Challenging environments

Author: Gillian Birkby

Adapted from an article which first appeared in the Digest of the Association for Project Safety.

There have been significant advances in awareness of the health and safety consequences of design and construction. Hopefully we will never again see disasters like the failure of the walkway onto the Ramsgate ro-ro ferry. But are there any circumstances where a completed project can legitimately put the end users at risk to their health and safety?

The answer is usually no, but there are certain circumstances where this could happen. For instance, if the project involves the construction of an outward bound centre, inevitably some of the equipment, which may be an integral part of the structure itself, will present challenges to users, and potentially hazards. Is there anything wrong with this? It is impossible to create this kind of environment without posing risks to the participants, as the whole purpose is to challenge people physically, encourage team working and stretch the participants’ physical and mental abilities. This applies not only to outward bound facilities, but also training facilities for the armed services and police, for similar reasons.

It is, of course, possible for things to go wrong. There was a “team building” event a little while ago in which one of the final challenges was to walk across hot coals. Apparently, there is a technique for doing so without injury, but one of the participants on that occasion was burned, and brought legal proceedings. That was not a structural issue, but the same principles apply. As far as the designers (and the CDM co-ordinator) are concerned, if there are clear instructions from the client that a particular end result is required, e.g. a challenging environment for participants, as long as it is a clear brief, and that the non obvious risks to end users are discussed with the client, there should be no criticism.

There is, however, another issue, which concerns access to these facilities by children, often by trespass. This needs to be considered carefully, as such trespassers inevitably will not have been given any training in the use of the equipment, nor will they be supervised. For instance, there is such a structure, built several years ago, in a field next to an activity centre in Shropshire used by the army for training purposes. It consists of a few ropes attached to five metre high wooden poles. It is not visible from the road, and there does not appear to be much (if any) unauthorised use, but it is a tempting target for older children.

An occupier of premises does have a liability to those who come onto his property, even if they are trespassing children. If there is a project with outdoor structures of this nature, the client, designers and CDM co-ordinator should discuss how trespassing children can be protected from themselves and whether anything should be incorporated into the design to achieve that.

Gillian Birkby, Partner, Fladgate LLP (

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