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Employment and Migration Blog

Safety in the Sistine

Posted by Stephen Booth on 18 Feb 2013

As many of my clients know, I am taking a gap year in 2013, travelling the UK and Europe so my posts this year will have a travel theme.

I have just finished 2 ½ weeks in Rome, where one of the top priorities of my wife and I was to see the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. On past visits, queues have got the better of us, but in the winter and after Christmas, things are much quieter, so we had as much time as we wanted to spend in the Sistine Chapel.

And it is certainly an amazing concentration of art. You enter through a small door, onto a marble pavement which extends a couple of metres and then goes down 3 steps to the main floor. And as everyone knows about Michelangelo painting the ceiling, most visitors stop, and look up to stare, as soon as they get through the door, attention pretty much distracted from the steps by the sight of God creating the world, and creating Adam, and the brightly coloured portraits of sibyls and prophets.

So, immediate WH&S issue: the risk of someone tumbling down the stairs is pretty high. And if the Work Health & Safety legislation applied, the Vatican would clearly have a duty to all these visitors to a workplace. At first glance, there is nothing in place to address the risk: no barriers, no high-vis markers on the edges of the marble steps, no prominent signs (no-one would look at them anyway!). It seems “all reasonably practicable steps” have not been taken to remove or minimise the risk.

But as you spend time there you realise they have done a lot better than that. At the top of the stairs, there is the constant presence of three uniformed attendants. At first, it seems their main role is to say “Shhhhh!!”, frequently, to silence conversation out of respect for the Chapel as a consecrated place. But longer observation shows that, more than that, they gently call people to themselves as they come in, by gently suggesting that they move in (to let other visitors get in), and to go down the stairs. And doing this takes the visitors out of their distracted state - they become aware of the steps, move onto level ground, and from there continue to stare - their major risks then being a crick in the neck from looking fixedly upwards to make out the very complicated design of the ceiling, or dizziness from walking around the chapel while looking up.

The ceiling is an amazing pattern of colourful and moving figures some of whom who seem to be in 3 dimensions and descending into the tall space of the chapel. For those paying close attention to a guidebook, it is a complex pattern of cross-referring Biblical characters, stories and prophecies, and a theme going from one end to the other, as well as an artistic triumph.

For any tourist though, all that will be for nought if you do not “Mind the step!”.

And one other thing: the story of Michelangelo painting the ceiling lying on his back for 4 years is probably much exaggerated. But in a Roman 16th century palazzo we visited, the frescos at the top of the wall were finished by the pupils of the main artist - because he fell from the scaffolding to the stone floor some metres below, and most unfortunately died. A clear failure to meet basic WH&S requirements (no or insufficient fencing and harnessing to obviate a clearly identifiable risk, clearly reasonably practicable even in the 16th century). Prosecution would be certain.


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