A broken limb, the Health and Safety Executive, and a good outcome

broken arm in plasterThe Health and Safety Executive – the nation’s safety regulator – is so often the fall guy for everything that is wrong about the way risk is managed. But last week I heard an anecdote that brought home to me – in an unexpected way – the positive role HSE is playing in building support for a balanced, thoughtful approach to risk in children’s play. I was running a workshop on risk-benefit assessment at a playwork conference, and one of the participants – a manager of an after-school club – shared a revealing story. It begins last September, with a boy breaking a limb.

It was the boy’s very first day at the club, and he had fallen off a piece of equipment. The manager said that what happened was a straightforward accident, and that there were no problems either with the equipment or the supervision – and I have no reason to doubt this.

The boy’s parents were understandably upset at the news. What is more, they found it hard to accept that no-one was to blame. The manager said that the next week or two were very difficult. The parents kept pressing her for an explanation about what had gone wrong, and what she was going to do about it. They were not after compensation, she explained. They just could not accept that their child, whom they had entrusted to the club’s care, had ended up in hospital, and that this was not a sign of failure.

Around about this time, HSE published its High Level Statement on taking a balanced approach to risk in children’s play and leisure. (I blogged about the launch of this statement here.) In an attempt to help the parents see things from a different point of view, the manager shared and discussed this statement with them.

The statement declares early on that HSE “wants to make sure that mistaken health and safety concerns do not create sterile play environments that lack challenge and so prevent children from expanding their learning and stretching their abilities.” It has some forceful messages about children’s play, stating that it “provides for an exploration and understanding of their abilities; helps them to learn and develop; and exposes them to the realities of the world in which they will live, which is a world not free from risk but rather one where risk is ever present.” And significantly, it says that “children will often be exposed to play environments which, while well-managed, carry a degree of risk and sometimes potential danger.”

This was the point in the conversation where the parents let go of their concerns and moved on from the incident. In short, HSE’s statement helped to change the way they thought about what had happened. To understand why there can be a risk of injury in a good play facility. To see that sometimes, bad things can happen and no-one is to blame.

In my work, I tend to focus on the more theoretical end of risk: getting clarity about values and ways of thinking, improving procedures, building a shared approach within settings and across different stakeholders. I rarely get to see what this all means at the sharp end: in the day-to-day exchanges and interactions between children, parents and play providers.

The High Level Statement, which I was closely involved in shaping as part of the Play Safety Forum, was first and foremost written for providers, and for those who support and oversee their work. So it did not occur to me that parents might be interested in what it says, and open to its messages. But as this anecdote shows, they are.

It would be a heartless soul who took pleasure from news of a broken arm or leg. However, I must confess that I was grateful to have heard this story. It reminded me that even those who have to deal with the downside of risk in play can take a broader view of what has happened. It also brought home to me the fact that HSE, precisely because it bears the mantel of guarding the nation’s safety, deserves praise for publicly adding its voice to the call for balance and proportion.

15 responses to “A broken limb, the Health and Safety Executive, and a good outcome

  1. Claire Colvine - Play England

    Reblogged this on Love Outdoor Play and commented:
    Great to hear that the joint HSE/Play Safety Forum statement on a sensible approach to risk management in children’s play is starting to take effect on the ground. Thanks Tim for sharing! To find out more about the statement, visit http://www.playengland.org.uk/playandleisure.

  2. Well said, Tim.

    Sometimes I’m amazed at the way the play field ignores parents.

    (I shouldn’t be, humans tend to organise tribally in what theorists call SRSS, self-referential social systems. It’s in my book – ‘Navigating Complexity: the essential guide to complexity theory in business and management’ due to be republished by ISCE, soon)

    And it is to the credit of the parents in the case you mention that they were open to changing their minds. Many of us in the playwork field have similar stories. Time we shared them!

    As is becoming a regular occurrence, you blog provoked me to write a piece far too long to go to be a comment, so it will appear in my own blog. The topic will be something like:

    ”What providers need to do, the support they need and the reasons they don’t get it.“

    BTW, it was great to see you at the Eastbourne conference last week, and I enjoyed our philosophical discussion in the ‘Can Robots Play?’ workshop. Minor point: it is not A playwork conference that you attended (your first time?), but rather THE ’11th National Playwork Conference’ in England, organised by a big play provider and training organisation, Meynell Games. Meynell’s conference is now the only annual national playwork conference remaining in England. (Thankfully Play Wales still hosts its national conference ‘the Spirit of Adventure Play’ annually, and both Scotland and NI host similar national events.)

