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Making Health and Safety ‘Child’s Play’: Use it to enable challenging play, not to stop it

15 October 2015

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to the Spirit of Adventure Play Conference 2015. I am very pleased to be here today because I want to give my support to the work being done by Play Wales. I believe passionately that children should be allowed, and indeed encouraged, to take part in challenging and adventurous play, because apart from the obvious enjoyment aspects, it has many benefits that will help to produce well rounded adults.

Challenging play

Many schools and play centres already facilitate challenging play opportunities for children and we want others to have the confidence to follow their lead. If we can demonstrate that organising challenging play need not be daunting, the possibilities will be open to many more children. Ideally we want challenging play to be the norm and not just for the few.

Challenging play presents an opportunity for children to begin to cope with and learn from failure, fear or lack of ability. It allows them to feel the satisfaction of trying again and succeeding. The benefits, in terms of honing skills in decision making and teamwork, should not be underestimated. These are essential skills for life in general and more specifically, for preparation for the world of work.

We sometimes hear employers say that young people nowadays lack common sense. The Oxford dictionary defines common sense as “the ability to think about things in a practical way and make sensible decisions”. Another definition is “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgement that we need to live in a reasonable and safe way”.

We are not born with common sense. It comes from experiencing the world around us. It is up to us as a society to develop and nurture common sense in our young people. We can start this at an early age by exposing them to a wide range of experiences and allowing them to face challenges so that they can begin to understand the possible outcomes.

We probably all remember the most enjoyable times we had as a child, as the ones that gave us a sense of adventure and freedom. We may have sustained the odd scrape but most of us would say it was worth it.

Big success needs a small start (I)

Think for a moment about athletes taking part in any major competition. Is it possible that Sir Chris Hoy never fell from his bike or AP McCoy from his horse? HSE never seeks to ban sporting activities on the basis that they pose a risk to those taking part. We take account of the wider benefits to physical and mental health and to society as a whole. This is exactly how we ought to view children’s play.

Big success needs a small start (II)

Whether it is a visit to a play park, a trip to the countryside or taking part in challenging and adventurous activities, HSE wants to make sure that mistaken and unfounded health and safety concerns do not create obstacles that prevent them from happening.

HSE understands that wrapping children up in cotton wool achieves nothing. Children who grow up unable to anticipate and deal with risk can lack self-confidence and may be less prepared to make decisions as adults. Stifling play can have negative consequences. Some children adopt the unnecessary fears of their parents or carers and may become afraid to take part. We may need also to think about how we help parents and carers get beyond their fears.

Organised stimulating play

At the other end of the scale are those children who will seek out risky play if it is not provided for them. If play is not stimulating enough, children seeking a thrill will adapt their play to provide it. This could lead them to take unnecessary risks in dangerous environments. We all remember the school dare devil. The one who climbed that little bit higher or boasted of playing ‘chicken’ on the railway track. These activities often lead to serious or fatal injuries. Unfortunately HSE still has to deal with situations where children have entered construction sites or quarries with heart breaking consequences for families and those who have to deal with the aftermath.

Tragically, in April last year three boys gained access to some pipe work running across a canal in Burnley. As they were crossing the pipe, one of the boys fell into the canal and later died in hospital as a result of his injuries. This summer a little boy from Barnsley died after becoming trapped in a pipe at a construction site.

There will always be some children who push the boundaries, but in general, when children have access to space that offers challenging play opportunities, there is less temptation to seek out play in wholly unsuitable places.

If we all agree that challenging play is good for children and recognise that there are clear disadvantages to stifling it, then why is there sometimes a perception that organising such activities is daunting and not worth the hassle?

It is not the law that gets in the way. 40 years on from the creation of the Health and Safety at Work Act, the health and safety system remains, fundamentally, fit for purpose. This is because health and safety law in Great Britain has an enduring principle – that those who create risks are best placed to control them, and that they should do so in a reasonable and sensible way. The Act (HSWA) and regulations focus on the outcomes that need to be achieved not rules and paperwork – they are designed to enable activities to take place not to stop them – that includes children’s play.

High level statement on children's play

The publication of the High Level Statement on Children’s Play in 2012 was intended to reassure educators, play providers, parents and carers that Health and Safety should not be a barrier to providing challenging play. 

HSE’s primary interest is in protecting people from real risks arising from serious breaches of the law. Contrary to what you may read in the press, HSE has never aimed to eliminate all risk. We recognise that exposure to some risk is inevitable within the context of many activities such as sport, leisure and children’s play.

As play providers, an important part of your role is to think about the risks that children are exposed to in play and decide whether those risks are worth taking. Obviously there are some risks that are never worth taking and it is right that children are protected from them.

This is where you will need to be considering both risk assessment and risk benefit analysis. Although HSE does not provide advice on RBA there are others here today who will be able to tell you all you need to know.

HSE has a wide remit with interest in practically every work activity you can imagine. We are not experts in children’s play. We cannot tell you which activities are suitable for the children in your care, nor can we do a risk assessment for you. We can however point you in the right direction when it comes to managing Health and Safety in a sensible and proportional way.

