Agenda item

Open Water Safety

(i)             Report of the Corporate Director of Regeneration Economy and Growth

(ii)           Presentation by the Corporate Health and Safety Compliance Manager, Regeneration, Economy and Growth


The Committee considered a report of the Corporate Director of Regeneration, Economy and Growth that provided information on action taken by DCC and its partners in relation to open water safety (for copy see file of minutes).


The Corporate Health & Safety Compliance Manager gave a presentation as an update to Members on Open Water Safety that provided national statistics relating to groups that were at risk of getting into trouble in open water.


Councillor Fenwick commented that the statistics were worrying that showed nationally that children from deprived backgrounds and children from black ethnic backgrounds were more likely to get into trouble in the water.  She asked the Committee if work could be carried out to reach out to these families to offer support to try to prevent these accidents from happening.  She was unsure if this was down to a lack of swimming lessons available to vulnerable families.


The Corporate Health and Safety Compliance Manager responded that an education programme had been developed and was delivered in schools that helped to target vulnerable groups and educate children on water safety.  He did feel that further work was required around groups that were at risk and he would look to see how he could influence it. He added looking at the national statistics compiled by the University of Bristol not all applied to Durham.


Upon analysing the tables within the report Mr D Balls observed that it appeared that initiatives rolled out in Durham City had worked well but those initiatives rolled out elsewhere in the County had not.  He queried whether the Durham City initiatives could be replicated across the County to reduce fatalities and whether the placement of resources had an impact.


The Corporate Health and Safety Compliance Manager explained that the circumstances in Durham City were unique. The two safety groups ran programmes in schools that helped to target groups at risk.  The main challenge in rural areas was how to manage mental health when it led to suicide attempts.  He explained that social factors such as the cost of living crisis and post pandemic factors may have had a negative impact on public mental health and increased the risk of suicide related incidents across the county, which is supported by statistics nationally.  He noted that the Council, via public health had a recent peer reviewed suicide prevention policy and a multi-agency suicide prevention alliance which aimed to identify and target suicide related risks.


He provided an example of infrastructure works that were being undertaken at Newton Cap viaduct to prevent suicide related incidents.  He did not feel the distribution of resources was a factor in initiatives being less successful in rural areas as it was the situations that could not be controlled being the issue.


Mr D Balls suggested that further detail could be included alongside the figures in the report to gain a better understanding of what they reflected.


Councillor Sutton-Lloyd stressed that caution should be exercised when looking at statistics as they were not clear cut and potentially the wrong conclusion could be deduced.


Councillor Currah emphasised that water safety was crucial as his neighbour’s child had died in open water.  He had seen that young people posted pictures on social media swimming in places they shouldn’t and jumping into cold water in quarries putting themselves into dangerous situations.  He mentioned that a business had set up at Stanhope quarry that provided water sports.  He queried whether other sites could be opened for wild swimming days perhaps on the first weekend of the month for supervised swims in a controlled way.


The Corporate Health and Safety Compliance Manager suggested that this would be a challenge as although the Council worked with Northumbrian Water their approach was that there should be no swimming.  The National Open Water Swimming Associations had stated people should be allowed to swim but do it as an informed choice that used safe behaviours and actions.  It was difficult to get the balance right.


Councillor Gunn seconded Councillor Fenwick’s comments that the statistics were shocking that young people from minority backgrounds were twice as likely to get into trouble in the water.  She suggested that the subject of open water safety should be considered in other scrutiny committees to promote as young people did not choose their heritage that could potentially put them in danger. 


There was a need to look at national statistics and see how they impacted on communities in Durham.  She commented that she had worked with Fiona Gosling who had lost her son Cameron in open water.  Fiona did brilliant work in schools to educate children on the dangers of open water.  She felt that education was the key and suggested inviting the Director of Public Health to attend a meeting to discuss further.


The Corporate Health and Safety Compliance Manager recognised that the research did try to pinpoint at risk groups demographically that included children from certain backgrounds and males who were more at risk.  There was a necessity to make smarter channels for information available to educate and raise awareness within these groups and identify clear steps to go forward.


Councillor Charlton expressed concern on the timing of open water safety education in schools as climate change had altered seasons with warmer weather sometimes coming early or later in the year than anticipated.  She queried when education was delivered in schools and if there were plans to show the video that had been created.


The Corporate Health and Safety Compliance Manager acknowledged that the climate was changing and that created challenges.  He confirmed that education programmes were delivered in schools normally through June and July with some planned delivery in April and May if there was warmer weather forecast.  Statistically it was best to deliver in May and June every year or show the video several times but some schools found it difficult to carry out these programmes more than once in their assemblies.  He responded to Councillor Charlton that the education programme hit all schools including primary and secondary and the ‘dying to be cool’ campaign was only shown to secondary schools with a softer message given to primary school children.


Councillor Boyes explained that the safety group in Durham City was established in 2014 after a fourth fatality (three students and one suicide).  A site visit had taken place with Members to pinpoint dangerous areas and arrangements were quickly made to erect barriers where required.  This had successfully reduced the numbers of fatalities however even when barriers were erected it was difficult to prevent a suicide if someone was determined to kill themselves.


Councillor Miller queried if the initiatives in Durham City could be replicated across the County.  He enquired whether just one safety group was adequate for the County and if there were localised hotspots given the numbers.


The Corporate Health and Safety Compliance Manager verified that it was difficult to replicate what was initiated in Durham City across the County as different risks were present and different types of education awareness was required in each area.  Within Durham City the Council liaised with licence holders, retailers, door staff and the university that could not be replicated elsewhere. 


There were differences in types of fatalities, circumstances and backgrounds between Durham City and other areas in County Durham.  He gave an example of a male being found in the River Wear who was from Ashington but it was unclear as to where he had entered the river.  People intent on suicide tended to jump from structures into open water where no initiative could predict or resolve.


The Corporate Health and Safety Compliance Manager also emphasised that there were new challenges being faced by Public Health around Mental Health that focused on prevention plans.  There were no hot spots identified as areas where people got into trouble were sporadic.  He emphasised that one safety group was sufficient but if hot spots and trends were identified a group would be convened to address the issues but this was not required at present.


Chief Fire Officer S Helps put into context that someone was twice as likely to drown then die in a house fire.  There were three main categories of deaths by drowning i) young children playing in open water, ii) young adult males drinking alcohol near open water and iii) suicides.  The Fire and Rescue Service did assess situations but they have no statutory duty to respond to floods even though all staff were highly trained.  He recognised that work had gone into cleaning up rivers and water ways that encouraged people to go swimming and paddle boarding in open water but education facilities were needed in or near these places.




That the contents of the report be noted.


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