John Slee, NABO continuous cruising rep, writes, I am currently cruising from Stourport to Great Haywood on the Staffs & Worcs Canal. So far I have only reached the summit pound, but I believe I have seen enough to send in the following complaint to a British Waterways DIrector concerning the risk to boaters and other canal users caused by BW's Health & Safety policy and the loss of visual amenity. I have also submitted a FOI request – see on http://whatdotheyknow.com
The Complaint: At the majority of locks, BW West Midlands have "temporarily" closed the footbridges at the lower end of the locks
following the tragic death of a cyclist last June. I maintain they have created a situation where an accident is waiting to happen and ask you to remove the hazards that have been created by ill-considered design and implementation of temporary scaffolding structures.
The inquest in December 2011 heard that there were signs at Stourport Basin banning cycling, and the edge of the lock and the side of the bridge's parapet were clearly marked. Worcestershire coroner, Geraint Williams, observed that one of the cyclist's bike pedals had possibly struck the side of the bridge throwing him off. He dismissed the need for specific warning signs because some things were 'inherently dangerous'.
A verdict of accidental death was recorded.
To my knowledge, the Coroner did not recommend that BW should install handrails at all similar bridges in the system. However, according to reports I have read, West Midlands Waterways carried out an inspection of other such bridges – all on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. As a result they identified 19 lock tail bridges as needing modifications.
Waterways Principal Engineer Ian Lane commented: “To ensure the solution is in keeping with the canal and its heritage, we have employed a Heritage Architect to review each site individually. Once we have these proposed solutions we will then talk to local user groups and societies before getting the necessary approvals and permissions prior to installation. While we are trying to keep any works to a minimum there will be some obvious additions at some locations but there are also lots of places where the works will be virtually unnoticeable.”
However, as we have cruised, it has become apparent that by using scaffolding to close ("temporarily") some of the bridges that have been used for years, BW have caused a Health and Safety risk for boat users at the locks.
I wonder if the Principal Engineer has ever used a boat on this canal? For clarity, let me describe the typical procedure for going up a narrow lock, assuming the lock is full when you arrive and that there is only one person involved in the lock operation (going down is a similar procedure), with the tail footbridges closed:
Visually check that the top paddles are closed. Open the bottom paddle on the towpath side.
Cross the lock by the narrow bottom lock gate walkway, holding onto the handrail where it exists. Note there are some locks where the paddle gear can be used as a handrail, but this still leaves a gap across the middle. Open the bottom paddle on the offside.
When the lock has been emptied, open the offside gate and wind down the paddle.
Instead of being able to use the safe footbridge (temporarily closed) the boater can either:
walk to the top gate
cross the top lock gate's walkway (which involves a not insignificant step from lockside to walkway and the need to avoid the paddle gear) and
walk back the length of the lock, on the towpath side
(succumb to the temptation to) step across from the open gate to the closed gate at the bottom of the lock. Note that some of these gates do not have a safety rail to grab when crossing the gates, only the paddle gear for part of the width.
Open the towpath side gate and wind down the paddle.
The boat is driven into the lock. The lock operator then closes the towpath-side gate. As before, he/she can then either:
walk to the top gate
cross the top lock gate's walkway (which involves the need to avoid the paddle gear and a not insignificant step from walkway to lockside) and
walk back the length of the lock, on the offside.
(succumb to the temptation to) step across from the closed gate to the offside, open gate at the bottom of the lock. Note that some of these gates do not have a safety rail to hold onto when crossing the gates, only the paddle gear for part of the width.
Close the offside gate.
Walk to the top of the lock and open the offside ground paddle.
Cross the top lock gate's walkway (which involves a not insignificant step from lockside to walkway and the need to avoid the paddle gear) and open the towpath-side ground paddle.
Open the gate paddle.
When the lock is full, open the gate to let the boat through.
Wind down the towpath-side gate and ground paddles.
Close the gate.
Cross the top lock gate's walkway (which involves the need to avoid the paddle gear and a not insignificant step from walkway to lockside) and
Wind down the off-side ground paddle.
Cross the top lock gate's walkway (which involves a not insignificant step from lockside to walkway and the need to avoid the paddle gear).
It can be seen from the above (steps 2, 4, 6, 9, 14 & 16) that the boater has to cross the lock no less than six times. Where the lock tail footbridge is the only bridge at the bottom of the lock, its closure means that on at least two occasions, the boater has to choose between crossing half the lock by a long stride between the closed and open gate or walking twice the length of the lock. Where there is another bridge adjacent to the footbridge, but one which requires a longer detour than crossing the lock gates, the same choice must be made.
I have asked all the boaters we have met and others who have used the canal recently, by email, what they think of the scaffolding and without exception they agree with me that there is a much greater safety risk to boat crews with the footbridges closed.
Pedestrians passing by have also suggested that the scaffolding is a temptation to youngsters to climb, swing on or walk, tightrope style, across – another H&S risk (e.g. at Kidderminster Lock). With the school holidays coming and the lighter evenings, I fear that misuse of these scaffolding climbing frames could result in an accident – I note that the upward facing poles have not been capped.
I therefore believe that the footbridges at the tail end of Falling Sands, Kinver, Bumblehole and Ebstree Locks should immediately be re-opened for Health & Safety reasons.
As the coroner said at the Stourport cyclist's inquest, some things are inherently dangerous. There are and always will be safety hazards by the waterways. Any risk assessments should be made with all users and situations in mind, not just as a disproportionate reaction to an accident. Many of the scaffolding structures I have seen (e.g. at Wightwick Mill Lock) seem to have been constructed to deal with a risk that is minor compared to the other risks to be found around the same lock.
There is also the heritage question. From Ian Lane's comments about consultation, the fact that some bridges are listed and most, if not all, have substantial heritage merit, it is going to take considerable time before any proportionate safety modifications can be completed. Meanwhile the enjoyment of all visitors is going to be spoilt by the eyesores that have been constructed and accidents may be precipitated.
Because of the insignificant existing accident history at these bridges (which were put in place for good operational reasons), as well as the potential accidents that might be caused by children using the scaffolding structures as climbing frames during school holidays and weekends, I request that the other constructions be removed until permanent solutions can be implemented.
I have posted pictures to illustrate my complaint in this gallery.
I look forward to hearing that you will make an immediate review of the situation.
cc. Ian Lane, British Waterways Principal Engineer;
Christopher Dyche, President Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Society
John Dodwell, CRT Transition Trustee & member of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal Society