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Christmas Tales of Health and Safety

Posted on January 2, 2024

It’s been that time of year when we lash the cash and lavish the love on family and friends to enjoy some Christmas merriment in the darkest and coldest of months.

That said, while love might be abundant, for some cash has been tighter than ever and that also seems to be true for a local authority or two. Probably in response to constricting budgets, but some councils cancelled or considered cancelling some Yuletide traditions. And in so doing critics bandied about those words: “Health and Safety”.

For me there was a fine line to be trod. It’s a balance between the wellbeing of the public and that of the public purse.

A national newspaper article recently lambasted the City of Lincoln Council for cancelling the Christmas market – after 40 uninterrupted and incident free years. Apparently, the decision was taken in the previous February, and because it attracts too many people. Health and safety was cited, with a council spokesperson saying: “We simply could not continue delivering an event that had been deemed a significant risk to public safety.” The author of the piece suggested that this was something that no one could ever disagree with. He added: “Whatever the excuses for the closure – and frankly, let’s face it, it’s much easier not to hold the damn thing and spend all that money…”

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

I’ve always argued that you can send people to the moon and you can clear landmines and still comply with health and safety legislation. All that the Health and Safety at Work Act requires is that you risk assess. I think this is about how much money does it generate and how much does it cost. If it’s not making enough Gold then there will be no Frankincense and Myrrh either! If it generates income, then they could have figured out a way. There are people who have health and safety positions that feed this type of fire and it frustrates me.

It was not the only place to banish Christmas cheer though. For example, the death knell was tolled for a carol concert in Bethnal Green because it might have attracted too many people, and there were other examples up and down the land. At one stage there was to be a similar tale in Canterbury when its historic festive celebrations faced the axe after 70 years over – yes, you’ve guessed it again – health and safety fears, but volunteers stepped into save it.

Having the right number of ‘competent’ volunteers is important of course, and if you haven’t despite it being a profitable event, then get professionals in! You can control large numbers of people in London, in Canterbury or almost anywhere, so it’s a question of choosing to do it. It’s a great excuse to cite health and safety because who is going to argue with it? No one wants to go somewhere that’s unsafe.

Be prepared and use experience

My family and I went to Dunham Massey for a sold out Christmas light display and it was excellent and well organised. They sold tickets so that people came through in groups; there was a path clearly marked out, lit by medieval type torches; there was fencing and boarded footways where it was needed. Clearly the organisers had taken time to think about what had worked and what hadn’t in the past and what could wrong, so they put in place things to mitigate those eventualities and so subtly that no visitor would have registered it. For me that’s excellent health and safety. My mantra is you don’t notice good health and safety: it’s not about a hi-viz and a hardhat, it’s about design.

These organisers were even able to manage the risk to children of toasting marshmallows. If they couldn’t have done so, they wouldn’t have had marshmallows available. They were prepared and used their experience. What I appreciate is the planning that goes into events, often for months. Health and Safety shouldn’t be regarded as a negative.

Common sense and professionalism

Sporting fixtures happen every weekend and they are planned and managed. A freak set of circumstances occurred with the FA Cup Third Round draw forcing the police to intervene even before a ball is kicked, because 10 London teams have been drawn at home stretching their resources. It means that one of those matches – Everton’s trip to Crystal Palace – has been moved to a Thursday night (January 4th ) for only the second time in history. The risk was assessed and plans put in place to mitigate it.

There are countless types of events at the end of each year that go ahead. Carol services and Christmas markets have benefits for society, the coming together of communities is important and should be encouraged. In most cases all it takes is the application of common sense and professionalism, which are after all just alternative words for health and safety.

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