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School caretakers are concerned with making sure that teachers and pupils can work in clean and safe surroundings. In smaller schools they usually work on their own, or in larger schools they may work as part of a team, and, as they supervise other workers such as cleaners and maintenance staff, they may be known as Site Managers. Health and safety is important in schools because there is a very particular duty of care to the children who attend, and this also applies not only to teaching staff but also to all areas under the responsibility of the school caretaker.
As there are countless safety hazards for those working and using schools that need to be overcome on a daily basis, school caretakers will need to maintain their own safety, as well as the safety of the area and the people around them. Health and safety compliance is crucial to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the entire school community.
What is the role of a school caretaker?
A school caretaker’s role is definitely not a nine-to-five job, with early starts and some evening or even weekend duties. They are responsible for the safety, security, maintenance and cleanliness of school premises, and that includes, but is not limited to, classrooms, cloakrooms, corridors, dining areas, halls, offices and the school grounds.
Depending on where they work, and the type of work that they are doing, the role of school caretakers may involve, but is not limited to:
- Opening the building at the start of the day, and locking all doors and windows at the end of the day or when an area is not in operation.
- Assisting teaching staff with setting up facilities such as chairs, tables etc.
- Controlling access to the premises, performing security checks, maintaining security and reporting incidents, such as vandalism, to the police and to the head teacher.
- Cleaning the building or supervising a team of cleaners.
- Grounds maintenance, gardening and performing landscape duties or supervising others in these roles.
- Sweeping / salting and keeping school footpaths and car parks clear, including litter collection around the school site.
- Inspecting the building, including heating, cooling, lighting and alarm systems to make sure they are in good working order.
- Ensuring all equipment is maintained effectively, including PAT testing electrical equipment, in line with statutory requirements.
- Walking around the school and grounds, checking cleanliness and tidiness, looking for hazards, damage and items needing repair.
- Reporting items needing repair, carrying out basic repairs and maintenance, such as replacing broken windowpanes or fixing leaking taps, and arranging for and supervising outside contractors to do more complicated or major repairs.
- Dealing efficiently with pre-planned maintenance and assisting with the organisation of school refurbishments.
- Using the appropriate work equipment provided, in accordance with training and instructions.
- Monitoring cleaning materials, tools and furniture and re-ordering as required.
- Moving objects such as equipment and furniture around the school site.
- Managing bookings for any buildings or rooms available for hire.
- Planning their own routines to suit day-to-day requirements and the needs of the school.
- Maintaining appropriate record keeping.
- Responding to emergency callouts and taking action, as required.
- Complying with the school’s health and safety and other policies to create a safe working environment for everyone.
School caretakers will be working closely alongside other school staff to deliver high-quality provision for children. The above list of responsibilities is not exhaustive. Whatever the environment they work in, school caretakers will be responsible for ensuring the safety of their work and any equipment to protect the safety of themselves and other people.
What are the main health and safety risks school caretakers can encounter?
There are many potential health and safety hazards and risks present in a school setting; slips, trips and falls are some of the most common risks. According to HSE statistics, 55% of all accidents in education settings are caused by a slip or a trip. Slips, trips and falls are one of the top three causes of non-fatal work injuries involving days away from work. Each year they cause thousands of preventable injuries, and they can cause various injuries such as bruises, sprains, scrapes, broken bones and head traumas. Around 1,000 of these injuries involve someone fracturing bones or dislocating joints.
Key aspects of slips and trips include:
- Wet or slippery surfaces
- Uneven surfaces
- Trailing cables
- Changes in level
Many of the tasks which school caretakers and cleaners carry out on a regular basis require the person to adopt awkward or twisted postures, for example climbing on ladders, buffing, wiping, vacuuming, or stretching to reach behind a bank of computers. Prolonged static or repetitive postures can lead to serious musculoskeletal disorders and repetitive strain injury (RSI). The condition mostly affects parts of the upper body, such as the forearms, elbows, wrists, hands, shoulders and neck. RSI is usually associated with doing a particular activity repeatedly or for a long period of time. The most common causes of this kind of problem are situations which require bending, twisting, stretching and reaching or crouching. Repetitive movements, rapid hand movements and forceful exertions all increase the likelihood of problems occurring, while lack of time to work safely means that shortcuts are more likely to be taken, increasing the risk of injury.
Manual handling injuries have a major impact on all workplaces and sectors, costing the economy hundreds of millions every year. Manual handling encompasses a wide range of actions including lifting, lowering, pulling, pushing, and carrying awkward and heavy objects; the risks are endless for school caretakers who are on their feet most of the day, and the work involves lifting and carrying so they may experience manual handling injuries such as:
- Back injuries
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as shoulder strain
- Repetitive strain injury (RSI) such as wrist strain
- Soft-tissue injuries to the wrists, arms, shoulders, legs or neck
- Long-term pain in the arms, legs or joints
Overexertion is something that is easily done in any environment and can be difficult to avoid. Overexertion is usually caused by someone trying to lift or move something heavier than their capabilities or doing so incorrectly. Manual handling tasks should be avoided wherever possible. Where it isn’t possible to avoid handling a load, suitable safety measures should be introduced such as having the use of trollies or lifting equipment to move heavy items, and all school caretakers should receive manual handling training to prevent and avoid injury.
