Well done

Thank you so much for clicking on a blog about Health and Safety.  I really appreciate you taking that risk that I won't bore you to death.  The reason that I have written it though is because when I have explained this stuff to people in person, they often say "I never knew that, you should tell people".  So I am taking their advice and I hope what you actually get is a little insight to the things that go on behind the scenes.

Risk assessments - a modern necessity

A few years ago, hardly anyone thought about doing risk asessments, unless it was part of their job role, but over the last two years we’ve all been doing our own personal risk assessments related to coronavirus.  We all decided where we felt it was safe to go and with whom and how much risk we are prepared to take.  Get on a bus, share a car journey, go to the cinema?  We like to know an organisation has done its own risk assessment and is looking out for us, but beyond that we are doing our own and each person’s sense of risk for themselves varies.  That’s the same with organisational risk assessments.  One person might do a risk assessment and be ultra cautious and another person might be blasé.  Actually all the law requires is that we do risk assessments and because we employ more than 10 people we have to write them down.  No-one assesses the risk assessments and no-one has to be specially qualified to do one – but it makes sense to have some kind of guidance and scrutiny.

What might you learn if you read on?

In the course of this blog I’ll try and answer these questions:

  • What should you do if you see a person with a chainsaw on a ladder?
  • Is a sculpture a play piece of play equipment?
  • When is a trip hazard not a trip hazard?
  • Are our trees safe?

Then two of the most frequently asked questions in the office after what time do the gates close and is the café open… which are...

  • If I’m hit by a golf ball will your insurance pay out?
  • If one of your trees falls on my car will your insurance pay out?

I kid you not, we are asked many weird and wonderful things, but these are regulars.

A Light Touch

When I started work at Warley Woods, my then boss Dick Marsh said to me “when you have a bit of free time, those seven folders over there are our health and safety system” but it isn’t vital you read them, I am sure you have more important things to do at the moment.  That is just an indicator of how things have changed over the last 15 years.  Health and safety used to be about heavy industry where people could be seriously harmed and from a time when employers possibly didn’t care that much.  Health and safety has now become a prime consideration of every organisation that employs people and whose operations could impact on members of the public.

I did eventually read the folders and they were of no use to us.  It was bought “system” with standard forms and way too unwieldy for a tiny organisation.  I wrote us a new policy that was a couple of sides of A4 and I took forward a set of very sensible risk assessments that had been done for us and added a few.  Over the years that policy has been revised and a few forms added and many risk assessments added too. We review our risk assessments every year and archive any that are no longer relevant. 

For many years I resisted attending training because I felt health and safety really was just common sense.  But eventually the law required the Directors (Trustees) to appoint “a responsible person” and although they generally trust me, the only way they could be sure I actually knew what I was doing in this field, for me to have a piece of paper.  It was a decent course that confirmed to me that health and safety was just about common sense and a few systems.  I did learn something new – I learned that tennis elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome are reportable injuries and I have to report anyone diagnosed with either of these to the HSE.   After I finished the course I asked Alan Merricks to do it too.  Just as the Board needed to know I was responsible I needed to know that Alan was too.

Our general approach

If it will keep someone safe, we do something about it.  If it is only being done to tick a box we don’t do it.  We do generally find that people want to keep themselves and others safe.  We also know that it is human nature to avoid tedious admin we think is unimportant.  Having lots of check lists and tick box forms that get in the way every month are often forgotten and done in a rush when someone remembers.  We don’t do that.

Some organisations who work with volunteers do something formal called “tool talks” before each session.  We do a very informal version of this, as our sessions are led by volunteers themselves, but it is part of their role to make sure people have the right tools and instructions and are wearing the right kind of thing like solid footwear. It might not be called a tool talk, but it is happening and the volunteer supervisor signs to say they have done it.

Our biggest joy and our biggest liability

One of the things we get a lot of enquiries about is our trees.  People love trees but are also actually frightened by them.  There is really isn’t any need to be.  You can say that the only totally safe tree is one that isn’t there anymore, but they aren’t actually that risky.  People see fallen limbs and think “what if” but people are rarely hit by fallen branches anywhere, let alone in a place like Warley Woods where the tree stock is monitored. 

In general people avoid places like woods when the weather is windy.  Most of the time in the Woods people are moving about rather than standing still.  Falling branches make a noise and people move away from a noise.  So even if a branch or tree falls, it is unlikely to do anyone any harm.

Tree safety survey

We have 1,500 of our trees inspected every two years.  We have about 4,500 trees so that isn’t all of them, but those by paths and roads and in busy spaces are the main ones inspected.  Trees are added to the list if a things change or new pathway appears.  They are individually inspected so they are looked at for decay, damage, fungus and they are tapped with a sounding hammer and for crown damage etc.  We get this info in a safety report from our Arboriculturist, Chris Shortis with the work that he recommends should be done.  Work is recommended within 4 weeks,  13 weeks and within a year.  Sometimes a tree is recommended for early reinspection and there are sometimes advisory works – these are things which aren’t needed immediately, but could reduce future risk or future significant cost.  We always do all the recommended work.  Advisory work depends on if there is any budget left!

I think the thing to note here is that even the most urgent work is recommended to be done within 4 weeks and the next stage,  13 weeks, that is three months.  It is really rare to get something that needs dealing with straight away.  Trees don’t change suddenly, they change gradually.  Things get worse, but not overnight.  Sometimes after storms we need to deal with branches that get broken or dislodged or we need to clear something that has half fallen and might fall further. But if we keep inspecting regularly, treeworks can be managed at a reasonable pace.

