Posts tagged ‘children’

14 January, 2016

How safe are baby slings for a newborn? A mother shares her tragic experience.

Marianne Matthews, from Harrow, was celebrating the birth of her first child Eric when, within weeks, he had died after having been carried in a baby sling. Marianne explains what happened.

I write this blog in memory of my first child Eric, and with the hope that this message will help prevent more tragedies like ours.

Baby Sling story Eric Matthews first days with parents Marianne and Bob Matthews

Parents Marianne and Bob Matthews with Eric when he was first born.

Eric was four-weeks-old when he became unconscious while I was carrying him in a stretchy wrap baby sling – soft fabric that wraps around the chest and waist and holds baby, allowing a parent to keep their hands free as they go about their everyday tasks.

As a new parent, you get marketed at relentlessly with baby products. I wasn’t fully aware of the risks involving baby slings, and you never think these kinds of tragedies are something that will happen to you. The dangers of slings were not mentioned in the antenatal classes we attended, or in any of the baby books we read. Maybe because baby slings are newly popular, safety warnings aren’t yet part of the standard information given to expectant parents.

I bought a stretchy wrap sling online. It came with minimal instructions and had no safety label.

baby carrier baby sling

The safest method is in a carrier that keeps the baby solidly against the parent’s body, in an upright position.

It was Christmas Eve 2013 and Eric was quite unsettled so I put him in the sling and took him out for a walk to the local shop. He started to get a bit hungry and I tried to breastfeed him whilst carrying him. I then decided to go home. At the time I thought Eric was just falling asleep.

Everything happened so quickly and quietly I didn’t realise that something was very wrong. He had either choked or got into difficulties. By the time I got back, he had stopped breathing.

We called 999 and tried to resuscitate him. Sadly Eric never regained consciousness, and passed away in our arms a week later on New Year’s Day 2014.

We loved Eric so much and wonder how things went so wrong. Eric was our first child, and as new parents, we were finding out what to do for the first time. Our inexperience was to have tragic consequences, sometimes love just isn’t enough.

Eric is now a big brother, our little girl Sola Eden was born in October 2014, and she really is a miracle for me and my husband Bob, especially as we had her when we were still grieving. I have learned a lot from Eric. I’ll never use a baby sling again. Safety is an absolute priority.

Baby sling story Marianne Matthews with husband Bob and daughter Sola Eden

Marianne and Bob Matthews have celebrated the birth of daughter Sola Eden since the tragedy.

My advice is not to use a baby sling for a newborn baby – wait a few weeks until they are stronger and have more neck control. Don’t be tempted to multi-task by feeding a baby in a sling and check for safety standards and warnings before choosing a product.

The part that concerns me most is that some slings are marketed as ‘breastfeeding slings’. In my opinion, the feeding position is unsafe for baby (particularly a newborn) to be carried in, as they need to be kept upright to keep their airways clear. A baby trying to feed may make similar sounds to a baby struggling for breath, or make no sounds at all, and tragedy can occur in a minute or so. Added to this, the use of a sling while out and about may mean there are more distractions, and parents may not be fully aware of what’s happening.

I hope other parents find our story helpful, and it can in some way prevent another avoidable death like Eric’s from happening.

Marianne Matthews.

You can read more on RoSPA’s detailed advice on baby slings at the RoSPA website.

amber teething necklace baby

RoSPA is aware of risks attached to these products because a sling’s fabric can press against a baby’s nose and mouth, blocking the baby’s airways and causing suffocation within a minute or two.  Suffocation can also occur where the baby is cradled in a curved or “C-like” position in a sling, nestling below the parent’s chest or near their stomach.

Because babies do not have strong neck control, this means that their heads are more likely to flop forward, chin-to-chest, restricting the infant’s ability to breathe. RoSPA advocates products that keep babies upright and allow parents to see their baby and to ensure that the face isn’t restricted. Your baby is safest travelling with you in a pram or pushchair in which they are lying flat, on their back, in a parent-facing position.

