Sensible Health and Safety in Schools – The Myths
According to research by the University of Exeter, children come second in the list of groups most affected by health and safety myths. In this article, Michael Evans looks at some of these myths and at how schools can take a sensible, rather than a “better safe than sorry”, approach to keeping pupils safe.
Schools have a statutory requirement to abide by health and safety legislation. This applies to risks to staff, pupils and visitors as well as to any contractors in the school. All work activities carried out by the school, including off-site activities such as school trips, are also covered.
An increase in risk consciousness has led to health and safety often being used as an excuse to stop activities or disguise unpopular decisions. This has given rise to a number of myths and misunderstandings, and in some cases it has been used as a catch-all phrase to cover something completely different.
Focus on the real risks
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) points out that the management of health and safety should focus on real risks that could potentially cause harm. It should not involve wasting time on trivial matters and unnecessary paperwork.
When an over-cautious approach is adopted, says the HSE, pupils will miss out on challenging and exciting activities, plus other learning activities that enable them to develop new skills. Importantly, health and safety in schools is not about banning activities.
Overall accountability for health and safety lies with the employer, although day-to-day responsibility is normally delegated to the Head and the school management team.
The employer will vary according to the type of school. It could be a local authority, a proprietor, an academy trust, a charity, a company, a partnership or a board of governors.
The HSE stresses that in any organisation, sensible health and safety starts at the top and relies on every member of the management team to make sure that all health and safety arrangements are appropriate and proportionate.
The priority is to create a safe learning environment where pupils are given an appreciation of risk and how to deal with it. This means that control measures will be put in place that will do what is reasonably practicable to manage and reduce significant risks.
The classroom checklist
“Traditional” classrooms are typically lower-risk environments and the HSE has provided a classroom checklist which, while not mandatory, can be quite useful for those working there.
It is a tool for school staff to use in order to raise awareness of areas of concern. It covers issues such as where an uneven floor, a blocked gangway or trailing wires can possibly cause trips and falls. Furniture should be in good condition and trollies should be provided for moving heavy equipment. Pupils should be advised about good practice when using computers.
Electrical safety is another issue. Plugs and cables should all be in good repair and in addition to regular visual checks, portable equipment should be tested at suitable intervals to ensure that it continues to be safe to use. Any damaged equipment should be taken out of service.
If the school contains asbestos, it is important that staff are familiar with its location and condition. Similarly, it is important for them to be given guidance with respect to securing pieces of work to walls and ceilings that might contain asbestos.
Fire exits should be unobstructed, kept unlocked and easily opened. Fire evacuation notices should be clearly displayed and staff and pupils should be familiar with evacuation drill.
Rooms should have sufficient natural ventilation and a reasonable room temperature. Measures should be in place to prevent unwanted glare and heat from the sun.
The HSE points out that this list is not exhaustive and it is up to school staff to identify any other hazards that might be apparent. For instance, design and technology workshops, science laboratories, art studios, textile, drama and PE are not covered and there could be inherent risks in these activities.
Some of the higher risks that a school might need to manage include vehicle and pedestrian movements, such as those associated with cars and buses delivering and collecting pupils at the start and end of the school day. There will also be risks associated with any refurbishment or construction work that is taking place at the school. Adventure activities can form an important part of the school curriculum and any risks associated with these will also need to be managed.
It is easy to fall prey to health and safety myths and misunderstandings. There are many instances where activities have been curtailed or prohibited, with health and safety being given as the reason. In fact, the HSE now has on its website the findings of a Myth Busters Challenge.
Many of these seem to have no logic, while others simply use health and safety legislation as a cover for something else. An example of this was when parents were taken to task after their daughter took a flask of hot drink on a school trip. They were told that there was a no hot drink policy “due to health and safety”. The HSE pointed out that although the school might have a policy with respect to children having hot food or drink in their packed lunches, this should have been clearly communicated to parents rather than putting the blame on a health and safety catch-all.
In another case, a school governor stipulated that for “health and safety” reasons bamboo canes supporting runner bean plants in the school garden should have cane toppers. The HSE’s response was that this seemed to be plain common sense and it was a pity that it should be represented as a “health and safety requirement” when there was no such thing.
“Health and safety” was the reason that a pupil in another school was banned from taking in his pet baby chick as part of a presentation. Bird flu was quoted as the main risk.
Over-caution has led to dozens of other cases. Dew on the grass was given as a reason for the postponement of a sports day for 3- to 4-year-olds. Another school refused to apply sun cream to a child in a reception class “for health and safety reasons”.
A proportional approach was recommended after several schools banned footballs in school playgrounds and pupils in a secondary school were told not to push a fellow pupil in his wheelchair because they had not received appropriate training.
In a school where premises were owned and administered by a private company, staff were told that due to health and safety concerns they were not to use Blu Tack to display work on windows because it contained a chemical that could cause glass to shatter. Since this was plainly not true, the reason for the ban certainly had nothing to do with healthy and safety.
With some justification, the HSE feels sensitive that in the past it has been wrongly blamed for a great many of the health and safety myths that have crept into school life. Its Myth Busters Challenge Panel can provide a useful resource to help schools avoid the more commonly occurring ones.