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October 24, 2014

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Global Standards for safety: g-Guide

The past decade has seen a spurt of events and exhibitions in developing countries, with organisers often working in hazardous conditions. Nick Warburton talks to Simon Garrett, author of the g-Guide, about the moral imperative to protect lives.

organisers have a high duty of care to all visitors

Organisers have a high duty of care to all visitors

Take a closer look at any large-scale event or exhibition and what you will discover behind the scenes is a construction site.

Visitors tend to only see the event when they walk through the door on the day it opens. They don’t see the venue as it is being transformed, sometimes only in a matter of hours, with all of the inevitable risks that come with a construction site – moving heavy vehicles, often in close proximity to pedestrians, and individuals working at height. On top of that, there’s also a significant fire risk with large swaths of visitors milling around.

For Simon Garrett, managing director of X-Venture Global Risk Solutions, the events and exhibitions industry remains high-risk.

“It’s often an event team that is trying to build an exhibition that is responsible for these construction sites,” he reflects. “[But] unlike other industries it does tend to place responsibility for managing that risk on relatively junior shoulders.”

Garrett should know. During the 90s, he was operations director at Earls Court and witnessed a string of fatalities that shaped his views on event and exhibition safety and fuelled his determination to drive up domestic standards.

“I was a solider in Northern Ireland and took a platoon over there for two years and didn’t lose any of them,” he recalls.

“Then I joined Earls Court and four people died in five years. One of my staff was killed, and although no blame was attributed to my organisation or my team, it was wholly unnecessary and wholly avoidable. To be fair to Earls Court, they did put their house in order and in doing so provided valuable lessons for the industry.”

Spurred into action, Garrett completed a NEBOSH health and safety diploma while he was still operations director. He later chaired the e-guide for the UK exhibitions and conference sector and wrote IOSH’s managing safely course for the events industry.

Yet despite the inherent risks that still exist in the UK, the sector has come a long way since the 90s and has developed good health and safety standards.

Sector guidance

Event organisers are heavily reliant on the conpentence of contractors to adher to professional standards

Event organisers are heavily reliant on the competence of contractors to adhere to professional standards

Garrett explains that there is a plethora of guidance on how to comply with the law and it’s very well codified so “everyone understands what they need to be doing”. That is not the case in some of the fastest growing and emerging event and exhibition markets overseas.

“Certainly, when you get to developing countries, there is no guidance,” he says. “Often, there’s no health and safety law either or if there is, it’s just not enforced.”

It was this realisation that prompted him to compile the g-Guide in 2009. Drawing on the collective experience of senior operations staff from a coalition of prominent global exhibition organisers, including UBM plc, Reed Exhibitions and Clarion Events, Garrett created a downloadable document that sets out minimally accepted safety standards for the global market.

“The g-Guide is part, and it is only part, of an attempt by the responsible organisers to create something to plug the gap,” admits Garrett.

“What became very clear to me was that this needed to be organiser driven. It was no good the venue trying to get the organisers to comply with a set of rules, and don’t forget that all of the venues have different rules, so what needed to happen was the organisers needed to drive change.”

That said, what sits behind the g-Guide is a moral purpose to safeguard the health and safety of any person working at, or visiting, an event or exhibition. Garrett uses an anecdote to illustrate the point.

“If you think of a worker in a developing country, who is working 40-feet up a ladder, painting the side of a venue, the average western observer would probably say, ‘Ok, that’s just what they do around here’. But my point is, he’s just as afraid as you and I would be.

“One of the phrases I am fond of using is, ‘Statute law changes from country to country but the law of gravity doesn’t’. If he falls, it’s quite likely that the welfare piece that sits behind it will be rudimentary medical treatment or a life left begging on the street and a family that doesn’t get fed. He’s doing that because he has to do that, not because he wants to do it.”

Garrett argues that the responsible event organisers recognise that this situation needs to change and that it’s part of a wider sustainable approach.

“If you’ve got at board level, companies saying, ‘we want to do this in a more sustainable way’, it puts pressure on the operations team to come up with some solutions,” he explains. “It’s about doing business in a responsible way.”

The business imperative to drive up standards in developing countries should not be understated. With an explosion in international events, drawing visitors from all corners of the globe, there is an expectation that all organisers will provide a safe pair of hands.

“If you stay in a Marriott hotel, anywhere in the world, you expect to be able to eat the food and drink the water. You don’t expect live wires hanging around and you expect the fire risk to be managed, so that if there is a fire, you can get out of the hotel safely. They’ve managed to do that globally,” he argues

“I think the expectation from an exhibition or conference point of view is the same. You expect to walk into a venue that offers you a world-class trading environment that is not inherently hazardous.”