10 November, 2014

Claudia Winkleman’s daughter – A tragic wake-up call to us all

Candles burning in the darkLast week, the nation was shocked by the appalling Halloween accident involving television presenter Claudia Winkleman’s eight-year-old daughter Matilda. While the specifics of the incident are still not clear, the incident nevertheless serves as a shocking reminder of both the dangers of naked flames, as well as the devastating effect accidents can have in general – particularly when young children are involved.

Every year, more than one million children under the age of 15 experience accidents in and around the home, resulting in a visit to our already overburdened accident and emergency units. Accidents are the most common cause of death in children over the age of one and every year they leave many thousands permanently disabled or disfigured. While falls account for the majority of non-fatal accidents, the highest number of deaths are due to fire.

Last year alone, 138 people in England were admitted to hospital after their clothing either ignited or melted, and as the case of Matilda Winkleman shows, an unattended flame has the ability of turning a happy family event into every parent’s worst nightmare in a matter of seconds.

Perhaps most tragic of all, is the fact that most of these accidents are preventable through increased awareness, improvements in the home environment and greater product safety. As RoSPA’s recent work with Intertek shows, there are simple steps that parents can take to prevent a similar accident, such as ensuring all children’s Halloween costumes, masks and wigs must carry a CE mark (which means they comply with the European Toy Safety Directive and should they catch alight, the rate of burning is slow), as well as removing naked flames by not having candles within reach of smiling pumpkinchildren and making sure all outfits worn by children are well-fitted and not too long or flowing. RoSPA’s website is full of advice and guidance on keeping your loved ones safe from harm.

RoSPA believes that no parent should ever have to suffer the agony and uncertainty Claudia Winkleman and her family are undoubtedly going through following this horrendous incident. That is why every year we campaign to stop the misery and heartache preventable accidents cause by providing information, advice and practical support to parents across the UK and beyond. If you would like to support RoSPA in our mission to stop accidents like the one Matilda suffered from ever happening again, please visit our fundraising page to see the enormous difference your contribution can make.

Sheila Merrill, RoSPA’s public health adviser

18 December, 2013

Have yourself a safe little Christmas

“Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? In the lane, snow is glistening…”

Never leave burning candles unattended and make sure they are extinguished before going to bed.

Never leave burning candles unattended and make sure they are extinguished before going to bed.

Oh yes, Christmas is nearly here! And amidst the chaos of present wrapping, food shopping and house decorating, I can see many a parent tearing their hair out over the never-ending “to do” list…

But where there’s a will, there’s a way…Good preparation is key to ensuring that your festivities are not cut short by an accident, because, let’s face it, no-one wants that! It may surprise you to know that you are 50 per cent more likely to die in a house fire over Christmas than at any other time of year. Why? Well, a combination of smoking and drinking alcohol are well-known risk factors, but candle fires also claim many lives. According to the latest Fire Statistics Great Britain, in 2011/12, there were around 1,000 candle fires in homes across Great Britain, resulting in nine deaths and 388 casualties. Christmas trees, decorations and cards were also shown to be a fire risk and responsible for 47 house fires. This is why it’s important to do the following:

  • Keep decorations and cards away from fires and other heat sources such as light fittings
  • Don’t leave burning candles unattended and make sure they are extinguished before going to bed
  • Never put candles on Christmas trees
  • If you have old and dated Christmas lights, now is the time to consider buying new ones which will meet much higher safety standards
  • Don’t underestimate the danger of overloading plug sockets. Different electrical appliances use different amounts of power, which is why you should never plug into an extension lead or socket, appliances that collectively use more than 13 amps or 3,000 watts of energy. Otherwise, it may overheat and cause a fire.

And don’t forget those smoke alarms! Is yours working? Have you tested it recently? It could just save your life. But think twice before deciding to remove its batteries to kick-start that new gadget or toy you’ve just opened – find a safer alternative – buy batteries for your gifts in advance.

