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Letter to the Independent in response to the Diana Memorial fountain article

The Editor,
The Independent,
191 Marsh Wall,
E14 9RS

Dear Sir,

It is appropriate that people who are responsible for providing public facilities take the health and safety of the users into account (The Independent, 3 May, ‘Troubled waters’, P34-36.) but there is a serious concern that the risk assessment should not be conducted as if it were a workplace.

While employers have an absolute legal duty to ensure the health and safety of their employees, within the limits of what is "reasonably practicable", in the public sphere this isn't the case. Just because toddlers can fall into canals or rivers and drown isn't a proper reason for fencing every towpath and river bank.

In public spaces, it is proper for members of the public to take reasonable care for themselves, and those in their charge. If you visit Kensington gardens it isn't unreasonable to expect the park keepers to arrange for periodic tree inspections, so that damaged boughs don't crash onto people's heads, but you should look where you are walking and avoid tripping over small branches lying on the ground.

So for the fountain, if it was poorly designed and thus more slippery than necessary - modifications are appropriate. The idea that people may do whatever they want in a public space, including climbing into decorative fountains from which they are expressly prohibited on the basis that they can sue if they are harmed, should not be countenanced by the courts.

Crazy decisions made in the name of health and safety are often nothing to do with those who train and study to practice this profession, but are based on the fear of the compensation claim, even though the number of such claims seems to be falling.

Managing risk in complex environments, and supporting businesses in making finely balanced decisions that affect the welfare of those at work requires skill, experience and judgment. Increasing and maintaining the competence of those who make these complex decisions is something IOSH is passionate about - which is why we have made professional development mandatory for all Members, and will introduce the first Chartered Safety and Health Practitioners later this year.

Health and safety advice increasingly requires highly trained people, it's no longer a field for well-meaning amateurs. But don't allow bad health and safety to become an excuse for lessening the protection of people who deserve to return from their place of work in one piece at the end of each day.

Lawrence Waterman
IOSH (The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health)
The Grange
Highfield Drive
LE18 1NN

Updated 2010-02-11