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November 29, 2006

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A walk in the park

Deep in the woodlands of Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire, a group of teenagers argue their way through a risk assessment. The girls point out numerous hazards, but the boys don’t seem too bothered about most of them. They stand in front of a huge tree with branches that practically beg to be climbed, and debate the risks involved. One boy tugs on the closest branch while the girls stand back. If the adults supervising them weren’t around, he’d be up there like a shot.

“Girls think that everything’s a hazard!” he cries, scowling at the long list the girls have written down.

Vera Shilling, health and safety officer for The National Trust, has been running workshops to get an idea of how young visitors view the risks around them. Clumber Park, an estate that includes 3,800 acres of woodland, open heath, farmland, a serpentine lake and the longest avenue of lime trees in Europe, is playing host to her latest workshop.

“There’s a theory that young people don’t spot risk unless it’s got a great big sign on it, and I wanted to put this to the test”, says Vera. She starts her workshops with a whistle stop tour of what a health and safety officer does, picking out some extraordinary stories from her time with the Trust. When your patch includes an unexploded bomb site, grand estates and a mysterious place where the water doesn’t freeze, you tend to have a few stories up your sleeve. In this case, the story of the Brancaster whale does the trick — IOSH members will have to attend Vera’s presentation at IOSH07 to hear the story for themselves.

When the talking is done, Vera lets the teenagers loose in a few areas of the property to carry out a risk assessment. She’s comparing the results to see how girls and boys view the various hazards they come across. Vera asks the group to explain what hazards they found and what, if anything, the Trust should do to control them. When it comes to nature and heritage, just how far can you go with control measures? Big yellow signs don’t exactly complement the foliage.

According to this group, it’s the visitors who need to change and not the surroundings. “Everyone has common sense, so they should use it!”

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