The fundamental difference between the hotel and the exhibition, however, is that the former does not have to be constructed every time. “That’s the problem,” he continues. “It’s the temporary nature of the event.”

Which is why the formal endorsement of the g-Guide by leading event companies is so significant, he maintains.

Ordinarily, these organisations are highly competitive but on health and safety, they have come together to collaborate in an effort to raise standards. This, Garrett maintains, strengthens the g-Guide’s potential influence. “If we talk to a venue and it’s not listening, then they realise that the next two or three big international events that are lined up are all asking for the same thing… it’s this collective clout,” he insists.

“We are not going to change these places overnight; only by collaborating and coming together are we going to make an impact.”

But it’s not the organisers that will be driving the forklift trucks, climbing up ladders and installing electrical installations at these events. That remains in the hands of a myriad of local contractors. For this reason, Garrett has also pitched the guide at this audience to match the standards set by the organisers.

“This is slightly easier because if they want to do business with these organisers, there is a clear business imperative for these contractors,” he says.

“The aim is to create a level playing field so that they don’t get a cheaper contractor coming in, cutting all the corners and getting all the business, and undermining the more responsible contractors. By setting this level playing field and requiring them to match those standards, they can then compete on other issues but safety should be common to all.”

Garrett admits that laying down a set of rules, no matter how good the intention behind it, is not enough, however. A common problem in developing markets is the low level of skills among local contractors.

This area is tranquil now, but what was it like as an event construction site?

This area is tranquil now, but what was it like as an event construction site?

Individuals may be willing to meet the organisers’ requirements, but they usually require extensive training, which is expensive because they are not earning an income while they train. Also, the instructors that would deliver the training simply don’t exist or are incredibly hard to find, especially with event experience.

As a first step around this hurdle, Garrett has devised an IOSH-accredited managing safely course for international events, which builds the g-Guide into the workbook’s contents. The idea is to develop a cohort of contractors and increase the skills base. However, the local contractors need long-term support.

“It’s no good just going in there and imposing a set of rules and then a week later all disappearing back to the UK,” argues Garrett. “But if you run training courses, year-on-year, that will up their skill set and make them more useful to other users. That is a sustainable outcome.

Garrett is conscious that some may accuse him of health and safety imperialism. He’s quick to counter any potentially negative perceptions about the g-Guide.

“If the venues in any countries have a better set of standards, then we will comply,” he insists.

“The g-Guide is not there to supersede standards that are higher. That’s very clear in the guide. It’s important to stress that the guide standards are the lowest common denominator. It’s the minimum standards.”

This leads Garrett on to a related, and equally important, point; some health and safety professionals may read ‘minimum standards’ and take from this that the g-Guide is falling short of what should be expected.

“If we aim for the higher standards from the start, you won’t get anywhere,” he counters. “We have to provide stepping stones. There’s no good setting an impossible standard that nobody can reach.”

The g-Guide is very pictorial and there is a very good reason for this, he stresses. In some countries the literacy level is very low.

“Some of the workers can’t even read and write in their own language. Getting them to understand some of these health and safety concepts requires a different approach,” he explains. “Food pathogens, gravity, smoke, fire and heat behave exactly the same way [around the world], therefore if you give someone a picture and say, ‘that is the way to do it, this is wrong’, it’s a demonstration and you get the message across. Those countries don’t have a culture of a rules-based approach like we do.”

Garrett ran the first IOSH-accredited managing safely course for international events in Istanbul last July for UBM. The next one, a joint venture between UBM and ITE, took place in Mumbai in July this year.

X-Venture is also on the cusp of setting up a training course in China. The company’s managing director has secured the services of two IOSH-accredited trainers to deliver the course in Chinese for what is potentially the world’s largest exhibition market.

Looking ahead, Garrett has no illusions about the challenges he faces in developing markets. Even so, he believes that as the industry expands overseas, there is a moral purpose to ensure that everyone is offered the same level of protection.

“I am hoping that we’ll look back in four or five years’ time and wonder what all of the fuss was about. Health and safety works when you don’t have to arrive on site and think ‘health and safety’, it just is,” he concludes.

“If you look at a lot of the professional organisers in the UK, it’s effortless in the sense that it doesn’t have to be in the front of their minds the whole time. It’s just woven into everything that they do. What we’ve got to do is make that the same in the developing countries.”

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