Of the more than 33,600 state schools in Britain, over 75 per cent contain asbestos according to the University and College Union. Asbestos was especially useful in insulation such as for pipe lagging and boilers, and can commonly be found in any building that was constructed before the year 2000, so school caretakers may encounter asbestos during the course of their work. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) asbestos kills around 5,000 workers each year, which is more than the number of people killed on the road, and around 20 trades workers die each week as a result of past exposure.
When materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air. When these fibres are inhaled, they can cause serious diseases. These diseases will not affect you immediately as they often take a long time to develop, but once diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything.
Many cases of inadvertent, short-term exposure to asbestos will most likely have led to minimal exposure to fibres, with little likelihood of any long-term ill health effects. If you are concerned about possible exposure to asbestos from work activities, you are advised to consult your GP and ask for a note to be made in your personal record about possible exposure, including date(s), duration, type of asbestos and likely exposure levels, if known.
The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) places duties on employers, the self-employed and people in control of work premises (the responsible person) to report certain serious workplace accidents, occupational diseases and specified dangerous occurrences (near misses). Exposure to asbestos is reportable under RIDDOR when a work activity causes the accidental release or escape of asbestos fibres into the air in a quantity sufficient to cause damage to the health of any person. Such situations are likely to arise when work is carried out without suitable controls, or where those controls fail.
School caretakers must be able to recognise asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) and know what to do if they come across them in order to protect themselves and others. Training for asbestos awareness is intended to give workers the information they need to avoid work that may disturb asbestos during any normal work which could disturb the fabric of a building, or another item which might contain asbestos. If a school caretaker is planning to carry out work that will definitely disturb ACMs, further specific information, instruction and training will be needed. Asbestos awareness training is a requirement of regulation 10 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012), and the supporting Approved Code of Practice L143 Managing and Working with Asbestos.
School caretakers may have to work at heights. Falling from height can cause serious or even fatal injury. School caretakers should exercise every precaution when working at height. For school caretakers working on ladders, scaffolding or any other type of access equipment, falls from heights are a risk that needs to be taken into consideration. Using framed scaffolds offer several advantages over using ladders by providing a wider, more stable work platform. Working from scaffolding with a wide work platform is much easier and safer than working from a ladder.
Working at height can also pose risks for others, as a worker falling from a height may injure anyone below when they fall. Avoid working directly underneath someone else where possible, and ensure that any tools or materials kept at a height are well secured so they can’t fall or cause harm.
When working at height, always change tools in secure areas where there is no risk of allowing tools to fall, and don’t use tools without attaching them to a work belt when working at height. Tools being used at height should regularly be checked for damage and check that there is no damage to lanyards, carabiners, attachment rings or belts.
Poor organisation of storage and access systems for equipment and materials and work in progress may create hazards. Clutter in circulation spaces such as corridors, and untidy, inaccessible and over-full storerooms, present obstacles to safe movement and create a potential fire risk. Racks and storage units should be easily accessible. Heavy or frequently used objects should not be stored at height and a safe means of access should be provided. These materials are best stored at waist height to allow easy handling, reducing the need to bend or reach. Racks and storage units should be positioned for ease of access and should not reduce or obstruct circulation space.
School caretakers need to bear in mind that hand tools can contribute to musculoskeletal disorders, as well as cause broken bones, fractures and cuts when not used properly. The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) place duties on people and companies who own, operate or have control over work equipment. PUWER also places responsibilities on businesses and organisations whose employees use work equipment, whether owned by them or not.
PUWER requires that equipment provided for use at work is:
- Suitable for the intended use.
- Safe for use, maintained in a safe condition and inspected to ensure it is correctly installed and does not subsequently deteriorate.
- Accompanied by suitable health and safety measures, such as protective devices and controls. These will normally include emergency stop devices, adequate means of isolation from sources of energy, clearly visible markings and warning devices.
- Used in accordance with specific requirements.
Generally, any equipment which is used by an employee at work is covered by PUWER, for example hammers, knives, ladders, drilling machines, power presses, circular saws, photocopiers, lifting equipment (including lifts), dumper trucks and motor vehicles. Similarly, workers providing their own equipment will be covered by PUWER and it will need to comply.
Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) is caused by exposure to vibration such as from power tools. This typically affects school caretakers if using, for example, cleaning machines or drills. Try to minimise exposure to vibration and take regular breaks when using power tools that can cause this issue.
