SHP Online is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.
It is human nature that when things are written down, they gain authority and people do not always challenge them as they should.
This, explained Eversheds lawyer Paul Verrico, is one of the key lessons from the Dreamspace tragedy, which saw two people killed when a giant inflatable artwork broke free of its moorings in high winds in July 2006.
The Dreamspace structure – which was made of plastic sheeting glued together to form a large number of cubes, through which people could wander and enjoy an audio-visual experience – was being displayed at Riverside Park, Chester-le-Street, Durham. On the afternoon of 23 July, a gust of wind lifted the artwork 30 feet up into the air, taking people inside with it. Two people, who were inside the structure at the time, were killed – 38-year-old Claire Furmedge and 68-year-old Anne Collings. Twenty-seven adults and children were also injured.
The structure, which had been toured throughout Europe and the UK, was attached to the ground by general-purpose rope and an inadequate number of pegs, particularly at the rear – the direction in which the wind was blowing.
Artist and designer of Dreamspace, Maurice Agis, 76, was fined £10,000 in March 2009 after being found guilty of an offence under s3(2) of the HSWA 1974. His fine was later reduced on appeal, as he was on benefits and could not pay the fine. He died in October last year.
Chester-Le-Street District Council, which invited Agis to display his creation in the park, was in charge of assessing the safety of the structure. It pleaded guilty to a charge under s3(1) of the HSWA 1974, and was fined £20,000. Promotions company, Brouhaha International Ltd, which helped to stage the event, also pleaded guilty to safety failings and was fined £4000.
Verrico told delegates at a packed SHP Legal Arena that the Council had gone “out of its way to make sure the event happened”, which led to a “can-do attitude” on both its part and the Safety Advisory Group, which was composed of the county council, the district council, the Police, the Fire and Rescue Service, and the Ambulance Service. The Group, whose loose remit was to make sure the event was safe, focused heavily on evacuation in the event of fire. It also considered the risk of high winds and torrential rain, and listed the need for 40 stakes as one of the control measures to manage this risk.
But the Group failed to challenge the accuracy of the 40-stakes figure and accepted it at face value. The figure had essentially been “plucked out of the air”, said Verrico, and had not been calculated on the basis of any engineering assessment.
However, he also said that, to an extent, the Council had been unlucky, in the sense that the incident could have happened at any of the other locations at which the structure had been on display.
Emphasising the potential human fall-out from such an incident, Verrico said there was a real risk of individuals being drawn into investigations and prosecutions, which, in the case of Dreamspace, took a number of years to reach a conclusion. Although charges against individuals at the Council were dropped, he warned that for those individuals it had been a harrowing time.
He also urged that parties involved in the staging of events should ensure that the concept of risk assessment is understood by those involved, and that any systemic weaknesses are identified and addressed. When scrutinising risk assessments and other safety documentation, questions should be asked so that parties gain “evidenced assurance” about the safety of the event, while contingency and crisis management plans also need to be considered.
He added that since the case, the HSE had issued new guidance on the staging of public events and government guidance had been issued to place the role of safety advisory groups on a statutory footing.