On the big day itself, it’s very easy to get caught up in the excitement of Christmas and momentarily forget about the bags of opened presents left at the bottom of the stairs or the mulled wine warming on the stove. But the kitchen is a hotbed of activity, particularly on Christmas Day, which is why cooking should not be left unattended. Likewise, children should also be kept out of the kitchen and away from items such as matches and lighters. Did you know that falls remain the biggest cause of home accidents – involving all age groups? Simple things, such as keeping staircases free of clutter and making sure extension leads and cables are not strewn across the living room floor can help limit the risk of someone tripping over and injuring themselves or others.

Take a moment to look around your home from a child’s point of view. This will help you to spot potential hazards.

Take a moment to look around your home from a child’s point of view. This will help you to spot potential hazards.

It is also worth taking a moment to look around your home from a child’s point of view. Not only will this allow you to see potential dangers from a new perspective i.e. a hot drink balanced on the edge of the coffee table, but it is also a reminder to “think ahead” to keep little ones safe in your home this Christmas.

There have also been cases where children have swallowed bulbs from Christmas tree lights, so it is not a good idea to let them play with items on the tree. Young children are particularly at risk from choking, because they examine things around them by putting them in their mouths. Peanuts, for example, should be kept out of reach of children under six. Even a burst balloon or button cell battery could be a choking hazard to a baby or toddler, which is why you need to buy toys that are appropriate for your child’s age range.

It might be tempting to let a child play with Christmas novelties around the home, but these are not toys, even if they resemble them, and they do not have to comply with toy safety regulations. Give careful thought to where you display them; place them high up on Christmas trees where they are out of the reach of young hands.

No-one’s saying to go over the top and take the fun out of your Christmas, but these are just some of the things you can do to help ensure that your festivities are not cut short by an accident.

Be aware of slips, trips and falls on ice or snow this winter.

Be aware of slips, trips and falls on ice or snow this winter.

If you head over to our Twitter and Facebook pages, you can help us to share some of our top Christmas safety tips with family and friends. Each picture features some of the many members of staff which make up the RoSPA family – and one very familiar face! We are currently running a “12 days of Christmas” countdown to Christmas day, so why not take a look?

And if you’re heading outdoors this Christmas (fingers crossed that we might get some snow), take note of the driving conditions and be aware of slips, trips and falls on ice or snow. See our winter safety hub for more details.

Have a happy time and enjoy the festive songs! “Our finest gifts we bring Pa rum pum pum pum…”

Sheila Merrill, RoSPA’s public health adviser

27 November, 2013

Bunk beds – are your children sleeping safely?

New arrivals in the family are a joy, but they soon need their own bed. Often this will mean smaller rooms being turned into bedrooms or siblings sharing a room.  In this edition of my blog, I will look at how parents can safely use bunk beds for their children to sleep in.

ClimbingIt is estimated that there are seven bed-related fatalities a year in the UK, along with 1,000 children injured after falling from beds.

Unsurprisingly, most accidents involving bunk beds occur when children are playing on them and so they should be discouraged from doing so.

At the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), we recommend that no child under the age of six sleeps in the top bunk.

In one study of accidents involving bunk beds, the age group found to be most at risk was between two and six years (which represented 57 per cent of the accidents studied).

Of the accidents, 40 per cent resulted from “children playing”, but entrapment leading to strangulation has also been recognised as a particular hazard and is dealt with by the safety laws.

We want families to keep bedtime safe and happy.

We want families to keep bedtime safe and happy.

In fact, the harmonised European standard for bunk beds requires that the manufacturer’s instructions provided with new bunk beds contains the phrase “be aware of the danger of young children (under six) falling from the upper bunk”.

Sadly, it is not just the top bunk that can be dangerous. Earlier this year an eight-month-old girl accidentally hanged herself when she became wedged between a mattress and ladder while wriggling in her bunk bed.

She had been sleeping in the bottom bunk for two months after a health visitor said she should be given her own room.

Her parents fitted a bed brace to ensure the baby didn’t fall out, but somehow she managed to wriggle between the bars of the ladder leading to the top bunk and got stuck against the mattress.

Our advice here at RoSPA is very clear – bunk beds are perfectly safe for kids as long as safety checks are in place.