If you would like to see our latest survey it you can see it here.

We are really happy with our tree inspection regime and feel it keeps everyone as safe as they can be.  Until very recently inspections were recommended every five years and now it has reduced to two.  We have always had a two year regime.  While we will always pop and have a look at a tree that someone reports to us, in general we find the public worry more than they need to.  A leaning tree or creaking tree isn’t necessarily going to fall imminently or even in the next few years.  People worry about dead tree trunks with fungus, but actually these trees tend to be getting lighter and lighter as water evaporates out of them and they generally crumble away rather than fall and if they did fall they would probably just splinter apart.  A few years ago a group of trustees and staff did a day’s training to help us understand when we should call for emergency advice or tree works to be done.  None of us are qualified inspectors, but it does give us a framework for assessing the potential immediate risk.

What we definitely don’t do is take a tree down just because someone is worried about it.  I’m afraid that isn’t a good enough reason and it gets us into uncharted territory.  We get advice and do exactly the work recommended and this, we feel, is the best policy to keep people safe and the best use of people’s donations.  And to the man who called in 2020 to tell us we needed to do something about the tree that was leaning on the telegraph pole on Barclay Road as was going to damage the internet connection and during the pandemic internet access was crucial, you might like to know the pole, wire and tree are all still doing fine!  

That thorny insurance question

So in answering the question if a tree falls on my car will your insurance pay for the damage.  The answer is probably not, but the courts would decide.  You need to ensure your car against accidents.  Our insurance covers us, if we have been negligent.  Our insurance isn’t there to cover other people’s risks, just our own.  So if we hadn’t had a tree inspection, or used a poorly qualified person, then we could be seen to be negligent.  If we had had an inspection, but didn’t do the things recommended, then we could be seen to be negligent.  If we put a bench under an old tree and never inspected the tree then we would be negligent – but we don’t and now you know why.

What if I’m hit by a golf ball?

Golf is also a risky business to be involved in – probably more risky than looking after an aging woodland.  The reason for this is that is because if you were hit by a ball, then the damage could be serious.  However the Trust does not hit the actual balls.  That is done by our customers and so a golfer needs to take care if they see someone on the golf course and call fore to warn them if the ball is heading towards them unintentionally.  What the Trust has to do is to ensure it takes care to ensure people aren’t where they don’t need to be and that the course doesn’t have issues that mean people can’t see where they are hitting towards. 

We do this with our byelaws and signage and by  keeping banks of trees where we can to help keep balls flying further than they need to if they are off course.  When we formally made the perimeter path around the golf course people thought this was risky, because it was making something informal, formal, but we did it to make it clear to people that the path is where you need to be.  Despite being asked we also don’t put benches on this pathway, because this might encourage people to linger.  We want them to keep moving if they are on this path.  Like benches under trees – the longer people are in one place, the higher their risk.

We also introduced the fence around part of the pathway where most pedestrians seemed to stray onto the golf course.  While some people did this in full knowledge of the risk but felt safe, we were concerned about those who just followed their example, but had no idea of the danger.  We regularly have to go out to people picnicking on the golf course or doings sports workouts on the lovely short grass.  They often have no idea they are on a golf course.  Although we use signs, we do also know that people don't always read them!

So to answer the question, if I am hit by a golf ball would your insurance pay out.  Unlikely.  The Trust did not hit the ball.  We have risk assessed the golf course. We have put in signage, fencing and mitigation.  The court would decide in the end, but don’t worry, just stay safe – keep to the path and keep moving!

What about that man on a ladder with a chain saw?

We ensure all of our staff are trained to use the equipment that we need to maintain the site.  Our staff are qualified to cut down trees of a certain size.  Their training tells them to do this with feet firmly on the floor or on a stable platform.  If you see a person with a chainsaw up a ladder, then they either haven’t been trained, or aren’t following their training.  If you see this in Warley Woods – tell me.  If you see it on the road or in your own garden – keep well clear.  If they are working for you, consider if they should be!  Working at height is generally done on a platform (cherry picker) or on ropes.  This is because the force of a chainsaw that catches on wood can throw someone backwards. Not great if you are on a ladder!

Playgrounds – a minefield for health and safety

We had one play area inspector who told us we would have to re-lay lots of the play area for example the labyrinth because the stones were “trip hazards”.  Luckily our own inspector was a little more sensible and he said no, a trip hazard is something unexpected.  If a child is walking around a stepping stone labyrinth, they are looking at the stones.  Another warned us that the sculptures in the play area would need matting underneath them in case sometime tried to climb them as they were more than 1m tall.  Ours said “they are sculptures, not play equipment”.  If someone chooses to climb things…..  When he retired two years ago, we hoped to find a new inspector who thought along similar lines and phew we have.

Well that’s a quick dash through some of our health and safety issues.  If you have read to the end of this blog, then I thank you and hope you know you are in the hands of people who genuinely want to ensure a visit to the woods really just is a walk in the park.

If you have read to the bottom of this blog, thank you, but I have one more favour to ask.  Managing a woodland is an expensive business, even if the costs aren't obvious.  We spend thousands each year on tree safety works and we'd really appreciate any donation towards the cost of this.  Thankyou

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