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November 3, 2005

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National Safety Symposium- Safety in the public eye

Keeping people healthy and safe without hindering their enjoyment of public amenities is a problem many public service organisations face.

But it’s a challenge that Mike Barrett, head of standards at British Waterways, is determined to tackle head-on with sensible, cost-effective decision-making that doesn’t involve fencing off 2000 miles of canals.

“We want to achieve acceptable levels of safety but we don’t want to make it totally safe because we won’t get any visitors,” Mike said, adding: “Most of the environment we have was built as a working environment at a time when people weren’t bothered about safety.”

He said that with 200 million separate visits each year from around 10 million people, keeping everyone completely safe is a difficult task, particularly as most of those visits go “completely unsupervised”.

The biggest challenge Mike faces is creating a consistent approach: “We did this by setting out to create a visitor safety plan. We’d got lots of inconsistencies and that’s because for some of the issues we came across there is very little guidance available. There are no AcoPs, no HSE guidance, nothing.

“A key element was beyond our control — we can’t go out and tell the public what to do, and we also have no control over stakeholders.”

Mike explained that out of this, British Waterways became involved in three groups; the Visitor Safety in the Countryside Group (VSCG), the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities — Safety Issues Group (AINA-SIG), and the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF). This enables British Waterways to work on best practice with other organisations and interest groups to develop a more consistent approach.

“One of the results is that we now have a consistent set of water safety signs. We’ve also worked with the electricity supply industry to provide safety guidance for anglers about overhead power lines.

“The fundamental principle is that we are never going to have a risk-free environment — we’ve got to be realistic. If we’ve got a museum it’s quite right for a visitor to expect a safe environment and expect to take their family around without getting injured. But if they are scuba diving there’s very little we can do.”

Mike added that it is important to view visitor risk management differently from occupational safety: “We need to come at it from a different viewpoint. Zero risk doesn’t exist and that means best practice guidance and industry standards are very authoritative.”

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