Children under six should not be allowed on the top bunk, although they may seem safe and be responsible. It can only take one awkward fall to sustain an injury.iStock_000012073096Large

Parents should consider very carefully whether allowing a child younger than six to sleep on the bottom bunk is safe for them.  Babies should always have their own cots, and toddlers can get trapped, as we have seen, so please don’t think that just because your child is under six, they will automatically be safe on the bottom bunk.

Another thing to consider is a thinner mattress for the top bunk as a standard single mattress may be too thick and will allow the child to roll over the safety barrier.

Importantly, do not allow any type of cord, rope, belt, scarf or anything similar to be hung from the top bunk. Also, do not place bunk beds near windows which have cord operated blinds – it is safer not to have this type of window covering in a child’s bedroom. This is because children can be strangled quickly and quietly by looped blind cords, sometimes with parents or carers in close proximity, potentially unaware of what is happening.

red_houseI know only too well from my own children that youngsters love to play on bunk beds, but climbing and bouncing around on the top bunk should not be permitted.

Every part to a bunk bed is important, so when assembling bunk beds, ensure that all safety barriers are in place, especially if buying a second-hand one.

Finally, when booking your holidays, please check what the sleeping arrangements for your children will be.  RoSPA has received reports in the past of holiday firms booking rooms for children under six with bunk beds.  My advice is to be very explicit at the point of booking whether or not bunk beds will be suitable for your children.

I hope this blog has been of use to you, so sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite!

Philip le Shirley, product safety consultant at RoSPA.

28 October, 2013

Making waves for RoSPA

Ten thousand people squeezed themselves into wetsuits to take part in the Great North Swim in beautiful Windermere recently – and I am proud to say that I was one of them.

SueMullarkey_fundraisingOpen water swimming events are becoming increasingly popular and this one is part of a series of five Great Swims held up and down the country from London’s Docklands to Loch Lomond. The participants range from elite open-water swimmers to complete novices (like me), many of whom take on the challenge of swimming a mile to raise money for their favourite charity.

When James, my brother-in-law and a seasoned triathlete, asked last Christmas if he could stay with us in the Lake District so he could do the Windermere swim, it got me thinking that I should enter too.  I have always enjoyed swimming, both in the pool and on those rare sunny days in Cumbria from the back of our sailing boat in Derwentwater. And one mile really didn’t sound that far.  A couple of sessions a week at the local leisure centre and I was soon able to crack the requisite number of lengths – 64.  But swimming any distance in a pool is, of course, very much easier than doing it in open water.

Whilst I was honing my front crawl, RoSPA had just started to carry out sponsored fundraising for the first time and so I was persuaded to become a guinea pig fundraiser.  As a mum, I have been shocked to learn that accidental death and injury is the biggest threat to children – far more than disease – and yet just about everybody is unaware of this.  Simple programmes can really help to educate parents on how to keep their kids safe and RoSPA does this, campaigning on a wide range of issues to change people’s perceptions.  Most people are happy to give to a charity which supports some quite obscure or rare disease but perhaps don’t know much about this more urgent way to use their donation.  So I was keen to do my bit to help get RoSPA noticed.

As sponsor money began to roll in from generous friends, family and supporters, the arrival of a slinky new wetsuit just a couple of weeks before the swim added another dimension to my training.  I tried it out in chilly Derwentwater and, although it kept me warmish, it felt tight and restrictive and made me so overly buoyant that I had to completely adjust my technique.  A mile was beginning to seem like a long way.

"As a mum, I have been shocked to learn that accidental death and injury is the biggest threat to children – far more than disease – and yet just about everybody is unaware of this." - Sue Mullarkey

“As a mum, I have been shocked to learn that accidental death and injury is the biggest threat to children – far more than disease – and yet just about everybody is unaware of this.” – Sue Mullarkey

The day of the swim was cool and breezy and, arriving at the lakeshore already a bundle of nerves, I was terrified to see how grey and choppy Windermere looked.  I’d fretted about water temperature, uncomfortable wetsuits, leaky goggles, getting kicked in the face by another swimmer (I could go on) but never even considered the possibility that the water might be rough. Neoprene-clad swimmers of all ages and shapes were limbering up or, if they had already completed the swim, posing for photos with their medals – and everyone was talking about how choppy the water was.  But if they could do it, I could too – besides I couldn’t let down all those people who were so generously supporting me and RoSPA.

