Ten Alps Digital

Playing safe with sports grounds

Michael Mooney of Operant Risk Management Ltd looks at the vital issue of sports ground safety and where responsibilities for it lie

There are many great memories of British sport but also some tragic ones. For future sports historians, the tragic memories are likely to loom larger than the good. Three names in particular are not likely ever to be forgotten: Ibrox, Valley Parade and Hillsborough.

In January 1971, 85,000 fans crammed into Ibrox stadium, then the largest football ground in the UK, for an old firm derby.

A Celtic goal in the final minute caused thousands of disconsolate Rangers fans to head up the steep terraces to the exits.

But as the fans were leaving the ground Rangers equalised, sending their supporters back on to the terraces to celebrate the goal, only to collide with fans still making their way out.

The collision was disastrous and on one stairway fans began to fall at the head of the stairs, prompting a mass falling of people so intense that steel barriers were twisted out of shape by the weight of bodies. A total of 66 people died.

At Valley Parade, Bradford City's football ground, in May 1985 some 56 fans died when one of the wooden stands caught fire, the fire almost certainly caused by a discarded cigarette falling into rubbish under the stand.

At Hillsborough stadium, Sheffield, the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest took place.

Traffic delays led to many Liverpool fans arriving late and immediately prior to kick off there were several thousand fans outside the turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end.
As a bottleneck developed, police, fearing a crush, opened a set of gates leading into a narrow tunnel at the rear of the terrace.

Fans poured down the tunnel into the already crowded central section of the terrace, and at the front fans were forced against steel fencing installed to prevent hooliganism. Some 96 people were crushed to death.

Following the Ibrox disaster, specific legislation was introduced to control the safety of sports grounds.

"Sports ground" means any 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 purposes - so potentially including such venues as rugby stadiums, athletics stadiums, horse racing courses and speedway tracks.

The Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 (as subsequently amended) gives the Secretary of State power to "designate" sports grounds.

Such designated grounds are required to have a safety certificate (issued by the local authority - known as the Certifying Authority) to hold public events (not only sports events but also pop concerts, firework displays and so on).

Grounds which have been designated are those with accommodation for more than 10,000 spectators, and football grounds occupied by Football League or Premier League clubs with accommodation for more than 5,000 spectators.

Safety certificates contain such terms and conditions as the Authority considers necessary or expedient to secure reasonable safety at the ground.

The Act creates offences in relation to the admission of spectators to a designated ground, in particular, where no certificate is in place or where the conditions of the certificate have been contravened.

In dealing with applications for certificates, Certifying Authorities are asked to take into account the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds which was issued jointly by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Scottish Home and Health Department.

This publication, known as the "Green Guide", gives advice for ground managements and certifying authorities in order to assist them in the assessment of how many spectators can be safely accommodated in a ground.

The guide contains advice on all aspects of safety and applies equally to all sports. It has no statutory force but its recommendations will be given force of law at individual grounds by their inclusion in the safety certificate. These certificates can be either "General" or "Special" - General, if for an indefinite period, or Special, if for a specified number of activities/occasions. Broadly speaking, the distinction may be taken as that general certificates are issued for the usual activities-football games, say while the special certificates are issued for other non-routine kinds of events, such as pop concerts.

Safety certificates cover the physical condition of sports grounds and the safety management provision. A safe capacity is determined for each ground. The person in control of the ground must apply for a certificate, the application form accompanied by such information as the Certifying Authority may require, but typically including as follows:

  • Risk assessments;
  • Contingency plans;
  • The safety policy for spectators;
  • The name and qualifications of the safety officer; and
  • Full sets of detailed drawings.

The reasonable costs of the Authority incurred in producing the certificate will normally be charged to the applicant. An annual inspection of the ground by the Certifying Authority is required by Section 1 0B of The Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975. In addition to the periodic inspections, the Authority may carry out match day inspections on a regular basis to ensure that the operators of the grounds are complying with the terms and conditions contained in the safety certificates.

Officers from a Certifying Authority have the power to enter and inspect any sports ground and can issue a notice prohibiting or restricting the admission of spectators to a sports ground or to any part of it (whether or not the ground is designated) if the risk to their safety is judged to be serious enough to justify doing so.

Following the Bradford fire it became clear that the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 was lacking in certain key aspects and so further legislation, The Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987, made it necessary for safety certificates to be obtained for sports grounds (not being designated sports grounds) with covered accommodation in stands for 500 or more spectators. Such covered stands are known as "regulated stands". The Act applies to all outdoor sports grounds, whatever their use, where there is such a stand. A local authority must, in the first instance, investigateall sports grounds in its area to determine if any have covered stands which will accommodate 500 or more spectators.

The authority must then issue a preliminary determination to the owner of any such stand. After two months from the issue of the preliminary determination, the determination will become final. It is then illegal for the stand to be used unless an application for a General Safety Certificate or Special Safety Certificate has been made.

The issue and monitoring process of the effectiveness of certificates for a regulated stand is similar to that for a designated ground, but relates only to the stand and the escape routes from the stand (and not to the ground as a whole).

In many Certifying Authorities it will be the Building Control (sometimes known as Building Standards) section which will have the primary responsibility for the issue of the safety certificates. Many local authorities encourage ground operators to seek the advice of the Building Control section, particularly when proposing alterations to grounds (and indeed both the 1975 and 1987 Acts require any proposed alterations or extensions likely to affect safety to be notified to the authority before embarking on such works).

When games are likely to attract large crowds, Building Control will often take a lead role in the Safety Team, which includes Police, Fire Authority, Ambulance Service and other local authority services to ensure that the games or other events are run safely.

In addition to the Certifying Authorities, the Football Licensing Authority has a part to play in securing spectator safety at football grounds. Established in 1991 under the Football Spectators Act 1989, it has implemented some of the key recommendations in the final report on the Hillsborough disaster, including overseeing the licensing of all grounds in the Premier League and the Championship. In 1992, the Government decided to allow clubs in the Football League Second and Third Divisions (now Leagues One and Two) to retain some standing accommodation, provided that this satisfied certain criteria. The FLA enforces this through its licensing system.

The Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 and the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987 are concerned with the safeguarding of spectators, but not with risks inherent in participation in the sporting activity or with safeguarding employees. In safeguarding employees, regard must be had to The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 which makes it the prime responsibility of the event organiser (whether an individual, company or local authority) for protecting the health, safety and welfare of everyone working at or attending the event.

The provisions of cognate legislation, particularly of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (which, inter alia, require the carrying out of risk assessments) and of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (which requires the carrying out of specific fire risk assessments) must be given full and proper consideration.