Royal connection keeps independent out of court after climbing fall

22nd April 2011 at 01:00
Health and Safety Executive only able to issue 'Crown Censure'

A high-profile independent boarding school which charges up to #163;21,000 a year has escaped prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) following a serious climbing accident because of its historic links to royalty.

The HSE wanted to bring the Royal Hospital School in Suffolk to court for its safety failings but found it was blocked by a legal loophole. Because it is owned by Greenwich Hospital, the Royal Navy's oldest charity, it lies outside the quango's usual range of powers.

Instead, the HSE was forced to issue a slap across the wrists - in the form of a Crown Censure - to the secretary of state for defence, who is trustee of Greenwich Hospital. The censure criticised the school's failure to meet safety standards.

During the incident in March 2009, a 15-year-old girl taking part in a lesson on the school climbing wall fell six metres from the top of the wall on to a wood gymnasium floor below.

She suffered a fractured spine, requiring a two-week stay in hospital, and had to wear a body cast for several weeks. She is still receiving medical treatment for her injuries.

The school, accepting the censure, admitted that at the time of the accident written documents regarding the operating procedures, inspection and maintenance regime relating to climbing activities and equipment were "not suitable or sufficient so as to ensure that risks were reduced to the lowest level reasonably practicable."

They also admitted that "the nature of the equipment was mixed with some equipment (which was not used on the day of the accident) being unserviceable, that climbing wall supervisors had not received refresher training and that there was no monitoring or system set up for access to technical advice".

The school, which was originally founded in 1712, is famous for its spectacular parades where its male and female pupils dress up in full naval uniform.

As a Crown body, the charity has immunity from prosecution in a criminal court but is still subject to the duties set out in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act.

Crown Censure chair, HSE's divisional director Heather Bryant, said: "HSE recognises that climbing walls can play an important part in the education of young people - and encourages schools to provide them - but it is essential that they follow industry guidance to ensure that pupils are not exposed to unnecessary risks."

A spokesman for Greenwich Hospital said: "'The school has accepted that the standards for this activity fell below those required by the Health and Safety at Work Act and has taken rigorous action to remedy those deficiencies.

"The school immediately suspended all such activities pending a comprehensive review of health and safety procedures and has co-operated fully with the subsequent HSE investigation."

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