Great North Swim participants are divided into ‘waves’ which start at half-hourly intervals over the weekend and each involve up to 300 people in colour-coded swimming hats.  James and I were sporting natty pink caps and, after taking part in the mass warm-up session, it was time for our wave to take to the water. The start was a melee of thrashing legs and arms, but heeding James’ advice and staying near the back of the pack I managed to avoid being kicked or swum over by the keen guys. If the water was cold, I really didn’t notice it – choppiness was the major problem.  It was impossible to get into a rhythm because every breath involved an unwelcome gulp of lake-water.  I soon abandoned my hard-practiced front crawl for a more defensive breaststroke/doggy paddle.  Progress was very slow.  But after 57 exhausting minutes, I had done a final flourish of crawl past the finish and was back on dry land – wobbly-legged but elated.  No matter that the fastest (elite) lady took just 19 minutes!

It was a great challenge, wonderful to have been able to raise over £1,000 for RoSPA and, what’s more, I am already training for next year.

Sue Mullarkey

27 September, 2013

Got a place in the London Marathon? Here are six reasons to run for RoSPA!


We would love it if you helped to support RoSPA’s mission to “save lives and reduce injuries” by running for us!

By now, runners around the world are finding out whether or not they have won a place in next year’s London Marathon. If you’re one of these lucky people, and don’t yet have a cause, we would love it if you ran for RoSPA! Here are six reasons why:


  1. Kill 14,000 people each year across the UK
  2. Seriously injure more than 700,000 per year in England alone
  3. Are the major cause of death up to the age of 39 and the leading cause of preventable, early death for most of our lives
  4. Are the main cause of death for children after infancy
  5. Are often violent and always untimely
  6. Destroy families and diminish communities.

Your support can save lives and prevent injuries. So why not give our fundraising team a call on 0121 248 2507 or email

24 July, 2013

The danger of scrimping on fireplace installation costs

We all want our homes to look fantastic and price cuts to fireplaces and large televisions in recent years are very tempting. Most people love a bargain, but when buying wall-mounted televisions or fireplace surrounds, the focus is often on the price of the product and not the wider costs of having them safely installed in the home.

HomeFor a television this can mean paying up to £100 for an appropriate bracket and an additional £50-£100 to have that bracket properly fixed to the wall by a professional. For fireplace surrounds, safe fitting by a professional can add more than £100 to the overall cost of the product.

The tragic case of four-year-old Matthew Green, who was killed when a fireplace surround fell on him, has prompted the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to raise awareness in this area of safety, which unfortunately often gets overlooked.

The HSE issued a specific warning about modular, stone or artificial stone fireplace surrounds and the importance of their safe installation.  The key issue is about the fireplace surround falling, particularly onto children.  Toddlers can also try to climb up these surrounds, which can bring them crashing down onto the child.sofa_girl2

Individual components of these fireplaces can weigh more than 50kgs and the mantelpiece may also have a significant overhang, projecting forward from the lintel.  Unless fitted in a secure manner, this makes the mantel, in particular, liable to topple off the lintel.

RoSPA has been aware of problems with fireplace surrounds for the past few years and we are concerned that this seems to be developing into a significant issue.  Our advice is to do three things when buying one of these products:

  • Seek professional advice BEFORE buying the product.  Get assurance that the product you intend to buy is suitable and safe for your home
  • Get quotes for the fireplace surround AND fitting in advance.  Ensure that the combined cost is within your price range
  • Get the fireplace surround fitted by a professional.

In recent years, RoSPA has also issued warnings about the dangers of big, unstable flat screen televisions falling or being pulled onto toddlers, causing deaths and serious injuries. We are pleased to note that this issue appears to have been accepted by a number of retailers who are now promoting their professional installation service, encouraging homeowners to spend a few extra pounds on getting their expensive new television professionally installed.


