An incident on 3rd March 2010 in which a self-employed joiner fell from a balcony and sustained serious and permanent injury, resulted in the Parish Church Council (PCC) of St Paul’s, Onslow Square being fined in Westminster Magistrates’ Court in April this year. The incident occurred during construction work to install an adjustable floor and hand rail so the area could be used in a stepped church seating style or a flat raised position for seminar use. Although a high barrier had been in place to guard against falls, this had been taken down following claims that it interfered with the movement of materials during the work. This has been replaced by a lower rail which was over 1m high when the floor was in a stepped position, but was reduced to only 20cm with the floor in the raised position. A planned new handrail had not been installed. The PCC was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive, (HSE), and admitted breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. Following strong mitigation by defence counsel, it was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay costs of £4,457.60.
In another incident in Kent, the PCC of St Botolph’s, Northfleet was fined £3,000 with £685 costs after a volunteer injured his spine in a fall from the bell tower. In an investigation by Gravesham BC, it was discovered that a structural survey had revealed that the floor in the bell tower had been suffering from beetle attack and it is reported that the recommended further surveys and remedial works had not been undertaken. At Dartford Magistrates’ Court in July 2010, the PCC pleaded guilty to failing to maintain the structure of the building in a safe condition and failing to safeguard the health of people not in their employment.
There is also an on-going issue at St Botolph’s concerning the carbon monoxide poisoning of four of its bellringers in November 2011 from a recently-serviced gas boiler.
These cases demonstrate the application of the law, rather than its development. No new legislation is involved, and as they were tried before magistrates, neither case is binding. One might comment on the levels of the fines and costs imposed in relation to the relative culpability of the respective parties, but these too were within the limits set down by the legislation. In the ‘religion’ context of this web log, the important aspect of these cases is that: health and safety legislation is applied no differently in relation to the activities of a faith group than elsewhere; within the Church of England, the body with general responsible for ensuring that the health and safety policy is implemented is the Parochial Church Council, (PCC); both self-employed workers and volunteers are covered by the 1974 Act through sections 3 and 4 respectively. This can be problematic since: few PCC members are health and safety professionals; they do not have day-to-day contact with the church; and places of worship can pose specific risks by virtue of their design, construction or age.
Comprehensive H&S advice specific to churches is available from the insurers Ecclesiastical, here and here, and from the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service (CLAS), in relation to the running of occasional events, here. However, as a result of the ‘jobsworth’ implementation of the legislation by local officials and its depiction in the media, health and safety has a poor image, despite the initiatives of the HSE and of its chairman, Judith Hackitt. Furthermore there is a public perception that any measures that are introduced to reduce risk are going ‘over the top’ or are ‘health and safety gone mad’. However, Health and Safety incidents within churches are few and far between, and whilst most activities within a church are ‘done right’, the associated documentation lags behind the practice, and different aspects of health and safety are often treated as a ‘one off’ with little overall policy or strategy.
Following the recent statutory Annual Parish Meetings (which must be held before 30th April), all newly-elected PCCs will be sorting out their agendas for 2012-2013. This is perhaps timely occasion on which to review their Health and Safety arrangements.