Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (IW 17)



  RoSPA welcomes the decision of the House of Commons Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee to undertake an enquiry into the potential of inland waterways, following the publication by the Government of Waterways for Tomorrow. RoSPA has noted that the focus of this enquiry will be broad covering the role of inland waterways in urban and rural regeneration, leisure, recreation and tourism, environmental enhancement, and water transfer, drainage and telecommunications. It will also cover the potential for increasing commercial water transport as well as other matters such as funding, structure of ownership and regulation.

  This submission focuses on the need for the Select Committee to give strategic consideration to steps necessary to improve policy organisation and arrangements for ensuring water safety across Britain's inland waterways network.

  The Society is particularly concerned that, as an important policy document, Waterways for Tomorrow appears to contain scant reference to the management and regulation of water safety risks to workers and the public, particularly arrangements required to secure a reduction in the present level of drownings. Given the importance which Government has agreed must be attached to safety as a prime consideration in the development of other transport modes (particularly, rail, road and air transport), RoSPA considers that this is a serious omission and as such should be addressed in appropriate detail by Select Committee.


  Over 560 people drown every year in the UK, more than 400 in England and Wales. The majority of these occur at inland water sites with 50 per cent of all drownings in the UK occurring in rivers, streams and canals.

  As a long established safety charity, RoSPA, together with other players in the water safety field, has been active over many years, seeking to develop and promote initiatives to reduce drownings. The Society, whose mission is to "improve the quality of life by exercising a powerful influence for accident prevention", is advised in this area by its National Water Safety Committee (see annex two) who have assisted in developing this memorandum. Key parts of RoSPA's water safety programme include: collection of national drowning statistics together with the Royal Life Saving Society, the publication of guidance (again with RLSS), dissemination of water safety information via the quarterly RoSPA publication Staying Alive, the organisation of conferences and participation in standards and policy making.

  In 1998, following its successful publication, Safety on British Beaches (which has become accepted as a national safety standard), RoSPA decided to publish a companion document Safety at Inland Water Sites. This document, which was launched in March 1999, draws heavily on RoSPA's practical experience in offering advice to owners of water sites, local authorities, emergency services and the wider public about steps that can be taken to control the risks of drowning. During the preparation of the guidance, however, it became clear to the Society that there were serious gaps in the structure of statutory responsibilities for water safety management, enforcement and water safety research. Confusion as to which bodies are responsible for addressing water safety risks in inland waters, as well as failure to ensure a seamless approach by regulators and others to water safety promotion and enforcement, mean that important opportunities for reducing drownings are being missed. The level of drownings, while having reduced during the 80s, has since remained static. The consequences include not only unquantifiable human suffering but major costs which have to be borne mainly by the public authorities. While it does not include within its scope inland waters such as reservoirs, lakes and many unnavigable rivers, the Government's framework for revitalising Britain's inland waterways provides a fresh opportunity to restructure and rationalise important aspects of the inland water safety regime generally.


  Numbers, types of incidents, ages, gender and social class, geography:

  At risk groups which are over represented in drowning statistics include the under fives and 15-30 year olds (particularly young men—four men drown for every one woman).

  Typical causes of drowning include getting into difficulties while swimming in open water; problems encountered during sporting activities on or near water; failed attempts at rescue, falling through ice or simply falling into water accidentally.

  The overall total of accidental drownings has followed a downward trend—20 years ago the total was over 1,000—although the general pattern of cause, location and victim characteristics has remained largely unchanged.


  The essential ingredients for the prevention of accidental drowning are a range of measures applied singly or in combination to break what has been termed "the drowning chain"—namely ignorance, disregard or misjudgement of water hazards; uniformed or unrestricted access to such hazards; lack of supervision, particularly for vulnerable groups such as children; inability to cope once in the water; and the absence of rescuers and/or rescue equipment. Preventive measures therefore include: education; denial of access and or provision of warning; supervision; the acquisition of survival skills; and the provision of rescuers and rescue equipment.

  From investigation of drownings and audit work it is often apparent that basic preventive and rescue provision is not in place.


