Sidmouth Folk Festival: Safety on the Bulverton Caravan Site

Letter of 17 August 1998 to Mrs Ferrero (EHO) EDDC

I met you and a colleague on site on 3 August. I would agree there are few runaway accidents on caravan sites. That might be because most of them are flat, or have had flat pitches created from what was originally a sloping site. You also said that the camp site was not a place of work. This prompted me to consider whether it is. A risk assessment would be easy enough to produce and should be updated yearly so that things keep getting better. (My fees are reasonable!)

As I understand it, the Festival is run as a commercial venture (known locally as Steve Heap Incorporated) but with hundreds of helpers (stewards). The majority this year were apparently new to the job. Senior stewards work longer hours but they are few in number.

The terms of 'employment' of stewards and the scale of the operation suggest organised temporary employment rather than voluntary duties:

* a minimum of 30 hours must be worked "in exchange for" a ticket worth 147. Is this employment, barter or a special case? It equates to about 5 per hour which is a commercial rate. East Devon residents are 'paid' less because they could, if they wished, obtain discount tickets.

* many stewards are young and to them the 'payment' of a 'free' ticket is important. Family groups where two or three people are stewards save 300 or 450.

* the festival obtains some 20,000 hours of labour (600 stewards x 30 hours plus extras) without paying 100,000 in wages.

The question is whether all the stewards have (or should have) any protection under H&S legislation and whether there is a duty of care to give them adequate training and supervision when doing potentially dangerous jobs. After all, if a girl were to be employed for a few hours a week slicing bacon in a shop and cut off her fingers owing to lack of instruction I would imagine you or HSE would wish to know?

There may well be a loophole here and I would be interested in the facts. What defines a place of work these days? I have undertaken risk assessment work for charities where the stewards are genuinely volunteers - no payments are made either in money or moneys worth and it is (or was then) a grey area whether there was anything other than a general duty of care. However, if hundreds of people agree to do 30 hours work for a large organisation in return for 147 (or a ticket worth 147), do they have any formal protection? The worst risks that I saw to stewards were not on the caravan site but on the Arena car park and at the main entrance to the camp site.

At the Arena car park, one steward was waving cars into position by standing in front of them - and by only a few inches as he signalled exactly where he wanted my car to stop. I stopped short, he insisted I move a few inches more and the car then slipped into a hollow and went further than I had intended. He got a slight bump to his leg and I got accused of trying to run him over. At the Bowd car park they did things properly, by standing to the side where the risk is limited to a squashed toe. Either the Arena steward had never been told how to park a car safely or the supervisor should have corrected him.

At the camp site, the risks were greater and to many more people. The entrance was common for pedestrians and cars. Stewards were milling around all over the place, night and day. If I once heard the cry "mind your backs, car coming" I heard it 50 times. It was disorganised all week as a result of lack of planning and site management. Other stewards (who shall remain nameless) agreed with me.

Does either EDDC or the site operator have a duty to ensure adequate training and suitable layout of the site entrance? If you want to see cars and pedestrians handled properly go to any large agricultural show, or even to Branscombe Air Day where the police took charge on the road and stewards handled parking on the fields. Given that it would be easy to redesign the Bulverton entrance and ticket checking arrangements to provide better safety and security in all weathers, I am curious why after so many years it has not been done. When you and your colleague were on site, a large van was sliding around on the aluminium trackway and mud (you may recall it was raining) and stewards were scattering in all directions.

The problem could be summarised as one of insufficient organisation as regards separation of cars from pedestrians, where stewards stand and where they check tickets. There may be a need for two campsite managers early in the festival, one concerned with paperwork, campers, tickets, stewards, etc, and the other with the caravan site. It is not possible for one manager to be in three places at once and especially not if she works an 18 hour day and the site is a quagmire. The principal risk on this site for both stewards and campers is being squashed. It deserves a higher priority in planning.

Returning now to caravans, whilst I would agree with your suggestion that more (and more competent) site supervision of caravanners might be required, letting inexperienced people loose with a 4WD vehicle or a tractor (as happens often on gliding club sites) is in my view inadvisable. These are so powerful they will go places that cars could only dream about, and they can get you rapidly into trouble.

Therefore, whilst having a site 4WD vehicle would be potentially useful the people allowed to drive it must be limited to those with both sense and experience. Unfortunately the two do not go together. Farm accident statistics speak for themselves.

I have refused in the past to drive old landrovers and tractors on gliding club sites because of their appalling mechanical condition: for example handbrakes that need three or four attempts to get them to 'catch' and even then they are hanging by a thread, so to speak. I also have an aversion to tractors with no mudguards and drivers seats secured by one out of the original four bolts. Youngsters love driving them and at these venues they are genuinely volunteer unpaid labour and (at some sites) are required to sign an indemnity in respect of injuries sustained on the ground or in the air.

A caravanner to whom we spoke made a valid point when he said it is best to park facing down the line of greatest slope. At Bulverton this is much the same thing as parking 'straight down' although slight adjustments to the van angle might be easier than using the stabilisers. It is a minor point for this site but serves to emphasise that vans should not be required to park one row angled one way and the next row the other. Ideally all should face DOWN but with small adjustments allowed either way within any row to suit the particular spot. Doing this is easy when unhitched. All you need is a spirit level, of which there were probably about 10 on the whole site.

As for parking on a slope with no brakes, his point about leaving the brakes 'off' because they can seize 'on' in wet weather is valid for long periods only. If you store a caravan you do it on the flat. I would disagree that a week could cause seizure. Caravan Club guidance is to put brakes fully on and leave them on. They are no more likely to seize than drum car brakes and this only ever happens after weeks of storage. If it happens on a caravan it can be a real nuisance.

However, if vans are parked without brakes above rows of tents the chocks MUST BE (in my view) concrete blocks or better. This is because you are relying only on the chocks. Stabiliser legs cannot be relied upon for holding a van on a slope and especially not on a muddy field. In a gale, caravans rock around and on a wet field after a stormy night you can get out of bed to find that some or all of the stabiliser pads have sunk into soggy ground and the legs need winding down again - and this is with large pads of wood not the dainty bits evident around the Bulverton site.

A related point is that although nose wheels are designed for lifting the weight of vans I have known brackets fail and rusty screw threads lose grip. Then the nose wheel can fail. Modern units are much better. It is not advised to rely on chocking the nose wheel to prevent a caravan running down a slope. Nose wheels are not designed for large lateral loading when fully extended.

I was interested to learn of the accident last year when a caravan slammed sideways into a heavy parked vehicle and moved it 100 mm. A good job that no-one was the meat in the sandwich. It sounded like a classic sideslip - and we were told it happened on the relatively flat top road. There is a tendency for people to go too fast (to avoid stopping when they know they might not get going again) and this is just the way to get into trouble in mud. Farm trailers with a high centre of gravity when laden will tip over at the slightest provocation. Caravans need more persuasion but they still sideslip easily.

Given that I have said more than enough already I shall end by advising that if there are any accidents in future years it will be a matter of "I told you so" and writ large. The Sidmouth festival could get bigger, more cars and caravanners than ever could want to come, and the time to get things right is before anyone gets injured.

I am attaching a draft guide to folkie caravanning and I trust that you will be able to persuade the organisers to take on board at least a few suggestions. One option is that I run the site for a year to show how it should be done.

Yours sincerely

(Dr) Stephen J Wozniak

Copy: Festival Director

next page of caravan subsection

next main page

back to top of section

back to home page