It’s ‘elf and safety gone mad!

If you were to read certain newspapers, you would think that health and safety rules are out of control. Contrary to popular opinion the “Fun Police” are not out to stop people organising events. Health and safety is often viewed with suspicion and sometimes you think the commentators have a point, but it's just common sense.

© Jim Herbert - What do you mean, "Have I got a risk assessment for this?"

You just need to look at historic film or photos such as the famous one of the steel monkeys eating lunch on a girder of a New York skyscraper and shudder at the thought to understand why we should have safe working practices today.

Why do I have to do a risk assessment?

We do risk assessments all the time without realising it. Every time you cross the road, you will carry out a risk assessment in your head - “Look right, look left, look right again” - remember Tufty or Darth Vader… I mean the Green Cross Code man?

A risk assessment is just common sense written down. There are three good reasons for doing this.

  • It's a good way of making you consider potential dangers in a logical way.
  • Genuine accidents can always happen. If the worst should happen, you can demonstrate to the authorities that procedures had been put in place to prevent them. In other words, having a risk assessment to hand helps cover your back.
  • It is a requirement to have carried out a risk assessment for an event to be covered by the Heritage Open Days insurance policy.

And remember, once you've done it (assuming nothing has changed), you won't have to do it again. Just change the date next year.

How to do a risk assessment

The Heritage Open Days organisers pack includes more detailed advice about risk assessment and shows a simple version of a risk assessment. There are many templates that can be downloaded from the internet. Have a look at this one I did for a real Heritage Open Days event at a church. Feel free to copy and adapt for your event. It's relatively simple and uses a “risk matrix” which I think is a better way of assessing risk. Which style you use doesn’t matter; the principle is the same for all of them.


What is the danger?  

You will know your building inside out. Walk through it or over your site or tour trying to find the dangers; look at it with a fresh set of eyes. In the example risk assessment, the organiser was a small lady and walked up a flight of narrow spiral stairs in the church peel tower easily enough. I’m a big bloke and my shoulder almost smashed an exposed 60W light bulb, badly fitted to the central column!  

Unexpected steps, or steps lower or higher than normal are a commonplace hazard as is the old faithful “uneven or wet ground”. As an organiser, you know about that funny step (probably because you tripped over it years ago) but your visitor won’t. Ordinary sized steps are expected and relatively easily seen: a low step isn’t and to the unwary is therefore potentially hazardous.

Possible outcome

What’s the worst that could reasonably be expected to happen? Be honest now!


How risky is it?

Terms like low, medium and high are a little vague and are difficult to define. In the example, how would you assess a fall from the tower, in terms of low, medium and high?  Is it more of a risk than a low doorway? This is where the “risk matrix” comes in. It breaks down the danger into two components, severity and probability. Each is assigned a number according to definitions in a table at the end of the document and multiplying the two numbers gives a "score" that helps indicate how much of a risk a particular hazard is.  

For severity, use the definitions table to match the outcome in the previous column, and again, be honest!  

For probability, again use your common sense. This is completely independent of severity. Just because something is potentially very dangerous it doesn’t follow it is likely to happen. It's usually the innocuous things that will catch people unawares and are therefore more likely to happen.

In the example, the low doorway is a potential risk. While the potential severity of someone falling from a tower is very high, it's really not likely to happen (unless it’s a couple of kids running around unsupervised and one shoves the other off, but you’ve thought of that so that’s why children aren’t allowed up the tower by themselves). But for a tall person like me it is possible I may bang my head on a low doorway potentially causing concussion or a bad bruise at least. (I know, I do it all the time at work in a building I allegedly know!) So the doorway gets a higher score.

Tip:  Use an even number range, say 1-4 or 1-6.  If you use 5, there’s always a temptation of putting an “average” figure in. Using 4 or 6 in the range commits you to saying whether a thing is erring towards safety or danger.

Action required

Get the problem sorted in advance of the event, if possible. These things are usually a housekeeping issue and are a good idea to get done anyway.  Often, making one or two signs politely warning people of trip hazards and the like or keeping an eye on children being a little too enthusiastic is all that’s needed.

In the case of the light bulb in the tower stairwell, the lady in charge hadn’t ever thought of it as a problem and was worried it would cost too much. These things don’t need to. She knew a friendly electrician and the job cost no more than £20 I think. And it's something that was just a good idea to have done anyway.

Of course you may decide that putting all the precautions in place are for whatever too difficult. You don’t have enough volunteers to ensure rampaging kids aren’t jumping off the tower or you just don’t have the money to fix that light. That’s fine, these things happen. But you may not feel in all conscience that that part of the church can be opened. If you had opened the tower and something had happened, could you live with yourself? Never mind any legal consequences.

What if there is an accident?

To a great extent that depends on the severity and it is beyond the scope of this blog (and blogger) to get into that. You can minimise the risk but you can never really prevent accidents. But it will always look better if you can demonstrate that you had thought about the potential for accidents. The risk assessment is your proof of this.

What else do I need to know?

If your event involves external groups, e.g. re-enactors or contractors like Victorian funfair ride operators, you should ask for a copy of their Public Liability Insurance and risk assessment for their part of the event. Any reputable operator or organisation will have these documents and expect to be asked for them. If they are not forthcoming, there may be a good reason!

If you are organising a large event like a battle re-enactment that may attract thousands of visitors, you should consider approaching your local authority Safety Advisory Group. The Safety Advisory Group is made up of representatives from different council services and the emergency services and assesses event plans and risk assessments for organisers. They can give you free advice about things you may not have considered like car parking, toilet availability and crowd safety and security.

For more advice on health and safety for volunteers visit: