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May Madness – a health and safety nightmare
Posted by David Cant on May 28, 2015

May Madness – a health and safety nightmare

Play it safe written on ballsThe last bank holiday in May is the final proof that Summer really is on the way. Not only does the British public go mad burning burgers on barbecues (usually in the rain), but a number of other odd events also take place up and down the country.

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, sang Noël Coward way back in 1932. But they also like to chase cheese down hills, attempt to carry 60lb woolsacks, pull 8 ton trucks and try to eat a pound of baby eels.

Aside from questions of mental competency, these sorts of activities have all kinds of health and safety implications.

Cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill

The globally famous cheese rolling event at Cooper’s Hill is the very embodiment of British bank holiday madness. 4000 people turned out to watch a group of men throw themselves down a very steep hill in the hope of winning a large cheese. Unsurprisingly injuries are particularly common, with concussions, sprains and broken limbs a fairly regular occurrence each year.

Although the “race” remains unofficial, a risk assessment is undertaken each year in an attempt to protect racers and spectators:

  • The organisers ensure that fences on the course are removed to reduce the risk of impalement.
  • Grass, bushes and trees are cut back to reduce trip hazards.
  • The course is also cleared of stones and rocks to prevent injuries as the “runners” tumble down the hill.

Gloucestershire County Council also does their part in trying to maintain health and safety, posting signs across the hill warning spectators and participants that cheese rolling is dangerous, and advising no one to attend.

The Tetbury Woolsack Race

Another crazy “race” from Gloucestershire sees participants carrying 60lb (27 kg) woolsacks on their shoulders as they run 240 yards between two pubs. A 1 in 4 incline along the length of the course adds to the difficulty of the race.

Despite health and safety guidelines suggesting that men do not try and lift weights greater than 10 kgs above shoulder height, the Woolsack race seems more tolerable to Gloucestershire County Council – there are no posters warning participants or spectators to stay away for instance.

What is the point here?

Although very few businesses should ever find themselves carrying out activities similar to those described here, some of the safety measures implemented by the event organisers could be used elsewhere.

The cheese rolling event shows the importance of performing a complete site check before work (or falling down) begins. The organisers also take pains to reduce the risk of injury to spectators and runners as far as possible, even if the fault for any such wounding lies solely with the participant.

Similarly the Woolsack race has undergone some changes to protect participants. The race course has been shortened by 40 yards for instance, to reduce the phenomenal physical strain placed on overburdened runners. However every entrant signs a disclaimer, accepting full responsibility for all the risks associated with such a foolhardy undertaking. Unfortunately the use of disclaimers is not usually an option for employers.

What’s the maddest event you have seen recently? What did you learn about health and safety from it?


Director at Veritas Consulting. The SME's favourite go-to consultant for health and safety know-how. Bucket loads of experience. Fluent in practical advice. Solutionist with a brain you can pick.

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