A revealing tale of rope swings and insurance (that ends well)

3 young children swinging on a rope swing in the woodsA few weeks ago I was approached by outdoor educator Mandy Tulloch, who told me that some insurers were getting into a bit of a tangle about rope swings. As you will see, her story held some revealing insights into the approach the insurance industry sometimes takes when assessing the risks that it is presented with. Her tale also showed the value of a firm, assertive stance when dealing with insurers.

Mandy told me that she is keen on using rope swings in her sessions, but had heard that other educators were reporting problems with getting the activity covered under their insurance policies. When she asked her insurer, she was initially told that if she wanted rope swing activities covered, her premium would more than treble, from around £170 to over £600. Not surprisingly, she was dismayed, telling me: “The children line up in the woods to wait their turn, they love the rope swing so much but I’m not sure my small business can afford the increase.”

Mandy said she had been told that some insurers had become alarmed about rope swings – and some were considering a blanket ban – after a tragic case where a family received a payout of £4 million for their son, who had become paralysed after falling from a rope swing. Mandy asked for my help in finding out more about the case. Neither I nor – it turned out – any of my contacts had heard of such a case.

The issue led to some lively online exchanges amongst forest school practitioners in early June, and also some direct contact between the Forest School Association and insurers (led by FSA Director Jon Cree). But still no details emerged about the apparent accident and multi-million pound payout.

Then on 14 June the Forest School Association announced that one leading insurer, Birnbeck, had put out a statement saying that in most circumstances rope swings would be covered for forest school practitioners, and that premiums would only go up by around £26 at the most. Mandy was relieved, but persisted in her enquiries about the payout story. To the best of her (and my) knowledge no such claim has been settled in the UK. Mandy’s enquiries suggested that the case was a purely hypothetical worst-case scenario. What is more, it had apparently been influenced by a recent incident in the USA, in a case that had generated some media attention over there.

It appears that some insurers and underwriters had initially over-reacted to a risk that, while in reality remote, had gained attention thanks to media coverage. It also appears that in focusing on a worst-case scenario, no proper account was taken of some crucial relevant details (such as the fact that swing use by outdoor educators is usually supervised). As Mandy told me, “you can find numerous outdoor nightmares online – it doesn’t mean those of us trying to promote them sensibly should be penalised.”

Forestry Commission rope swings report coverThe good news is that, after some lively debate, a sensible position has been reached – and moreover, one that draws on published good practice, in the form of guidance on rope swings produced in 2006 by the Forestry Commission. Hats off to the Forest School Association for their role in this (and I am not just saying this because I am the FSA’s honorary patron).

The moral of this story is that when dealing with insurers, educators and providers need to be firm and assertive. Remember, it is not the job of the insurance industry to make judgements about where the balance lies in weighing up risks and benefits. That is your job (and here, risk-benefit assessment is a helpful tool). The industry’s role – and it is a perfectly legitimate one – is to provide a financial safety-net for some possible losses. By the nature of their business, insurers tend to focus on the downside of risk, and can sometimes be prone to dwell on worst-case scenarios. As risk expert Bruce Schneier has observed, this is rarely the best place to start.

9 responses to “A revealing tale of rope swings and insurance (that ends well)

  1. Very interesting – a question, has or could Risk Benefit Policies & Toolkits such as by Bath & North East Somerset Council effect liability policies and insurance covers?
    See their http://www.bathnes.gov.uk/services/children-young-people-and-families/childcare-early-years-play/play/playful-risk

  2. Thanks for the post Tim. Shows the need for dialogue between lead bodies and the insurance industry.

  3. We found this advice really good too when setting up two swings at our centre a year. They have proved the most popular of every single free time activity (we wore one rope out) and return us fewer accident forms than the falls from bunk beds.


  4. More generally, if you think your insurance company is being unreasonable look for another, more reasonable, one. Use you network to find out who else insures your particular activities. Chances are you will either find one or your existing company will back down: they wont want to lose your business!

  5. Good point Marcus (and one we make in Managing Risk in Play Provision: Implementation Guide).

  6. Delighted to see this post – Mandy emailed me about this as I posted a rope swing photo on Play Learning Life’s facebook page recently and she wanted to draw my attention to her research and concerns. We will still be making rope swings at 50 Dangerous Things Camp in August – and be insured to do so.

    Also, I love Stu Meese’s comment and it perfectly illustrates the reality of risk. Manufacturers risk assess their products robustly (presumably using risk benefit assessment, e.g. high sleeper and bunk beds) but parents rarely do in my experience and yet the general public are quick to shout ‘health and safety gone mad’ whenever RA or RBA features negatively in the media.

  7. Pingback: Interesting reflections on rope swings, kids adventure and risk management | Training Expertise Blog

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