Safety Catch

When a vast exhibition hall is teeming with people constructing stands, climbing on ladders, hanging from rigging and milling about, you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone on site was aware of the health and safety issues.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. But it is a complicated subject and each borough has different regulations. The requirement for putting up stand A at London’s Earls Court is different from doing so at, say, Birmingham’s NEC.

The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 has 16 regulations, including Noise at Work and Health & Safety (First Aid), to Display Screen Equipment and The Fireworks clauses. Half a dozen of these are known as The Six Pack – European directives which bolstered the Act in 1992. Until then, The Factories Act had laid down the rules, but with the introduction of the European directives came risk assessment. This more liberal approach allows venues and organisers to go ahead as planned, provided they are confident they can control all risks.

As with anything new, the directives inspired a variety of interpretations. “At first, we thought it meant the probability of a Boeing 747 landing on the roof of the exhibition hall,” says Robin Hope, group health, safety and environment director of Earls Court and Olympia.

“Then we worried about the small details – people who were carrying heavy loads. In reality, it is to do with the public in the building, contractors and exhibitors.”

The new legislation highlighted the necessity for joint control of the building, and joint risk assessment. This was a shock to organisers, who did not think they had any health and safety responsibility. But everyone involved in an exhibition has a duty of care.

According to Hope, hall owners have understood responsibility for health and safety for a long time “but have been naive and not taken on board all the implications”.

“During a P&O audit in 1987, we were asked how we controlled contractors on the floor, and replied ‘they are nothing to do with us’ because we did not have a contractual arrangement with them,” he explains. “Now we require event organisers to nominate one of their employees to be responsible for health and safety, and expect that person to supervise contractors on site.”

Risk assessment has to be carried out for every event, which means mapping out the territory and accounting for potential pitfalls. For example, working on rigging raises problems of timing, because while people are working in and around the roof of an exhibition hall, no one can work underneath them.

At an Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) meeting on health and safety a few years ago, it became apparent that, on the whole, organisers did not know what they were responsible for. After a checklist was drawn up by the AEO it also became clear that venue owners could not be separated from organisers and contractors when it comes to assessing risk.

An accident which befell the BBC illustrates the point. During the filming of TV series Casualty, a mechanical cherry picker which was being used fell over. Although the equipment did not belong to the BBC, the corporation was prosecuted as it had failed to supervise the contractors and was expected to take some part in assessing the risk.

“While venues have been aware of their responsibilities for some time, the idea has come more recently to exhibition organisers,” says Hope.

“The major players, such as EMAP and Miller Freeman, are on top of it, but many of the contractors are not. There has been a culture of taking short cuts for too long. Of all the scaffolding towers I have seen in Earls Court and Olympia, only a couple were built properly,” he adds.

Venues and organisers have ways of dealing with careless or rebellious contractors. “We give three verbal warnings for any breach of safety, and at the third, we also issue a written notice that they should stop work or comply with the regulations,” says Stevie Hassard, operations director of Miller Freeman. “If they ignore that, we ask the venue staff to speak to them as well.”

Although Miller Freeman does not have a blacklist, the company is aware of the rogues: “The minority will try to pull the wool over our eyes, and we know who they are,” says Hassard. “We are extra vigilant with them.”

However, in some circumstances the regulations are not so clear cut. For example, Academy Expo constructed a stand at an exhibition in France. The fire inspectors arrived and threatened to put a match to the stand in order to test it.

“We knew it was fire safe,” says marketing manager Steve Hill. “But we could not prove it because the standards are set by default.” In the end there was only one solution: money changed hands.

Builders failing to wear hard hats is a tiny, and easily spotted flouting of the rules. But some risks are not so easily assessed. For example, exposure levels to dust when working with the building material MDF have to be limited. But no venue owner or organiser can know how much work the operator has done on the same material without a mask at another site.

Petrol in display vehicles should be kept to a minimum. In dark and badly-lit areas, there should be secondary lighting, so that if the main supply fails, people can be safely evacuated.

Where there are cookery displays, equipment has to be electrically bonded to earth. This even includes a stainless steel table on which a hob is placed – a laborious but necessary process.

Specific events also have particular requirements. Where there are large amounts of combustible material, extra fire stewarding is necessary. A show that will attract large numbers of very young or old people raises other risks.

But there are two outstanding problems for all those responsible for risk assessment. First, there is no central trade organisation, so that the Government can’t easily communicate with the various bodies. Secondly, there is a lack of national consistency in rules, which means in one borough a staircase on a stand can end in an aisle, and in another it must end one metre from the edge of the stand.

The Exhibitions Venues Association is talking to the Health & Safety Executive and has brought in the AEO and British Exhibition Contractors Association to draw up common rules. But this is at an early stage.

The Production Services Association (PSA), which provides a voice for a number of sectors in the live entertainment industry, has produced a booklet for general advice – Introduction to Health & Safety Management for the Live Music Industry. Although it is aimed at a specific sector, the basic legislation governs conferences and exhibitions in exactly the same way.

No one involved in trade shows should underestimate the potential financial damage that lax safety regulations can incur. Disregard common sense and the governing regulations on health and safety and you leave yourself wide open to civil claims and prosecution for negligence and injury. This is serious – particularly as there is a fair chance your insurance company will drop you like a hot potato if any non-compliance with the Health & Safety at Work Act is found during a claim investigation.

But basic precautions can be taken. Make sure one person is in charge and has appropriate authority, and ensure everyone involved knows who that person is. Take a holistic approach, so that people in charge of one element of a project co-operate with the others.

Don’t hesitate to ask for advice when necessary. Taking on more than you can handle will cause more problems than it solves. Most importantly, remember that ignorance is no defence.

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