Health and safety?

So, what do you think of when you hear the words Health and Safety?

It is time to re-think any preconceived ideas. For example if we look at risk assessment - something that sometimes fills people with dread - it need not be the burden that you imagine.

Why not start with the question, ‘What do we want to do’? ‘What are the benefits’? And then, ‘How can we ensure it is a safe and enjoyable experience for all’? Risk assessment is about enabling not preventing. With a little thought, you will be surprised at how many things you can do, providing you make sensible and proportional decisions.

If you, or anyone else involved in planning a challenging or ‘out of the ordinary’ activity thinks something can’t be done ‘because of health and safety’, please challenge that initial thought, because the real answer is very likely to be that it can be done! As soon as they are ready, get the children involved in the process. It’s an ideal opportunity to get them thinking about risk too.

But what if something does go tragically wrong?

Play providers are expected to deal with risk responsibly and sensibly. If things do go wrong, provided sensible and proportionate steps have been taken, it is highly unlikely that there would be any breach of health and safety law involved, or that it would be in the public interest for HSE to bring a prosecution.

Of course if a serious or fatal injury occurs, HSE or the Local Authority will normally investigate. For fatal accidents, the police will also be involved.  HSE has brought prosecutions in rare cases where there was evidence of recklessness or a clear failure to follow sensible precautions. However, it is important that play providers do not interpret this as meaning that to avoid prosecution by HSE they must eliminate even the most trivial risks.

Remember HSE does not investigate incidents in response to civil claims, and has no influence on the levels and types of civil claims for compensation that may be made. Other parts of Government have been taking steps to discourage the “blame culture” which leads to many civil claims.

Other experts here today will be able to tell you more about insurance matters pertaining to civil claims that might arise.

But from our perspective, what does sensible and proportionate mean?

Striking the right balance

You do not need to identify every possible risk, but you should identify foreseeable risks such as those related to the consequences of poor maintenance.

Of course we cannot always predict what people will do. Adults (even parents) can sometimes unwittingly put their own children in danger. It is not unusual to see adults helping very small children to reach play equipment that is clearly designed for older children. Play providers cannot be held responsible for parents and carers who choose to behave in this way.

Striking the right balance does not mean

As we know, parents are as diverse as their children. Some are terribly risk averse, while others are keen for their children to experience exhilarating activities. Trying to reconcile these differences is a challenge. When organising activities, the key is to ensure that parents and carers are provided with enough information to help them make an informed choice. Ultimately, if a parent does not want their child to take part in challenging play, it is their decision. We can only explain the risks and the benefits. It is worth noting that well-informed parents and carers may be less likely to pursue legal action in the event of a minor injury.

There can never be a guarantee of immunity from civil or criminal action, however play providers who have planned activities carefully and assessed the risks should be in a better place to defend their decisions.

Myths

One of the things that HSE has been doing very successfully over the last few years is challenging myths via the Mythbusters Challenge panel. HSE set up the Myth Busters Challenge Panel in 2012 to address instances where members of the public believe they have been on the receiving end of mystifying or over-the-top decisions made in the name of ‘health and safety’.  The Panel publishes its conclusions on HSE’s website and seeks to set the record straight, making it clear where health and safety has been misrepresented, or used as a catch-all reason for stopping activities.  Well over 300 cases have been published to date, including some relating to children. The University of Exeter carried out a study in 2014, which showed that in the first two years almost, 20% of the mythbusters cases affected children. The HSE website now has a substantial library of cases. Please feel free to have a look at some of the cases the panel have dealt with.

It will not surprise you to know that children have been told that they cannot play with things such as skipping ropes, balloons and conkers. They have been told that they cannot climb trees or even wear frilly socks – all in the name of Health and Safety!

HSE will continue to play our part in dispelling these myths. We have published the High Level Statement in collaboration with the Play Safety Forum, which I urge you all to read if you haven’t already. We will continue to promote a sensible approach to risk management and I encourage you to spread the word to parents and other people of influence within your organisations, that there is no need to prohibit normal activities.

Straightforward guidance

And I want to reassure you that HSE takes the approach of making regulations, advice and guidance as easy to follow as possible and will continue to do so.

That isn’t a euphemism for lowering of standards, because we all benefit from fewer health and safety incidents occurring – no one wants to see standards decline. But I am a great believer that if you make something easy to understand and do, people are more likely to do it. That principle lies behind HSE’s drive over recent years to modernise and simplify regulations and guidance.

Modernisation can never be a finite task and we are also refreshing the overall strategy for the whole H&S system, and it will embody amongst other aspects the need to gain greater buy-in to the positive enabling role played by managing risks proportionately, allowing activities to take place and not stopping them unnecessarily.

Thank you for listening and, more importantly, for continuing to provide children with inspirational activities in which to participate. You have HSE’s and my personal support and encouragement for the efforts you make in promoting a sensible and proportional approach to risk – and helping to prepare children for living safe and healthy lives.

Updated 2015-11-12