Beautiful but deadly – public safety at reservoirs

7 April 2020

The challenge of managing public safety at UK reservoirs was addressed recently at a meeting held by the British Dam Society in London. Suzanne Pritchard reports.

More than 400 people drown in the UK’s open waters each year. According to the latest figures from the National Water Safety Forum, five reservoir deaths were recorded in the UK in 2018. 

Reservoirs are relatively controlled sites where professionals involved in operating, maintaining, supervising and inspecting the facility, all have a role in ensuring that the site is as safe as can be for visiting members of the public. However, as the British Dam Society acknowledges, balancing safety with accessibility in open spaces is still a challenge, and is a very sensitive and difficult issue.

Bridget Ellerington is a Health, Safety and Wellbeing Practitioner with the Environment Agency and is the agency’s technical lead for public safety.

“It’s always great to come out and talk about public safety,” she said at the BDS event which was held on 8 July 2019. “The more people understand public safety and the significance of it in terms of keeping the public safe at reservoirs and other bodies of water, the better it is. It is a serious subject.”

Public safety a priority

With 45,000 assets which the public can access, the Environment Agency has a policy of encouraging people to enjoy on-water and waterside activities at its facilities. The public has access to 212 statutory reservoirs, plus 1000km of river navigation including locks, weirs and canoe passes, with more than 30,000 registered boats.

“Public safety is pretty much a number one priority for the Environment Agency. The public will interact with our assets whether we want them to or not. And over the past ten years,” Ellerington adds, “six people have sadly died.” 

The key challenges when it comes to managing public safety, Ellerington says, are that members of the public:

  • Are unpredictable.
  • Aren’t trained in assessing the risks.
  • Don’t wear personal protective equipment.
  • Don’t follow processes and procedures.
  • Take risks that we wouldn’t.
  • Ignore warning signs.
  • Bypass control measures.

The problem is compounded by the fact that all facilities cannot be monitored 24/7. However, Ellerington says, YouTube is becoming her “good friend” and is a “brilliant way to educate ourselves and see what people are really up to”.

Access to facilities

Colleagues from similar organisations regularly communicate concerns about public safety and access to facilities. They often share videos which have been uploaded to social media platforms and YouTube where members of the public record their adventures. Such examples include:

  • BMX bikers cycling around the plug hole spillway at Lady Bower reservoir, then lowering bikes and cycling around the tunnels. Legal action was threatened if the video was not taken down from the internet.
  • At Newby Bridge in Cumbria a concerned resident sent the Environment Agency a video of two people enacting a sword fight on the wingwall in the middle of the weir by raging water. Despite signs saying very deep water and do not enter, a local kayak company also undertook training and rescues there. The Environment Agency has since put different stones on the weir so it cannot be stood on and the problem seems to have been solved.
  • In Wainfleet in Lincolnshire more than two months’ worth of rain fell in three days during June 2019, and led to extensive flooding following a breach of the flood bank on the River Steeping. More than 500 homes were evacuated and a Chinook helicopter was used to temporarily dam the river. Engineers using drones to survey the river bank and design a permanent repair reported seeing members of the public sitting on bags of aggregate on the unstable river bank. They were asked to leave very promptly.

Ellerington says that when doing a risk assessment of sites, it is useful to Google assets to discover just what people have been getting up to and sharing in the public domain. This has led to further discoveries of boy scout groups and even fire and rescue services accessing facilities where it is just not safe to do so. From a health, safety and regulatory perspective, Ellerington says that Google has become a really useful tool.

Public safety risk assessment

Stephen Naylor is a chartered civil engineer with the Environment Agency.  He says that the public can be very imaginative when it comes to climbing and accessing facilities, and stresses that to complete a public safety risk assessment (PSRA) the assessor must visit the site.

“You can think through a PSRA but on site is where you need to be,” Naylor stated. “You can’t always see everything on a drawing and you need to know the environment around your assets.”

Information should be known about the location of schools, holiday parks and public right of ways, while also investigating if there is a history of attraction leading to foreseeable trespass.

Such history of attraction can be problematic and Naylor says that an escalation of control measures to prevent it is often met by an escalation of criminal damage.

“Some of our sites are just a magnet for vandalism,” he said. “More control measures often mean even more ingenuity by the public.”

