and the liberty of citizens as a whole fully to enjoy the variety and quality of the landscape of this country. The pursuit of an unrestrained culture of blame and compensation has many evil consequences and one is certainly the interference with the liberty of the citizen.”

(My emphasis) The Ranger wonders, does this judgement contain a fundamental principle which should be put on the list for our own Constitution – if it is ever drawn up? It would be wonderful if so. To see the whole judgement, click here or search on the full citation below: Judgments – Tomlinson (FC) (Original Respondent and Cross-appellant) v. Congleton Borough Council and others (Original Appellants and Cross-respondents)