Additionally, there are now safety straps that can be bought for less than £10 to secure screens that are on top of cupboards and other areas, to stop them from toppling over.

In summary, both fireplace surrounds and televisions are normally perfectly safe at the point of purchase.  It is when they are fitted that they then become unsafe, especially if proper installation is not given the priority it deserves.

Yes, this can cost more, and yes, this may mean a wait until a professional can fit the product. But these are small prices to pay when you consider the injuries and deaths that unsafe installations have caused over the years.

For more information about safety advice, please visit

Philip LeShirley, RoSPA’s product safety adviser.

5 June, 2013

Let the buggy take the strain!

After the worst winter in recent memory we are all keen to get out and about in the sun. For those of us with new babies this can bring its own challenges as they can be heavy!

One of my previous blogs looked at baby slings and in this one I offer advice on the safe use of buggies and pushchairs.

Two mothers

It is fair to say that modern pushchairs and buggies are made to very high standards and provide a very high level of safety for babies, although injuries to children in the past have been caused by faulty brakes, flammable materials, unstable carriages and finger entrapments.

When buying new or second-hand, look for reference to a safety standard, typically BS 7409 or BSEN 1888:2003.  High street retailers are very good about ensuring that the products they supply meet the latest safety standards. Of course, as my blog on second-hand goods explained, not every parent can afford to buy products new.

RoSPA supports the supply of second-hand buggies and prams but advises parents to exercise caution before doing so.  For example, Maclaren recalled more than a million pushchairs in the US due to finger entrapment hazards a few years ago.  Here in the UK, safety packs were offered to parents. It is important to always check that the product you are buying is safe in this context and that it is marked as complying with the standard(s).

There are also some general rules for all parents who already own buggies and pushchairs:

  • Keep your child harnessed in at all times and never leave them unattended
  • If making adjustments, keep the child well away from moving parts
  • Buggies and pushchairs require regular maintenance
  • Overloading can be dangerous – don’t put coats and bags on top of the buggy as these can cause it to tip over
  • Handles are not for carrying shopping bags – these can also cause instability
  • If using a “buggy board” for older children to stand on while you push, please ensure that it is suitable for the buggy and fitted correctly
  • Incorrect folding can damage the product
  • Avoid using non-approved accessories which can cause damage
  • ALWAYS read the instructions before assembling and using the product.

Baby with soother

If family members or friends kindly pass on buggies or pushchairs that are no longer needed, parents also need to check that all harnesses have five straps.

Also, be aware that non-reclining seats are not suitable for children under six-months-old.

And before you put your child in a buggy or pushchair:

  • Check the brakes (lock and unlock them and then push)
  • Check that the product is properly unfolded and “locked” together correctly
  • Check that there is no damage, including sharp edges and torn fabric.

Most important of all, have fun out there this summer with your children and make the most of these special times when they are always with you – they grow up fast!

For more child safety tips, please go to the RoSPA website at:

Philip LeShirley, RoSPA Product Safety Adviser

29 May, 2013

We are all to blame for latest damning child swimming statistics

Latest figures revealing that more than half of primary school children in England cannot swim have astounded me.

Child with waterwingsThese new statistics are highlighted in the report, Learning the Lesson – the future of school swimming, which has been compiled by swimming’s governing body, the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) and Kellogg’s. The report reveals that more than 1.1million primary schoolchildren in England – 51 per cent of children aged seven to eleven – cannot swim the 25metre length of a typical swimming pool unaided.

I am not the only one shocked, and a chorus of disapproval has emerged from celebrities and sports stars including Olympic swimmers Rebecca Adlington and Andrew Willis, plus former athlete Sally Gunnell.

Even his Royal Highness, The Duke of Cambridge –  the patron of the English Schools Swimming Association – has recorded a short video calling for school swimming to be accessible for all children at all primary schools.

You can watch Prince William’s video here:

These worrying findings are a reflection on us all. They depict a failure to equip our children with a basic life-skill that could end up meaning the difference between them drowning or swimming to safety.

I refer to “all” of us because learning to swim is a shared responsibility which encompasses not just the government, but schools, parents and the community as a whole.


