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Bonfire Night Helps Health & Safety Hit The Headlines Again
Posted by David Cant on November 4, 2014

Bonfire Night Helps Health & Safety Hit The Headlines Again

Man reading the newsThe dangers of fireworks are relatively well-known, so it is little surprise that health and safety pops up in the headlines every November. Along with lurid tales of horrific injuries, there are also stories of ‘elf ‘n’ safety’ intended to mock overly-cautious organisations.

This year the unfortunate recipient of this elf ‘n’ safety attention is Portsmouth City Council who have taken the unusual decision of axing the bonfire from their Bonfire Night celebrations. According to a spokesperson from the council, insuring the event will cost £4600 – on top of the £20,000 they have already spent on fireworks.

Along with the charges for clearing up after the event, much of the additional cost is believed to be to do with implementing health and safety requirements and extra insurance costs. Suggested improvements included securing the area around the bonfire, buying ‘clean’ wood that could be verified as free from harmful chemicals, and even re-seeding grass that was destroyed during the blaze.

Unable to afford the extra £4600, the Council has decided to simply carry on without a bonfire. And as may be expected from papers that need to sell more copies, criticising Portsmouth City Council’s decision is a populist move.

Not an isolated incident

Bonfire Night celebrations are often called off with short notice due to public safety concerns. An event was cancelled in Littlehampton last year after high winds added an element of unpredictability to proceedings that could have endangered public safety. Similarly an event in Peterlee was cancelled back in May because of concerns about heavy traffic and the risk it posed to local people.

Slightly further back in time, a Bonfire Event organised by Birmingham City Council went ahead in 2010 without a bonfire because of the costs associated. The Council estimated they had cut the cost of staging the fireworks show by 50%, as a direct result. Unusually this event was not dogged by elf ‘n’ safety accusations at the time.

When the unpopular decision is the right decision

Portsmouth City Council could have chosen to go ahead with a bonfire without upgrading their insurance coverage, or implementing some of the health and safety recommendations required to keep costs down. Such a move may not, at first glance, be illegal, but there would always be an element of risk to the public and any employees working at the event.

In keeping with best practice, the council has completed a risk assessment and identified significant hazards that cannot be ignored. Hence the unpopular decision to cancel the bonfire.

Businesses face similar dilemmas on a regular basis, balancing risk with reward. The fear of being accused of elf ‘n’ safety-type decision-making cannot be an influencing factor when safeguarding employee welfare. Critical headlines may damage your reputation momentarily, but the injury or death of a person caused by negligence will destroy it.

Wherever there is a decision to be made between budget savings and safety, the only responsible choice is to err on the side of caution.

Over to you – has your business ever faced ‘elf ‘n’ safety’ accusations as a result of doing the right thing?


David Cant is a Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner extraordinaire. He has a wealth of Industry experience and is the MD of Veritas Consulting. David also Blogs about Health and Safety here Health and Safety Consultants

His aim is to flavour Health and Safety with integrity, served with a side of humour You can find David on - Twitter and Google also Linkedin

This post has been filed in: Fire Risk Assessments, Health and Safety Consultancy, Health and Safety Policy, Health and Safety Services

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