  3. Pingback: A broken limb, the Health and Safety Executive, and a good outcome | Old School Garden

  4. “The manager said that what happened was a straightforward accident, and that there were no problems either with the equipment or the supervision”

    I fully support what you say, but I object to describe what has happened has a “straightforward accident”.

    “Accidents” don’t happen. A broken limb generally is the consequence of a misjudgment. I don’t know what actually happened, but wouldn’t it have been better for the manager to say: “Your child was on this piece of equipment and he either misjudged the risk that he was taking or he knowingly took a risky action, that didn’t turn out as he expected. We expect children of his age to make adequate assessments of the riskiness of the equipment and use it according to their ability.” If the manager had said something like that, she would have gained my trust.

    As soon as someone claims “it was an accident”, it tells me that he is ignorant.

    • I am myself a bit of a stickler for technical language, as Tim knows, and I do understand your important clarification that ‘a broken limb GENERALLY (my emphasis) is the consequence of a misjudgment’. Generally but not exclusively, so we have to admit that ‘accidents’ do occasionally happen.

      I don’t think the manager can be held responsible for the words that Tim used to characterise the incident. In any case, it is surely not very germane to the main thrust of the piece.

      • Actually, the exception to “GENERALLY” I had in mind was faulty equipment or, very rarely hope, negligence.

        I recently sprained my ankle ice-skating. It was a simple fall but the front pick of one of the skates got stuck on the ice and my leg got horribly twisted; was it an accident? No! If I had been totally aware in the moment, it wouldn’t have happened.

        As I said, as soon as some one says, “It was an accident”, he loses my trust that he knows what he is talking about.

  5. Andrea, Arthur – the question of what is or is not an accident – or alternatively, where the responsibility for an incident lies – is important. I know the word is frowned upon by some, but I think we do need to recognise that sometimes, bad things happen and no-one is to blame – and ‘accident’ is a familiar, common-sense word to capture this. Of course, deciding blame is not always easy, and can be a matter of lively debate (just look at road traffic ‘accidents’ where in my view, we let drivers off the hook far too often).

    • Tim,
      1. I wholeheartedly support your overall position.
      2. When “bad things happen”, there is a cause. It is important that the cause is investigated and explained to the victim, his family and anyone else responsible.
      3. To say “It was an accident” is a cop-out, unworthy of thinking humans.

      I give you another example: after the Haiti earthquake, 7000+ people died from cholera. However there had been no cholera in Haiti for decades. After investigation, it seems that it was imported by Nepalese UN personnel. It was unfortunate because someone got infected in Katmandu hours before boarding the plane to Haiti. It is important to assess the likelihood of something similar happening and decide what precautions to take in future. I disagree with the Haitian government that is suing the UN for compensation, but I disapprove of anyone saying it was an “accident”.

      • Andrea – we’re in danger of slipping into a semantic dispute for the sake of it. I’m pleased to see you accept the substantive argument I made in the post. I’m going to take a raincheck on the debate on the relationship between agents, causes and moral responsibility and on questions of foreseeability (from my memory of undergraduate analytical philosophy, the answers are not always straightforward!)

  6. Accidents do happen. We must keep watch of our kids while at play.

  7. For me it is interesting how children, parents, the media and society at large accept the risk-benefit balance in children learning to ride a bike. Bumps, scrapes and worse things happen but we accept that the stabilisers have to come off sometime and the benefits – not to mention the sheer joy – of being able to ride a bike far outweigh the risks.
    Why do so many of us find it hard to extend this acceptance to other sorts of play, mastery and learning?
    I include myself – as an adventure playworker I often found myself as Bill McCulloch used to say “riding into battle with my double standards flying.” What was ok for the other kids on the playground sometimes felt much scarier when it came to my little daughter taking and learning about risks – sometimes the hard way.

  8. peter rosenbluth

    i wonder how many parents realize the risks children take when the parents are not around to see them ? almost every boy, and a lot of girls too, no matter how cautious they are break bones, sprain or scrape something and
    get hurt.
    my mother used to look for bumps, bleeding and obvious signs of an injury, but never get upset unless it was serious. “she did not notice these injuries” as she washed out the blood and mud from the clothing. also the stinking mud from the lake bottom, torn shirts, pants. she assumed as parents must do that playing involves getting dirty, bumped and bruised. a child who comes back from playing as clean as they left is not playing, and not learning.
    i used to play in prospect park every day i could weather permitting and sometimes not permitting. i cannot count the scrapes, bumps, and bruises i got and carefully hid during the days in the park.
    sometimes we coddle and protect our children so much they never get to try out things and learn how to know what is and is not safe.
    playing is a learning experience. no play, no learning !

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