Professional sports leagues, like any other business in which employees are at risk of health issues, have statutory responsibilities to protect workers. The general duty to ensure the health and safety of employees as far as is reasonably practicable, is applicable to professional sports in the same manner as it is to employers within any other sector within the UK.
A recent report by Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on concussion in sport, concluded that insufficient action is being taken by the National Governing Bodies of all sports to reduce the unnecessary risk of head injury and concussion in sport - exposures that are associated with an increased incidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a serious brain condition. This may be because the current organisational structures within sport mean there is no overall responsibility to mandate minimum standards for concussion and head trauma. The Committee recommended that the Health and Safety Executive should adopt a more proactive approach toward injuries in sport to improve standards and to assess whether appropriate protocols are followed.
British Safety Council recognises that by its very nature it will never be possible to ensure that sport is one hundred percent safe, but it is not unreasonable to expect that participants are fully aware of the potential risks involved. What is clear is that sportsmen and women are presenting with the signs of early dementia in numbers that are increasingly shown to be above what would be expected among their contemporaries. While the current science has not yet proven a causal link between dementia and sporting activity, the report states ‘it is undeniable that a significant minority of people will face long-term neurological issues because of their participation in sport’. Many incidents during sports fixtures result in impacts that are collectively sufficient to cause brain injury but are not severe enough to cause concussion.
While the media’s focus has been on the risks of head injury in football and rugby, the risks are common to many other sports, including boxing, hockey, American Football, skateboarding, winter sports. and horse racing - with jockeys having the highest sporting incidence of head injury and concussion.
British Safety Council is therefore calling on the Government to:
- Establish a UK-wide minimum standard defined criteria for concussion that all sports must use
- Mandate the Health and Safety Executive to work with National Governing Bodies of all sports to establish a national framework for the reporting of head injuries and concussion that all organised sports should be required to use
- Ensure the National Governing Bodies of all sports have robust protocols to lessen the frequency and intensity of the head impacts that can cause long-term harm and that these protocols are proactively implemented and reviewed to reflect the latest available evidence.
Mike Robinson, Chief Executive at the British Safety Council, said:
“The Government must take firmer action to ensure preventable brain injuries are not suffered through participation in sport, and thereby avoid the potential for long-term health consequences for individuals. If the sports governing bodies fail to self-regulate effectively, then the HSE needs to take a firmer role in enforcement. The strength of the health and safety regulatory system lies in risk management, independent audit and oversight.”
“The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was a landmark piece of legislation to protect the health and safety of workers. It places a general duty of care on employers and applies equally to miners and factory workers as to paid sportsmen and women. The Government cannot avoid taking a firmer, proactive role in ensuring that all workers receive necessary protection and that no one is injured or made ill through their work.”
Professor Adam M. Finkel, Sc.D., CIH, a member of the External Advisory Panel for the British Safety Council Safety Management magazine, and formerly the Chief Regulatory Official at the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), praised the report for spurring HSE to action. He cautioned, however, that neither of the conventional ways that health and safety regulatory agencies usually expand into new areas may make sense with respect to brain disease in sport.
Finkel commented that: “Agencies most often either rush into command-and-control regulation, which can be unpopular and clumsy, or content themselves with purely voluntary guidance, which has a poor track record of improving workplace outcomes.” He encouraged the HSE to: “Consider an innovative mechanism OSHA pioneered in the late 1990s using ‘enforceable partnerships’, wherein an industry group drafts a detailed code of practice, and the Government agrees not to issue a regulation, if the organisations involved are following their own code. The key innovation here is for companies to agree in writing that Government can conduct inspections to monitor their performance and enforce, if necessary, the code as if it was a binding regulation.”
A HSE spokesperson said:
“HSE is reviewing the recommendations in the DCMS report.”
“On the whole we would not expect to be involved in incidents where sportspeople (either professional or amateur) have been injured during normal participation in a sporting event. The exception would be if the premises, equipment or organisation of an event had in some way led to an incident meaning that any injury must be reported.
“There is a balance to be struck between managing safety and ensuring that people can take part in sporting activities, which bring many health benefits. Most sporting activities, by their very nature, present a risk of serious injury to those who voluntarily take part. As a regulator we believe sports governing bodies are best placed to make judgements on the risks and we would expect them to regularly review their rules and procedures as appropriate.”