The 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.