Ensuring that children are taught to swim in schools is one important factor, but there are many others: having swimming pools which communities can access easily with good public transport links; creating a wealth of safe spaces to swim from Blue Flag” beaches to open water sites; parents treating swimming as a priority; and towns and cities having appropriate sized pools. For example, there is currently no 50metre pool in Birmingham – Britain’s second largest city – and it really should have a swimming pool that size.

Other findings emerging from the report included that, on average, each child only received 8 hours 15 minutes of school swimming tuition a year, compared to the 22 hours recommended by the Government.

Nearly 45 per cent of schools stated that the biggest barrier to delivering better quality school swimming was budget constraints.

This September, each primary school will receive a minimum of £9,000 additional ring-fenced funding as part of the Government’s £150 million injection into PE and school sport.

At the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), we are firmly behind the ASA’s call for curriculum swimming and water safety to be a priority for this funding. The reason RoSPA believes learning to swim is so important at school is because having the swimming and water safety skills to save yourself or others doesn’t come instinctively, it has to be taught.

Drowning is one of the leading causes of accidental death for children and young people in the UK and, sadly, we come across many grieving families who believed their children could swim, only to find out their abilities were little more than being able to float and doggy paddle.

having the swimming and water safety skills to save yourself or others doesn’t come instinctively, it has to be taught

David Walker, RoSPA's leisure safety manager.

David Walker, RoSPA’s leisure safety manager.

Latest figures from the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF) show that in 2011, 407 people drowned accidentally across the UK, of which 47 included children and young people up to the age of 19.

Nearly half of the children and young people who died (22) were aged 15 to 19, and drownings in this age group were predominantly in a river or lake, according to the data from the NWSF’s Water Incident Database (WAID).

It is important to remember that most of these drownings are avoidable and making sure children learn to swim in primary school is a critical step towards reducing these numbers.

Increasing the number of children that can swim is going to be a huge challenge, and it is not one that schools can do alone – they need everyone’s help to achieve this.

RoSPA has detailed advice for families on water safety, which is worth every parent, grandparent or carer taking a look at, especially before they go away on holiday.

David Walker, RoSPA’s leisure safety manager.

5 April, 2013

Safety on the slopes: do you wear a ski helmet?

Having booked a skiing holiday for the first time in 10 years, I started to wonder what has changed since I last flexed my supple limbs on the slopes (apart from the suppleness of the limbs themselves) and it became clear that ski helmets are now quite common and a consideration. A natural reaction might be to think that the RoSPA CEO would immediately decide to wear one (it is an inevitable implication of this job that I don’t want to set a bad example), but it’s not quite as simple as that.

skiing ski helmets Austria Tom Mullarkey

RoSPA’s chief executive Tom Mullarkey on the Olympic downhill run in Axamer-Lizum, Austria.

At RoSPA, we invite people to make informed and reasoned safety decisions, we believe that ‘life should be as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible’ and we extol the virtues of a ‘risk assessment’ (jargon for thinking the issues through) – so we should ourselves take a measured and balanced perspective. And if there’s no need to wear a helmet, it would be daft to do so. But I don’t want to set a bad example there either.

Let’s look at the evidence ‘for’ wearing a helmet. According to various sources, around 5,000 people suffered a ‘serious’ head injury on the ski slopes in France last year. In Austria, it was estimated that around 150 people (per week during the skiing season) needed hospital attention and in the same country, 27 people have died this season in skiing accidents. What constitutes ‘serious’ was one unanswered question. Whether they were or were not wearing a helmet (and indeed what protection it provided), were missing pieces of the jigsaw.

