Candles and health & safety

Ensuring the safety of those in church who “work at height”

The photographs in the Daily Mail article “Church candles are snuffed out by ‘elf and safety: Chorister barred from lighting chandelier using 20ft ladder because of insurer’s rules” will be familiar to all those tasked to light the candles before an important service. But to what extent is it necessary for a PCC to raise £7,000 for an electronic winch and pulley system in order that candles on the candelabrum can be lit from the ground, rather from a 20ft ladder? Whilst it is possible that there are other less costly alternatives, we strongly believe that many churches underestimate the hazardous nature of working at height in circumstances such as this, and that appropriate guidance in a church’s health and safety manual would reduce the risk of an incident occurring.


In our post Health & Safety and the PCC we said:

“as a result of the ‘jobs-worth’ 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 … 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’”.

As a rule of thumb, it could be assumed that media headlines that use “’elf” instead of “health” are seeking a Pavlovian response from a certain section of their readership, particularly when accompanied by “[f]or two decades, chorister David Smith has shimmied 20ft up a ladder in his local church to light the chandelier candles”. The Mail article added: “[t]he 60-year-old has been told he can no longer reach high enough – after insurers [Ecclesiastical] informed him he is not allowed to climb higher than nine foot.

We believe that the advice given by Ecclesiastical is sound and the “nine foot rule” (albeit translated to three metres) has formed part of the health and safety manual of David’s church for some time. This post explores this and some of the other issues raised by the use of candles in churches.

Safety-related law

Many issues raised in the media as ” ‘elf and safety” do not fall within the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HASAWA) and its control through the Health and Safety Executive, (HSE), and the local authorities: the  objective of the Act is:

“to make further provision for securing the health, safety and welfare of persons at work, for protecting others against risks to health or safety in connection with the activities of persons at work, … “

For these work-related situations, Ecclesiastical has a web page of advice and guidance devoted to “working from height in churches”. This states:

“The Work at Height Regulations 2005 subsequently amended by the Work at Height (Amendment) Regulations 2007 apply in England, Wales and Scotland and mean that churches have a legal duty to provide protection for their employees and persons under their control. It is important to remember that the Health and Safety Executive regard it as good practice to provide volunteers with the same level of protection as if they were employees.”

Thus whilst HASAWA is applicable to contractors and others working in a church, it is not directed at non-employees such as David Smith engaged in lighting candles. However, the church has a duty of care in tort/delict for these and similar activities, which is extended to “visitors”, i.e. the congregation, through the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957, the extent of which is defined in S2(1)&(2) as:

2 Extent of occupier’s ordinary duty

(1) An occupier of premises owes the same duty, the “common duty of care”, to all his visitors, except in so far as he is free to and does extend, restrict, modify or exclude his duty to any visitor or visitors by agreement or otherwise.

(2) The common duty of care is a duty to take such care as in all the circumstances of the case is reasonable to see that the visitor will be reasonably safe in using the premises for the purposes for which he is invited or permitted by the occupier to be there.

Ecclesiastical clearly has concerns regarding the PCC’s potential liability in this area.

Ecclesiastical law

In the 4th edition of Moore’s Introduction to English Canon Law, [page140] Timothy Briden observes:

“Candles … have excited emotions fairly often. There is clearly nothing intrinsically unlawful in a candle, the main purpose of most candles being to give light. But the ceremonial use of candles has [in the past] been said to be unlawful, and therefore perhaps the matter should be regarded as one of ceremony rather than one of ornaments or decorations. But the decorative use of candles at the altar is nevertheless permissible, and the number so used is within the discretion of the court”.

Likewise the latter point is applicable to the use of candles in a candelabrum, since this is part aesthetic and part functional in “candle-lit services”. The processional and devotional aspects of candles is beyond the scope of this post, but is considered in detail in Rupert Bursell’s Liturgy, Order and the Law, (1996, Clarendon Press Oxford), pages 74-75 and his judgment Re St John the Evangelist, Chopwell reproduced as Appendix 6. Two (relatively) recent consistory court judgments have addressed the issue of votive candle stands: Re St Nicholas Arundel [2001] Chichester Const. Ct Hill Ch; and Re All Hallows Allerton [2013] Liverpool Const. Ct, Hedley Ch.


At L&RUK we do not give legal advice, or purport to do so; this extends to health and safety, particularly in the case of media reports which, of necessity, do not include the full details of a case. However, we would hope that any PCC which is paying Ecclesiastical Insurers £10,900 per annum for its insurance policy (like St Michael’s Church, Macclesfield in the Mail story)  would also make use of its health and safety advice, and in particular the proforma Church Health and Safety Policy with guidance notes; its safe use of candles page is also of relevance to the fires hazard of the issues considered here.