Ellerington acknowledges that agency assets are often subjected to vandalism and signs are defaced, or removed. Fences are removed, set alight or metal fencing stolen for scrap, and padlocks are often stolen too. However, one of the biggest problems is the theft of life buoys which are obviously very important and expensive to replace. People who remove them do not understand their significance and ignore signs which have been put up to try to educate. The agency is looking at lockable cabinets which are more expensive but more effective.

“We’ve got to keep on our toes to keep the public out of harm’s way,” Naylor commented.

Trialling throwlines

Northwest water company United Utilities has been using innovative thinking to continually improve safety at its 165 reservoirs. The company has been working with Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, to identify what can be done to help reduce the number of drowning incidents in reservoirs throughout the northwest of England.

In a 12-month trial which started in April 2019, throwlines were installed at 20 locations around eight reservoirs across Greater Manchester and Lancashire, each dedicated to the memory of someone who lost their life.

The throwlines are held in a lockable box. Instructions on the sign direct the public to call 999 in an emergency, when an operator at North West Fire Control will give a code to unlock the box which houses a 20m throwline and a whistle. The controller will also give instructions on how to use these, as well as dispatch rescue services to the location. Each board has a unique reference to pinpoint the exact location at the reservoir so recuse services know what appliances to send and precisely where.

Martin Padley, Water Services Director at United Utilities, said: “The land around our reservoirs is a wonderful natural resource and we want to do everything possible to encourage people to visit and enjoy the health benefits of being out in the countryside.

“However, reservoirs are too dangerous for swimming and despite our best efforts to raise awareness of the dangers there are always a few who will take a chance. Sadly, four people have lost their lives over the last two years in the North West alone. 

“We hope the throwlines and the information displayed with them will help deter people from swimming and, if the worst should happen,” he adds, “it could make the difference between life and death.” 

Although its key aim is to try to prevent tragedies occurring, United utilities is also working on a fatality response to offer guidance in the event of a tragedy.  Various considerations have to be coordinated, such as helping the police in their work with access for police divers and to CCTV recordings, liaising with legal and public relations teams, as well as providing mental health first aiders for those involved in dealing with such a traumatic experience. 

Hard-hitting message

Recent drowning tragedies have also been used to inspire a hard-hitting water safety play which was launched by United Utilities in June 2019. Aimed at teenagers it toured local schools and drew upon the stories of a 13-year-old and 16-year-old boy who drowned in separate open water incidents in 2011 and 2017. 

Sian Corr, Health and Safety Manager at United Utilities said: “By taking this hard-hitting production into schools, we hope that we can really get the message across to young people that swimming in reservoirs can cost your life. There is something uniquely powerful about a live theatre production and the fact that the play is based on real-life stories makes it all the stronger.”

United Utilities has been targeting teenagers further with a reservoir safety campaign across social media platforms. It explains how reservoirs are the worst place to swim as water temperature rarely gets above 11oC and that cold-water shock can kill even the strongest swimmer in just 60 seconds; while many people are unaware if they jump in, they just can’t get out.

The Don’t Let Them Go In campaign urges teens not to ignore the signs; not to let friends jump in the water; and not to be the one who watched their friends drown. 

“Don’t let them go in,” the campaign states. “Reservoirs are beautiful, but deadly.”


Key thoughts from the British Dam Society meeting on Public Safety at UK reservoirs

  • One member of the audience asked how do you effectively use signs to change behaviour? How do you get more innovative signs? A lot of people ignore signs or make risk-based decisions based on them. 
  • Education is the key to targeting young people, especially males. You have to make them aware that there are unknown factors such as water depth, temperature, flow rate etc.
  • Many reservoirs are magnets for those seeking adventures.
  • Although there may be an average of seven accidental deaths in UK reservoirs each year, there are an even greater number of people who are rescued and survive. There are many people who suffer injury and life changing but not fatal drowning experiences.
  • Drones can be useful in helping with safety observations at bigger facilities.
  • Stephen Naylor from the Environment Agency said the “as quite often there isn’t any water in our assets but that can make them more inviting to the public”. One of its biggest problems is dry flood storage areas on land open to the public. Problems start when impounding begins as the agency needs to know who is on the land and what has to be done to keep them safe. There may be backpackers camping in wild, homeless people and often livestock. For example, one site impounds 1Mm3 but has a public footpath, nature reserve and playing fields going through it. Thought must be given to the design of the scheme and signs put up to warn the public. If impounding to depth workers from the agency have to walk over the site to spot any potential problems before impounding.


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