Tellingly, in many countries (including Austria where we went), it is now compulsory for children to wear a helmet and doing a straw poll around the office, it seems that most snowboarders have opted in too. So even if the safety case for a helmet isn’t clear, people are translating the perceived risk into a decision to put one on. A trawl of web advice suggests that professionals such as ski patrols, ski schools etc are generally encouraging the wearing of a helmet (they would inevitably see the consequences of not wearing one more often than the rest of us) and if you’re going to wear one for riding a horse, a bike, rock-climbing, kayaking etc, the potential for head injuries whilst skiing are every bit as high. The friends we were going with, who are not in the safety business, had already acquired theirs and this created a bit of peer pressure. And if you’ve ever seen me skiing… well, I’m at least as dangerous to myself as any snowboarder (snowboarders – please don’t write in).

skiing Austria ski helmets Tom Mullarkey

Skiers wearing helmets in the Axamer Lizum Funicular Railway, Austria.

On the evidence ‘against’, the clarity is not there either. There’s no compulsion to wear a helmet (although at least one insurer requires it) and it’s also hard to know what value a helmet might bring to you in a collision. Like any head protection, it will probably reduce the severity of an injury up to a certain point. If you hit a tree when going flat out, you may well suffer a serious head injury every bit as drastic as if you were not wearing one.

There is also the question of reduced visibility/hearing which might make you less safe. There are practical issues like carrying the helmet out on the plane (although it is possible to rent one in most resorts, if you don’t mind the sweaty liner).  And, of course, there is the cost. A low-end helmet costs around £15-£20 but the high end is £60-£200, not inconsiderable for something you might not wear again for another 10 years! But skiing is an expensive business and when a lift-pass costs €150-€250 for the week, and renting the skis and boots in the region of €100-€200, the price of a helmet is ultimately not that significant.

Making the judgement entailed a bit more research. There are, I discovered, three standards for ski helmets: CEN1077 (EU variant), ASTM F2040 (US) or arguably the more stringent Snell RS-98. The precise construction and testing regimes of these standards are mind-boggling and overly complex (not really surprising – that’s why we have standards as a shorthand), but having given about as much time to this issue as I willingly would (30 minutes on the web), I decided to treat them all the same. That opened up the whole price range and this, I think, made the decision a bit easier.

Balancing up the pros and cons of any safety decision is a matter of taste – how much risk is tolerable. In truth, I was conditioned some years ago in Courchevel by seeing an air ambulance coming in to take away a woman who had been hit by a metal roller from an overhead lift wire. Remembering the bloodstained snow all around her head pretty much made the decision for me: a helmet might not save your life or prevent a massive trauma in the worst circumstances, but it will be likely to reduce the effect of a head injury in most others. I don’t know what my family would think if I had to spend time in a brain injury unit, when the alternative was within easy reach and I just hadn’t used it for some perverse reason. A ski helmet is probably like shin pads. You might not need them very often, but when you do, you’re glad that you had them.

And so my wife and I bought our ski helmets (CEN 1077) for £25 each in the end-of-season sale on the night before departure…

skiing Austria ski helmets Tom Mullarkey

“I am persuaded that wearing a ski helmet is a good move, a step forward in personal protection, with people taking responsibility for their own safety…” – Tom Mullarkey.

In Austria, we were amazed to find that most people were wearing a helmet – perhaps 80-90 per cent. They could be rented from the ski shop for €15 for the week (but these helmets did not pass the ‘sniff test’) and when I asked the owner of the shop for her thoughts, she said that nearly everyone wears a helmet these days, particularly the locals. Her theory was that modern ‘carver’ skis can flip a skier head-over-heels down the slope much more easily than the longer, straighter ones of yesteryear and this has caused more head injuries, an antidote to which is the helmet. Be that as it may, it is now clear that if there is a clash of heads on the slopes, the person without the helmet will come off worst – perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy? I do wonder whether once the majority have chosen to wear one, the minority are forced to conform, just to protect themselves.

I am persuaded that wearing a ski helmet is a good move, a step forward in personal protection, with people taking responsibility for their own safety, rather than just relying on chance, the prompt arrival of the ‘bloodwagon’ and their health insurance.

But these considerations aside, snow conditions were perfect, the weather was superb and if anything, a 10-year gap has made the whole thing a bit less of a competition and a little more about style and relaxation. It’s like riding a bike – you don’t forget how to do it.  Oh, and you wear a helmet!

Tom Mullarkey, RoSPA’s chief executive

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