Following their recent statutory Annual Parish Meetings (which must be held before 30th April), all newly-elected PCCs will be developing their agendas for 2016-2017.  Health and safety is an important issue and now is the time to review the current status and rectify deficiencies. They might even follow the practice within industry of having “health and safety” as the first agenda item for each meeting.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Candles and health & safety" in Law & Religion UK, 28 April 2016,

8 thoughts on “Candles and health & safety

  1. Thank you for your intelligent comments on the Daily Mail article. Two points:

    a) The photos are misleading – they don’t show Mr Smith standing right at the top of the ladder where he would be most unbalanced and most at risk.

    b) As we get older we get a little bit more unsteady. But we don’t notice it as much as we should because it creeps up on us and, of course, we don’t want to admit we are getting older. Lulled into a false sense of security by having done the task safely for 20 years, we continue doing it until, after 20+x years, we wobble and fall off.

    • Thanks Max, I fully agree on both your points. My issues with the photograph was that it was taken from floor level, looking upwards, presumably for effect. Although the article mentioned a 20ft ladder, it wasn’t clear how high one had to be, although given the 9 foot limit, this seems plenty high enough.

      We have very similar candelabra at SS Peter and Paul, Wantage, although the one in the nave is hung low enough for the candles to be lit from floor level. However, this does mean that in procession, the crucifer has to be careful to manoeuvre around it.

      Re: becoming more unsteady as one ages, I initially thought this was an ageist point in the Mail, since the man was only 60. However, you are certainly right, and on the few occasions when I have performed the task, it is quite a skill in lighting all the candles, and good coordination is essential. It is quite easy to lose balance when focussing on the candles that are more difficult to reach. dp

  2. A number of churches with candelabra at this height light them from the ground, or a short ladder, with a longer pole – it needs a steady hand! So the problem only arises when candles have to be replaced.

    • By chance, this morning my church crawling took me to the Romanesque church of St Mary, Iffley, and I noticed that they had overcome the problem by means of a simple counterweight.

  3. After twenty-five years in health, safety and risk management I am always most cautious when reading stories such as the one in the Mail Online. Though I am quite sure it is based on events that have taken place at St Michael’s, there are inaccuracies that may be due to reporting, the understanding of the PCC, or even the way the insurance company has worded its correspondence with the church.

    As you have quite rightly pointed out in a previous post; “health and safety has a poor image”. I would add to the list of reasons why things have developed to the extent that we know see safety and health in such a poor light. Firstly, many people claim to be able to do health and safety risk assessments, and other related management processes, this based upon training they have received. Unfortunately, we then find that the qualifications are often very poor, sometimes as little as a two week crammed course. Then they are allowed to assess issues that could potentially lead to life or death situations. Would we be happy if an accountant did a two week crammed course? I do not think so. Secondly, health and safety should not be considered as an add on. You mention, “measures that are introduced to reduce risk are going ‘over the top’”. This is a perception that is common, but can be challenged if people see and understand a risk assessment that makes sense. Measures should also be planned in as part of everyday activities, and not just for single occasional events such as lighting candles. Though one could ask the question, how does St Michael’s clean the candelabra and other elevated items around the church? I am sure a new pulley system will not help with the lights dotted around the church, visible in the picture.

    With regard to insurance companies, there may be a different requirement as part of the policy. If the insurers wish to stipulate a more stringent approach to a given risk than the law then it is the company’s prerogative, it is a civil law contract after all. The duty of care to a parishioner (and PCC members) is most clear under the Health and Safety at Work Act. I have dealt with two cases where local authorities intended bringing actions against two different church’s but due to technicalities decided not to in the end. However, it was quite clear duty owed was there. In the Mail’s story it does say that if Mr Smith lights the candles now “he would be doing so at his own risk”. Well actually if he fell he would still have a civil claim against the PCC of St Michael’s although any award would likely be reduced on the basis of contributory negligence. But the fact he goes up and down the ladder does not mean he accepts any injury that may befall him, volenti non fit injuria.

    The nine-metre measure mentioned is not actually applied correctly in this instance. The nine metre’s referred to in the Work at Height Regulations 2005 is applied to an elevated area, such as a building site, or chimney stack. This would be where someone climbing would need to move from one ladder to another on a landing stage which would be positioned at least every nine metres.
    So where does this leave St Michael’s? Well looking at the photograph I would admit things do not look great for Mr Smith. Though there are other solutions, less costly, and safer, which a pro-active risk assessment would have identified. So I guess if the insurers are saying no then the PCC have not much room left to work with now. But a good lesson for other churches!

  4. One small point. Insurers are not concerned primarily with health and safety or with occupier’s liability: their primary concern is with risk. If, in the judgment of their underwriters, the risk of falling off a tall ladder is considerable, either they will increase the premium to something unaffordable or they will refuse to insure the activity at all.

    Ultimately, this particular case is a matter for Ecclesiastical Insurance’s professional and commercial judgment.

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