  In inland waters, responsibility for taking measures to reduce the risk of drownings rests with site owners or occupiers under legislation covering occupiers' liability and health and safety at work and this is reinforced by the common law general duty of care. In particular the general duties of employers to control risks to employees and others, including the public have general relevance as do the requirements of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, particularly the duties to establish management systems, carry out risk assessment, train staff and monitor performance. While there is some limited HSE guidance on aspects of occupational water safety, the absence of authoritative HSE guidance on the meaning of these duties in the inland water context means that overall duty holders' compliance with the law is patchy.

  A further consequence is that enforcement of the law in relation to water safety however is weak, confused and in many cases non-existent. Rarely, if ever, do drownings occurring in waters which are part of undertakings get reported under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations. Furthermore, rarely do those which could have been prevented result in criminal prosecution, except in certain cases where members of the public or employees drown in water clearly associated with work activities, for example construction. HSE as the principal potential enforcer have wider ranging powers at their disposal, including powers to issue prohibition and improvement notices. They also have wide ranging powers to investigate, although recent cases have highlighted the potentially unsatisfactory state of the current division of investigation responsibilities with other agencies. Allied to this is the under reporting of incidents and "near misses" and no national recording of the problem, we know the number of people who drown but not those that nearly drown.


  Besides HSE, there are a wide variety of organisations with statutory responsibilities on, in and close to inland waterways:

    —  Marine Accident Investigation Board;

    —  Local Authorities;

    —  Fire Authorities;

    —  Environment Agency; and

    —  The Police.


  At a national level, central Government responsibilities for water safety are spread across a number of Government departments—including the DETR, HSE and bodies such as the Coastguard Agency. In many areas however, the lead on policy rests with the Home Office. There is a strong case for a review of legal duties and enforcement arrangements to help clarify the extent of occupiers' duties and likely penalties in the event of non-compliance.

  Besides large public and private sector organisations with responsibilities for water sites (eg British Waterways), other organisations with an interest in water safety include the Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS-UK); the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI); the National Governing Bodies of Sport (NGBs); the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management (ILAM); the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA); the Royal Yachting Association (RYA); and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

  At national level, as already mentioned, RoSPA's National Water Safety Committee brings together many of these bodies to discuss and develop water safety policy and standards.


  Despite the lack of transparency in legal duties and enforcement, there are nevertheless a number of opportunities for on-going action to promote water safety. These include the developing linkage with occupational health and safety management in those sectors which have water hazards to which the public are exposed; the inclusion of water safety education with swimming in key stage 2 of the National Curriculum; and environmental upgrading and site redevelopment generally, the latter requiring risk assessment at the design stage, inter alia, to address questions of water safety.

  Apart from the general problem of restricted central and local Government expenditure on safety generally, some of the major challenges in the water safety field include the proliferation of water based recreational activities (coupled with increased leisure time); and increasing public access to a wide variety of water environments; for example, as a result of the requirement in the Water Act 1989 that owners of waters must encourage their use for recreational and amenity purposes; and the ongoing re-development of urban water sites for residential and retail use.

  RoSPA's immediate priority for improving water safety performance remains the promotion of Safety at Inland Water Sites, with the assistance of a wide range of bodies to help ensure it reaches all owners of sites and site operators. There is also a wide range of specific water risk issues which require attention including those connected with the compatibility of various kinds of water based recreation and sport; and the intention to further encourage the use of towpaths by cyclists and pedestrians.

  RoSPA would like to see the British Waterways Board and the Environment Agency take the opportunity to look at their Safety Strategies (ie an appreciation of current safety management strategies strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, constraints, targets etc).

  This could also be the right time to assign Ministerial Responsibility for Water Safety.

  There is a need for an Inter Agency Water Safety Task Group led by the HSE.

  A National Inland Water Safety Action Plan should be developed including management standards, plans, physical measures, information provision and education based on:

    —  risk based priorities and targets;

    —  monitoring and feedback;

    —  international experience;

    —  resourcing; and

    —  partnerships with "key players".

  ROSPA would be very happy to assist with all of these as appropriate.

Peter Cornall

Head of Water and Leisure Safety, National Water Safety Committee

September 2000

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