Surrounding many Churches and Places of Worship are grounds. These might be a small strip of land or a large, open area. It might include a graveyard, meadow or other open space, and trees might also feature alongside gravestones and monuments.
In the same way as the church building itself, Health and Safety must be thought through. Knowing some of the hazards is the best place to start, just as with any other kind of Risk Assessment.
Paths and access
It is important that the access and paths around the grounds are safe. Paths need to be as level as possible and free from trip hazards like raised metal manholes and so on. The most common accidents that can happen on pathways are when people trip over something, or slip on something.
Sloping inclines and ramps should have hand rails for people to hold onto, especially if they have a steep incline that might cause problems for those who are less stable on their feet. Steps should be avoided to provide good access for disabled people, while also helping to prevent slips when wet or icy and should have some kind of handrail.
Paths, access routes and car parking areas must be adequately lit at night. It is possible to use lighting with movement sensors at help improve security too. It is also worth checking that enough daylight reaches paths that are underneath overhanging tree branches.
Ideally all vehicle routes and pedestrian paths should be separated, and all crossing points adequately designated. If there are only a few parking spaces, it might not be possible to fully segregate pedestrians, however, with a larger car park separate access points (e.g. gates) should be used, and pathways should be clearly marked.
In extreme weather conditions, it might be necessary to use clear snow falls and provide salt-grit on paths to prevent people slipping on icy surfaces. This is best done on fresh snowfalls, where the snow is much easier to move, using purpose-made snow-shovels. Salt-grit can be obtained from many suppliers in the wintertime.
Fences and gates and other boundaries need to be kept in a good state of repair. Damaged metal is sharp and can easily injure somebody and old barbed-wire fences can also cause injury, especially if they are hidden by overgrown bushes or ivy. Similarly, damaged and old wooden fences can expose rusty nails. Ideally, all boundary fences should be inspected before the end of the summer, so any repairs can be done before the worst of the weather sets in.
Many Churches have graveyards that have been in use for a long period of time. Over the years, the memorial stones and monuments would have been affected by the weather and settlement of the soil around the stone. Stones can become unstable and could be unsafe, leading to serious injury should it fall onto someone.
The responsibility for the grave is that of the family of the deceased, but if they cannot be traced, the Church might be liable for the upkeep and for any injury that might occur from an unstable stone. The first step is to inspect each stone annually by means of a simple visual inspection and a simple "wobble test" (grasping the headstone and attempting to move it back and forth, any wobble indicating an unstable headstone).
A simple log can be kept of what stones were checked (by plot number or other reference) and if any wobble was detected. Some local authorities have been using a more sophisticated measuring device, but for many graveyards, the manual "wobble test" is adequate.
Each stone or monument needs to be stable and sound in its mounting, and must be free from any dangerous edges or sections that could break off or injure. This is especially true for monuments that are made up from many parts where the sections might become unfixed as the weather affects mortar and fixing pins.
Headstones and monuments might need to be made safe, possibly by laying the memorial stone on the ground (although the family should be contacted where possible) or by driving a wooden stake close to the stone to provide additional support. In some cases, it might be a case that some extra soil needs to be compacted around the headstone to compensate for settlement, while in others the expertise of a stonemason might be called for.
Many Churches and public authorities have been criticised for using yellow warning tape and signs around graves, which is understandable when you consider that graveyards are places where loved ones are laid to rest and people come to grieve. While is it important to warn people of a hazard, it is much better to take positive action to eliminate the hazard by securing, laying down or supporting loose headstones where there is a specific risk of injury.
Pots and plant containers
There have been some stories in the press about Churches removing plant pots from their grounds. The basis is that a person strimming or mowing the lawn could injure themselves if they accidentally cut the grass too close to the container. It's an example of not keeping risk control in proportion to the magnitude of the risk!
The chance of an injury caused by fragments of a plant pot is minimal because the person cutting the grass will undoubtedly see the plant pot or container and either move it or work around it.
Where containers are being used to grow plants a few simple checks can be made to ensure that the pot will not topple or fall over and that the container is not so damaged that it could cause someone an injury.
Likewise with hanging baskets, these should be checked when hung to ensure that the chain is in a good condition (not rusted), which a similar check to any baskets with steel wire frames and those baskets that could rot through.
Open graves and other excavations
Open graves can pose a high risk to visitors and the people who dig them. Open graves need to be marked using suitable signs which are visible from all sides. The area must also be suitable fenced off to prevent people falling in when the grave is not being used for a committal.
Any excavation that is deeper than 1.2 metres needs to have sloping sides or the sides must be supported in some way to prevent collapse. Even for excavations that are not as deep as 1.2 metres, there is still a risk that the sides of the excavation could collapse if they are not correctly supported. Likewise, if an excavation is not well marked, there could be a risk that a vehicle might fall into the excavation, or those working next to the excavation could drop things onto those working in the excavation.
Before digging, It is also very important not to dig close to any services in the area, like water pipes, drainage systems and electrical cables. Excavations rely on knowledge of safe digging techniques alongside specialist knowledge of soil types and stability, alongside techniques to trace service cables and pipes, and is best left to specialists.
Many Church grounds have a number of trees, and these could have loose or damaged branches which could fall and injure someone below. Trees should be inspected by a competent person, like a tree surgeon, if there is believed to be any risk of branches falling and causing injury. Trees should be inspected from time-to-time to check for signs of disease and lightning strike and this is commonly carried out annually. Any works that need to be done to make the tree safe should be done as soon as possible.
The roots of trees could affect buildings, monuments, paths and drainage systems. Careful examination might be needed if this is considered to be a problem. Signs of this can include cracked masonry, unstable monuments and poor drainage. In the case of a drainage problem, a camera survey might help identify the problem and most specialist drain companies can carry out these surveys.
Note that some trees could be covered by a Tree Preservation Order, and the Local Authority must be contacted before any work is carried out on the tree. It is becoming increasingly common for Tree Preservation Orders to be served on trees in historic graveyards.
The grounds might also have been planted with a number of shrubs and other plants. Again, these should be inspected on a routine basis and pruned back if needed, to keep access paths as clear as possible. Care is needed when using chemicals in grounds, especially if the area is open to the public.
The equipment that is used to maintain and keep the grounds could be a hazards to those who use it, such as volunteer gardeners or groundskeepers. All equipment needs to be inspected from time to time to make sure that it is safe, and equipment must be kept in a good state of repair.
People who use equipment must be trained in its safe use, and any special precautions that they must follow to operate the equipment correctly and safely. These precautions might include the use of personal protective equipment, like gloves, eye-protection or ear defenders.
All equipment must be used as per the instruction manual, and some equipment might need specialist training certificates (for example, chain saws).
Electrical equipment is sometimes used outside. All electrical connections must be suitable weather-resistant, except for temporary power for thing like lawnmowers that are not being used in wet conditions. All outside electrical wiring and equipment should be protected by a Residual Current Device (trip switch), and parts of the fixed wiring should be inspected at the same time as the building's electrical installation. Appliances, including electric lawnmowers, should be Portable Appliance Tested the same as all other electrical equipment, and preferably inspected before use.
It is also important to consider any chemicals that might be used. For general information on chemicals, please see our chemicals page.
It is useful to a record of inspection of your grounds, especially the memorial stones and trees. This record needs to log any problems you have found and the actions that are needed to correct them.