Lessons learned: really?

A recent incident where football fans were caught in a crush at a top flight match in Scotland shows the importance of always heeding the public safety lessons from the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster.

It is perhaps a common perception that following catastrophic events, whether they be a single fatality or on a wider national scale, relevant systemic and behavioural failures will be identified, lessons learned and revised controls introduced to prevent such an event happening again or, at the very least, severely reduce its likelihood.

While this is quite rightly a minimum expectation, such objectives can become subject to complacency and lack of review as time passes without further incident.

Some 29 years ago on 15 April 1989, I set out to support my beloved Liverpool FC in their FA Cup semi-final fixture against Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield.

David Parr, director of policy and technical services at the British Safety Council

As a relatively young married man with a three-year old son I was working as an electrical engineer and, although I had an appreciation of health and safety through my profession, it was not the most uppermost concern in my life at that time.

All of that changed in the space of 40 minutes or so that afternoon when I was caught up in the horrendous crush that occurred at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium and endured a near-death experience. Through sheer good fortune I was rescued from the crush and escaped with relatively minor injuries. The disaster eventually claimed the lives of 96 men, women and children and would go on to become a landmark event in the management of sporting events and set precedents in our legal framework which, unbelievably, are still ongoing nearly 30 years after.

Quite apart from the disgraceful and ultimately unlawful behaviour of certain authorities and individuals following the disaster, the resultant changes to regulatory requirements for safety management of sporting events, the introduction of all-seated stadiums (for top flight football clubs) and the changed priorities for those in control of large crowds were a welcome consequence.

As premiership football in particular has become a billion-pound business attracting global sponsorship, and indeed ownership, attending a game in 2018 has become a high-end entertainment experience, which is far removed from that fateful day in Sheffield. The safety of people attending football and other sporting events has assumed paramount importance since Hillsborough and the enduring legacy will be that for such an event to occur ever again is unthinkable.

Or is it?

On 2 September this year hundreds of people were caught in a crush in a narrow corridor under a stand at Celtic Football Club as they were using new access routes to enter the stadium ahead of the match against rivals Glasgow Rangers. In scenes frighteningly reminiscent of Hillsborough, five people were injured (one hospitalised) as they were forced to climb a perimeter wall to escape the crush.
The Hillsborough inquiries have highlighted serious faults in planning, crowd control, stadium design – internal and external – lack of emergency response plans, lack of police supervision and communication failures providing almost a ‘perfect storm’ on the day as the tragedy unfolded. The investigation into the incident a few weeks ago in Glasgow is currently ongoing but is it coincidence that new access routes to the stadium were being used for the first time that afternoon?

Could some of the systemic and behavioural failures of Hillsborough be evident in this incident?

As the move toward introducing ‘safe standing’ areas in premiership football stadiums gathers momentum – ironically such an area currently exists at Celtic FC – the public must have confidence that the planning, control and emergency response arrangements at all stadiums reflect current best practice and that accessing and egressing stadia, as well as when inside, have been meticulously considered.

I know, through work with our stadia and event sector interest group members – which includes several premiership clubs – that highly dedicated and professional health and safety personnel now advise on such arrangements, including security issues. However, as recent events in Glasgow have proved, the potential for serious incidents to occur remains high should such planning and implementation fall short.

While massive improvements in the planning, control and supervision of large crowds have undoubtedly been made since 1989, we must continue to heed the lessons learned from Hillsborough and ensure that coherent and well-planned arrangements are always in place for the control of large crowds at sporting and other events.

The ethos of continual improvement and striving for best practice have never been more applicable.

David Parr is director of policy and technical services at the British Safety Council.