Unprotected drops – has the Ha Ha had its day?


The always interesting debates between construction health and safety consultants and building contractors, in the Discussions pages of the HSE website, have again thrown up an intriguing topic that I feel deserves a wider airing – involving as it does a bigger debate about just how safe we have to be. What is an acceptable risk: and do we learn as children by being exposed to it?

This discussion thread concerns a new housing estate where a drop in the land has been turned into a decorative feature by the project’s landscape gardener. He inserted vertical wooden sleepers into a curved soil bank. The resulting drop from the edge of the bank varies between 600mm and 1 metre.

Because children will inevitably play there, the question arises – do you have to add special measures to keep them safe, and if so, what?

To quote the safety consultant who was asked to advise, “a handrail on the top would look ridiculous.”

Other experts suggested extending the sleeper wall upwards by 1 metre so it forms a protective barrier. But both client and consultant agreed that it would spoil the look completely. Another expert pointed out that increasing the sleeper wall would create a seductive climbing feature that would be attractive to children, thus magnifying the risk.

Ha Has: not funny any more?

In days gone by there was scant thought given to such questions, Appearance was all. Take the example of the Ha Ha, the unprotected vertical wall inserted into the grassy landscape around grand houses to prevent the grazing animals from approaching the house and its immediate lawns. It also provided a subtle feature that was not easily seen from the house – or, no doubt, by unwary strollers. Many a National Trust or other stately home retains this device, and the public is allowed to walk the grounds.

Of course, an Englishman’s home is his castle, and what he or she does in the privacy of their garden is their affair. They can – and do – create all manner of dangers, from ornamental ponds to (as cited by one correspondent) Diarmuid Gavin’s outlandish designs, such as a Teletubbies garden building where you had to stand on the grass roof and use a hover mower to cut the lawn. CDM Coordinators were not required to attend: different rules apply. One safety expert even admitted to having dug a World War One trench in a garden, with well over 1 metre drops.

Are kids too safe?

The bigger question is, should we featherbed our kids? I remember playing ‘dare’ by jumping off a wall with others at school until it got so scary that I realised my limits and never attempted it again.

To echo that, safety expert Liz Bennett says: “as a Cub Leader I allow my Cubs to climb trees, build shelters, cross water and so on. They need to learn about risk. My brother broke his ankle as a toddler falling off the bottom step of a step ladder, I broke my wrist slipping on a flat path. If the intention is to allow access to the feature my feeling would be that you should encourage it. What you should not do is grow plants over it to conceal it.”

“In a playground when a tree trunk and branches were placed in the playground both accidents and bullying decreased. When a nervous new head teacher put in designed steel play equipment it increased again substantially.

She does then point out that the designer and safety consultant do also need to protect themselves. And as CDM disappears or mutates, there has to be a debate to arrive at a new strategy for public areas about ‘how safe’ we have to be. 100 metres’ drop is deadly, zero is safe (unless the ground is wet…) and somewhere in between there is an acceptable risk. Then, as others point out, the litigious parents can be dissuaded from sueing everyone in sight. After all, children learn from taking risks.

A sensible approach put forward by another correspondent for this particular case was to get the client premises manager and a parents group to take responsibility and do their own (hopefully sensible) risk assessment. Or, as one wag suggested, “Install judo mats behind & in front of the sleepers…; -)”