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.
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.
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  Chichester Const. Ct Hill Ch; and Re All Hallows Allerton  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.