Building owners’ safety risk – the public


Normally we cover the difficulties encountered by building contractors when they infringe the construction health and safety regulations. Here we go off-topic a little, but only in the cause of highlighting to clients and contractors how important it is in this day and age to take every measure to protect the public from harm – regardless of the public’s actions. Children especially are assumed in the eyes of the law to be essentially uncontrollable.

English Heritage has since 1984 managed some 400 sites of historic interest. One such is Yarmouth Castle in the Isle of Wight, a popular visitor attraction. In its 17th century exhibition room was a glass panel in the floor, created many years ago, probably prior to English Heritage’s curatorship. This glass allowed visitors to view the structure underneath it. Following risk assessment practice, staff are known to have made regular inspections of the panel, as was the instruction in all English Heritage sites: and many thousands of people had walked on it safely for decades.

Children jumped up and down on glass floor

On 5th September 2011, three boys (two brothers and a friend) and accompanying adults were visiting. The two brothers started jumping up and down on the glass, and then the third (aged 12) said he would do it too, to show that it would not break. But finally, it did. The glass broke into sharp pieces and cut his leg badly. He had two bouts of surgery but has recovered and is at school again.

One has to ask where the parents were when the boys were being so naughty, and why the castle guides did not see the boys’ actions. The boy’s father raised the alarm after the event and the mother of the boy’s two friends gave him first aid, until the paramedics came to the scene.

The HSE blames English Heritage totally because despite them having carried out regular checks on the glass, it turned out not to be toughened or laminated.

English Heritage was quick to react. It took action by:

  • identifying and recording glass floor panels (and low-level glass wall panels) in all properties;
  • covering all glass floor panels where they could not assess their strength, or;
  • cordoning off the panels;
  • erecting public warning signs.

Nevertheless, HSE has determined that if this had been a private body then it would have been prosecuted successfully. Because it is a Crown-owned body, HSE formally served a Crown Censure, its maximum possible penalty, which is equal to a criminal prosecution (but one without a fine).  The grounds were that the organisation  failed to take reasonable steps to protect members of the public from risk. In its 30 years English Heritage has never had such a penalty. Its Historic Properties Director accepted HSE’s findings and the Censure.

It was stated by the HSE official who chaired the censure meeting that the same accident could have happened to any adult who slipped or fell – although this is surely a different scenario to the repeated jumping. The same person commented that this was just the nature of children.

The message to building or construction site owners must be that whereas there might once have been a defence of diminished responsibility due to the reckless behaviour of the public (especially children) or the lack of supervision over them, it is now totally the responsibility of the owner or guardian of a building to protect against any misdemeanor, at their expense.

The retrospective action by English Heritage shows others what lengths they must now go to in pursuit of total health and safety. In the case of medieval castles and other ancient buildings, they were never built to our standards: one wonders how long it will be before cramped spiral stairs are banned from access and displays of old armoury are withdrawn from show.