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By Spencers Solicitors

  Gemma Agar    
  November 5, 2013

Can bonfire night and health and safety ever coexist?

A few weeks ago I wrote about the general theory of health and safety gone mad, and now with bonfire night upon us, safety around public events is never far from the headlines.

Health and safety precautions are usually met with a sigh when it comes to traditional events. There are towns and villages all over Britain with bonfire night traditions which have been ongoing for hundreds of years, and residents are keen to keep these traditions alive. In fact you'll be hard-pressed to find a local village in the UK that hasn't got a fireworks display or bonfire gathering organised for this week.

It is understandable that some would not want these customs altered or tampered with in the name of health and safety, but there is a fine line between maintaining tradition and exposing people to unnecessary risks.

Take for example the Ottery St. Mary Tar Barrels....

Ottery St Mary Tar Barrel Event

I recently dealt with a claim following an accident at the Ottery St Mary Tar Barrel event. This event takes place on 5th November every year in the town of Ottery St Mary, Devon, and is believed to have originated in the 17th century after Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot.

Initially, residents would roll burning barrels down the streets to mark the occasion. But the event in the present day consists of approximately 17 flaming barrels of increasing size being carried on the shoulders of residents, who run through the streets while thousands of spectators look on.

Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels

When discussing the event with our client, I pictured in my head a fenced 'runway' for the people with the barrels to run through the town without obstruction. I, for one, could think of nothing worse than getting stuck behind a mass of people when you've got a burning barrel on your back!

However some intensive legal research (on YouTube) proved me wrong. I was amazed at what I saw. People running through the streets with huge flaming barrels on their backs, whilst spectators scattered in all directions to get out of the way, as bits of flaming barrel were flying off left right and centre. There was no designated 'runway', no barriers to stop spectators getting in the way of the flames or the flames getting in the way of the spectators.

My unfortunate client, who was attending the event for the first time, had been stood watching the barrels when the surge of the crowd rushing to get out of the way caused her to be pushed to the floor where she landed on a patch of flaming tar and embers, and suffered burns to her thigh and lower back. Ultimately the claim was successful and she was compensated for her injuries, but she has been left with the scars as a reminder.

Commonsense over Traditions

That accident could so easily have been prevented. A fenced off route for the barrel runners to use, or even having a ring of stewards around the barrel, so the barrels can still be 'amongst the crowd' but spectators have some protection, or even people following the barrel extinguishing any embers that fall from the barrel - there are ways and means of getting around these issues and allowing the events to continue.

When all is said and done, we all have a responsibility for our own health and safety, and commonsense goes a long way. There is no reason that these time old traditions cannot continue for hundreds of years to come, but is it really worth (in some cases) risking life and limb, when small changes could mean that the traditions can still be honoured without needing a trip to the local A & E?

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