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Horseracing:Health and Safety

Leading racehorse trainer prosecuted for health and safety failings

With Cheltenham Festival coming up this week, it seems appropriate to report on a recent health and safety prosecution following an incident at a top racehorse trainer’s yard.

Flat trainer Alan Swinbank is currently ranked 52nd in the trainer’s rankings, and is notable for his most prolific winner Collier Hill who earned £2.3 million in prize money. His stables up in North Yorkshire are a well-known, sizable and professional yard. However, not even this undoubted success makes Mr Swinabnk immune from both accidents and the Health and Safety Executive.

Paul Cussons, who worked for Mr Swinbank at his yard for 26 years, was asked by his employer to cut down overhanging trees above an old stable block. He had not been trained in how to use a chainsaw or how to work safely at height. He took the chainsaw onto the roof, but while he was sawing through the branches he slipped on leaves and fell through a skylight, landing on the concrete floor. He broke both shoulder blades, fractured a rib and punctured a lung.

Mr Swinbank was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive under section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act for failing to provide training, protective equipment and failing to identify risks. He was fined £10,000 and £6,048 in costs.

Horseracing is the second biggest sporting industry in the UK. It generates more than £3.7 billion, with £325m going directly to the Government through taxation revenue. It also employs 20,000 direct, and 70,000 indirect, full-time employees. It also, however, is notoriously dangerous. In terms of general approach to health and safety it is analogous to agriculture, which is seen as the most dangerous sector in Great Britain. To put into perspective, other sectors average at fatality rate of 0.7 per 100,000 workers, whereas in agriculture the rate is 9.6.

The problem in horse racing, but equally so agriculture, is that while the industries are inherently riskier, the general attitudes of those involved is to downplay health and safety. From my own experience this is due to a range of factors that are peculiar to these industries, e.g;

  • When dealing with livestock, your health and safety tends to be secondary to the animal’s welfare
  • Those involved in the sector tend to come through the family ranks, or certainly be used to certain risks. To an outsider, it looks dangerous, but if someone is used to “risks” they become desensitised.
  • The attitudes of those involved is “to get the job done” as a priority. If this means scrabbling over heath and hedge in precarious positions, so be it.

While I feel utter sympathy for Mr Cussons, particularly as even 16 months after the incident he was still badly affected by his injuries, the Health and Safety Executive must realise that in agriculture and equestrian worlds, people tend to live by their own set of rules. Generally, the employers involved are not cruelly avoiding protecting their employees, or evading the law to cut costs. No, generally, those employers are not used themselves to having to carry out risk assessments etc. They treat their staff as they were treated. The Health and Safety Executive must work with this sector in order to understand what practical in that sector. Then, and only then, will the rate of fatalities come down.


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