Imagine a world where the mountains are plastered in hazard signs and mountain guides have to use the same cumbersome rope techniques as window cleaners.
Well, it nearly happened, with the now infamous Working at Height directive. Originating from the EU, where bureaucrats satisfied with banana straightening had turned their grey gaze to the colourful world of mountaineering. European directives have a long history of going down in the UK like a plate full of cold snails and this was no exception.
The aim of the directive was worthy enough - to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries through “falls from height” in industries such as construction where they remain the single biggest cause of death, disability and injury. In 2003 for example, 71 workers were killed in the construction industry.
To tackle this the regulations started from the logical standpoint of avoiding or eliminating actually having to work at height where at all possible. They then gave a hierarchical approach to any situation. If working at height was unavoidable then a “cherry picker” or work platform should be used. Failing that scaffolding, then a ladder, and only if that were unfeasible should ropes be used. And even then it would have to be a two-rope system similar to the very prescriptive methods used in rope access. All sensible stuff indeed, and I imagine that if I were working on a building site all day it’d reassure me. But the UK Health and Safety Commission (HSC) weren’t interested in just applying these rules to construction, they were planning on applying it to any area they could - including climbing.
From the very start climbing sought to be treated separately from the construction industries, as a sport it just couldn’t be regulated in the same way. However right from the start climbers found themselves in the worst-case scenario with no room for manoeuvre. A core group from across adventurous activities (including individuals from the Training Boards and the BMC) started close talks and correspondence with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the enforcers of the HSC, to attempt to put our point across. Frequently we were told they understood our point of view only for the next draft of the regulations to make no concessions to our sport. Then just as the team started to build up a dialogue, HSE staff were moved on and the whole process had to start again.
In talks with counterparts in Europe John Cousins of MLTUK discovered that every other country was confident that the regulations would not affect them, and it appeared that the HSE were over-interpreting their scope. But this couldn’t be an excuse to ignore the issue and hope it would go away - it clearly wouldn’t. As time went on and the HSE continued to show no sign of listening, more and more people got alarmed and involved with the campaign. In January 2004 a crisis meeting was held at Plas y Brenin and over 50 people from across adventure activities came together to discuss the issue and form a crisis committee to co-ordinate all the work and prepare a unified response.
With this increased volunteer manpower it became clearer that if we were included in the regulations as they were being proposed, then the effect on the climbing industry and the sport as a whole would be considerable. Climbing instructors after all are not there simply to ensure the safety of their clients but to coach essential skills. As the regulations stood it would lead to the bizarre situation where all instructors and guides would be forced to use rigid and prescriptive systems, making no allowance for the natural ongoing and dynamic risk assessments that come with the territory.
In many cases they would actually be unable to demonstrate the actual best practice methods that they were trying to impart to their clients.
For example, to make a multi-pitch abseil off a route as per the regulations would require at least four ropes. Leading to confusion, tangles, and time implications in the short term, and over a longer period, a deep confusion in the sport as what was actually the best technique in the first place. In fact the whole situation was getting pretty ironic. The rope access and construction industry had originally borrowed techniques and equipment from climbing, adapting them for their own needs. And now these very things were about to be forced back on climbers, without anyone ever asking for it.
A number of outdoor centres wrote to MPs and the Sports Minister concerned about the negative impact the new regulations would have on all outdoor activity programmes. In particular John Mason, BMC Vice president and Lancashire Youth and Community Service District Team Manager, wrote a very strong letter stating, “as they stand the proposals are unworkable and that this will majorly impact all the school and holiday programmes in the Lancashire County.” By the end of the consultation period the HSE had received 700 responses across the board, with over half of them coming from adventurous activities - a sector that the original directive had never even considered. This gave the Government considerable cause for thought and made them realise that this really was an issue we were prepared to fight hard for.
However the way ahead was still far from clear. The crisis committee was still pursuing the avenue of exemption since the regulations wording seemed to allow for this. But HSE indicated this wasn’t actually viable, so as a precaution Tom Redfern of the National Caving Association and John Cousins knuckled down and drafted some guidance on the regulations specifically aimed at the adventure activity sector. Things bubbled away. Meetings upon meetings. With Minister Jane Kennedy, Alan Michael the Rural Affairs Minister, and of course HSE. Then this March, progress at last. The Health and Safety Commission sent out a press release stating that new regulations on Work at Height would come into force in April 2006, (almost a year later than they were supposed to be implemented). But more importantly that “the regulations will not apply to the provision of instruction or leadership in caving or climbing by way of sport, recreation, team building or similar activities.”
So where does that leave us now? We have successfully achieved our initial objective of being recognised as being different to other industries that work at height -although it’s worth mentioning that the original regulations still apply to some work in the outdoor industry, such as the maintenance of walls and route setting. And now we are faced with working with HSE to develop and implement a new set of regulations that will relate solely and specifically to our world.
It is recognised that the National Governing Bodies are the arbiters of best practice in their sports. In fact the Government’s very own Impact Assessment states in regard to adventure activities that “there are no Health and Safety benefits arising from these regulations. The adventure activities sector follows best practice and has an established record of good health and safety procedures.”
Of course there is still a lot of work to be done in drawing up the new regulations and there are some that fear they will be drafted in a way that forces the industry to spend considerable time and money in proving their compliance. But a more positive way of looking at is that those closely involved with developing the award schemes, overseeing training and running courses and centres will continue as before - spending every minute of every day working hard to minimise the number of accidents and reduce risks while continuing to work at height. n
The BMC would like to thank everyone from across all adventurous activities that helped in any way – writing letters, lobbying MP’s and Lords, attending meetings or replying to the consultation document. This result would just not have been possible without such a coordinated response from so many people.