Health and Safety Briefing Notes: An Overview of Safety at Sports Grounds

Sean Whitakerin Training & Education
Nowadays organisers of public events have to be scrupulous in reducing the risk of injury to players and public, and protecting themselves from litigation should an incident arise. Ultimately, it is the management of a sports ground who bears responsibility for safety.

There are two comprehensive guide books for organising public events. The first is Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds and the second is The Event Safety Guide: A Guide to Health, Safety and Welfare at Music and Similar Events. It is the former - hereon referred to as 'the Guide' - that is the more important for sporting events.

If you are an organiser of public events, that book should take pride of place on your bookshelf, well-thumbed and known (almost) by heart. This short article summarises its key themes, presented under the assumption that you are indeed involved in managing an event.

A sports ground can be defined as "A place where sports or other competitive activities take place in the open air, and where accommodation has been provided for spectators, consisting of artificial structures or of natural structures artificially modified for the purpose"

Each ground will have a safe capacity, which crowd numbers (including ground employees) should not exceed. You can determine the safe capacity by considering the capacities for entry, holding, exit and emergency evacuation, then choosing the lowest. In the Guide there are simple methods for calculating each one.

Your management responsibilities are obviously numerous, but the main ones are: ensuring appropriate staffing (e.g. numbers, training, distribution, suitable chain of command), proper planning (e.g. written safety case, written contingency plan, emergency plan, safety policy), documenting safety aspects (e.g. auditing, records, logging incidents) and conducting a risk assessment prior to each event.

While an emergency plan is prepared by the emergency services, you are responsible for the event safety case, including the contingency plan. Since the emergency plan and the contingency plan must mesh, some coordination between you and the emergency services will probably be necessary in the run-up to the event. Typically, contingency plans address the actions to be taken in response to fire, bomb threats, power failures, structural damage, equipment failure, and adverse crowd movement and behaviour. You should identify and incorporate safe havens in the contingency plan. For example, escape onto the pitch is probably a viable option in the case of fire at most sports grounds. Gates onto the pitch should permit rapid entry and conform to the standards outlined in the Guide.

Stewards at the ground are essential for controlling crowd movement and dealing with emergencies. Trained, readily recognisable, well briefed and familiar with the ground, they should be provided at a ratio of around one to every 250 people present. Their duties are many but include pre-event safety checks, controlling entry and exit, manning strategic points in the ground, providing information, providing first aid, and responding to incipient emergencies.

All structures and installations, for example stands and scaffolds, should be regularly assessed for their integrity and suitability. You should include them in the risk assessment and ensure they are inspected immediately prior to the event. Qualified engineers will probably be necessary to sign off the safety certificates on an annual basis. Other standard checks are necessary immediately prior to an event, including checking all entry and exit routes are clear, turnstiles are functional, all hazardous or combustible material is removed or made safe, and all fire-fighting equipment is serviceable.

Stairs, ramps, corridors and exits should conform to minimum standards and enable an appropriate egress time and emergency evacuation time, usually 8 minutes and between 2.5 and 8 minutes (depending on fire risk), respectively. Both times may be calculated simply enough from the data in the Guide. In arriving at the egress and evacuation times, you calculate maximum rates of passage at all points along the exit ways, using the figures in the Guide.

The Guide also details the design requirements for crush barriers, seating and standing areas, dedicating a chapter to each and presenting appropriate dimensions and structural strengths.

Since the disaster at Bradford City, the risk of fire should be foremost in your mind and you should take steps to identify and control the risk and be ready with contingency plans. Risk might derive from the accumulation of flammable material, smoking, flares and fireworks, furnishings and catering facilities. In each case, the hazard should be removed or minimised, for example by regular inspections, policy decisions or the use of suitable building materials. Fire warning systems, extinguishing systems and fire-fighting equipment should be installed and inspected regularly. Fire evacuation routes and procedures should be devised and set out in the contingency plan.

Clearly, a central point of co-ordination on the day of the event is essential. The control point monitors the safety of people in the ground, coordinates responses to incidents and assists the management in successfully staging the event. You should select a control point with an unrestricted view of the entire ground, so that events can be observed as they unfold. Usually the control point will be manned throughout the event by the nominated safety officer - a designation required at sports grounds. Staff, including stewards, should be in radio communication with the control point, which in turn communicates directly with the crowd by public address systems and information boards. CCTV coverage of the ground is usually available at the control point.

Medical cover at events is essential. Even at the smallest events at least two first aid providers are necessary. At grounds with seated and standing accommodation, you should allocate at least one first aid provider for every 1000 spectators. At all-seated grounds the same ratio applies, increasing to one per 2000 for crowds larger than 20,000. You should provide a first aid room, which meets the minimum criteria in the Guide. For a crowd larger than 2000, a crowd doctor should be on call, ready at all times to attend to casualties. Ambulance provision is necessary at events with crowds in excess of 5000, although the exact qualification and staffing levels for ambulance personnel depends on the number in the crowd.

Never forget that planning the safety of an event, particularly for one-off events, takes considerable time and typically begins many months in advance, with the expectation of improvement and revision following local authority review. A convincing and thorough safety case can be complex and many meetings between stakeholders might be necessary in the months leading up to the event. It is not surprising that some event organisers outsource the work to specialist companies.

That's a whistlestop overview of the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds - a document of over 200 pages brimming with essential guidance for anyone planning a sporting event. Just don't try to read the entire book in one go.

bath logo References

Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds, Fourth Edition, London: The Stationary Office
The Event Safety Guide: A Guide to Health, Safety and Welfare at Music and Similar Events (HSG 195), HSE Books

This article was written by InterAction of Bath - a consultancy specialising in health and safety advice and assessments, including safety cases and safety plans for sports grounds. InterAction of Bath provides rapid, competitive and no-obligation quotations. You can find their website at
Article Tags:
Training & education