Injuries such as electrical shock and burns can occur through poorly maintained electrical equipment. All electrical equipment including staff’s own electrical equipment, will require portable electrical testing (PAT) and other specific inspections. All equipment that uses a flexible wire or cable to connect to a power supply such as, but not limited to, computers, printers and photocopiers qualifies as a portable appliance and needs to be checked. Portable appliance testing (PAT) is the term used to describe the examination of electrical appliances and equipment to ensure that they are safe to use. Often school caretakers will have the responsibility for PAT testing all school portable electrical equipment and should have completed the appropriate training.
Most electrical equipment safety defects can be found by visual examination but some types of defects can only be found by testing. A PAT test involves a visual inspection to check the appliance casing and flex for wear or damage. Plugs are also checked for damage, correct wiring and ensuring that the correct fuse rating is used.
After the equipment has passed a visual inspection it will normally undergo a series of electrical tests using a fully calibrated electrical PAT tester. A label will be attached to each appliance indicating the test results, and any item failing the tests will be easily identifiable and should be removed from service until repaired. You should record and retain the results of all PAT testing in an appliance register for future reference.
Fire safety is an essential part of any workplace environment and is especially important in schools. There are 1,500 fires each year in schools across the UK, which disrupts the education of approximately 90,000 students. When a fire starts in a building, it can happen very quickly. Burns and respiratory damage can be caused by flammable materials igniting or from electrical fires. Fire safety is even more important in establishments like schools where there may be lots of people in the building including young children.
Fire safety is a serious subject and precautions must be taken by all schools. These precautions include checking all power cords are in good condition, as detailed above in PAT testing, power outlets are not overloaded, and, if used, electric heaters are monitored closely. It is also vital to ensure that emergency lighting is installed and that staff and students know where fire extinguishers are located, where their nearest fire exit is, and that emergency exits are clear at all times. Regular fire alarm testing should take place as well as regular fire evacuation tests.
In order to remain effective, fire risk assessments must be kept up to date. It is recommended that the responsible person, which is a role often taken by the school caretaker, completes a fire risk assessment at least once a year, and must conduct a review whenever there is a significant change in the environment.
Due to the nature of their job, school caretakers who also work as school cleaners consistently work with hazardous substances. Cleaning fluids such as floor, toilet and window cleaners, bleach and polishes are regularly used. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) are intended to protect individuals from potentially hazardous substances that they may use or come into contact with at work. School caretakers should always read container labels, noting any hazards, as it is essential that they understand the mixing of certain chemicals is a potentially dangerous practice. They should also use chemicals for their intended purpose only, following safe application procedures and storing chemicals in accordance with manufacturers’ recommendations. All corrosive and toxic chemicals, including cleaning fluids, must be kept in secure stores. Quantities of flammable and highly flammable liquids stored should be kept as low as is practicable.
Dealing with challenging behaviour from children, or more significantly from parents and/or carers, can put those working in schools at an increased risk of being subjected to violence and aggression at work. Any incident in which a member of staff is verbally abused, threatened or assaulted by a child or member of the public during the course of their work should be reported. Staff should be effectively trained to work with potentially violent and aggressive children, parents and/or carers; for example, being able to recognise triggers and have appropriate strategies to use to de-escalate situations.
As a key holder for the premises, school caretakers have particular responsibility for site security especially where evening lettings and weekends or holiday periods are concerned. The main aim of keeping the establishment site secure is to prevent unauthorised entry, to detect unauthorised entry, to protect property and to prevent the spread of fire.
If an intruder is found on the premises, school caretakers should decide if the person has a lawful right to be there. Outside of school hours it may be acceptable to presume that they do not. If an intruder refuses to leave the premises when challenged, the school caretaker should consider contacting the police for assistance. School caretakers may encounter youths who are drunk, on drugs, or who are abusive and causing a nuisance on school premises, particularly outside of school hours. They should not tackle these youths on the site if they think that they themselves, or the school building, are at risk; they should ring the police and the designated on-call person. They should not approach them or make any contact with them until the police or callout person has arrived.
The role of a school caretaker involves lone working. The HSE defines lone workers as people in fixed establishments where:
- Only one person works on the premises
- People work separately from others
- People work outside normal hours, for example cleaners, security, special production maintenance or repair staff etc.
Risks to lone workers can include an increased risk of accidents, injury or ill health, and an increased vulnerability, for example in the event of violence, sudden illness, fire or other emergencies. School caretakers must have the means to call for help or to call the police in an emergency. It is essential that all accidents, violent occurrences and near misses be reported under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR), which places duties on employers, the self-employed and people in control of work premises (the responsible person) to report certain serious workplace accidents, occupational diseases and specified dangerous occurrences (near misses).
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), the minimum a business must do is:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards)
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk)
- Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn’t possible, control the risk
Risk assessment requires making a judgement on Risk Severity. Risk Severity = probability of risk materialising x impact of risk on, for example, a person or people, a business, a property etc.
Probability may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – a reasonably informed person would think it very unlikely this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- Medium (Level 2) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a significant possibility this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- High (Level 3) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a very significant or even likely possibility the risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
Impact may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – any impact that is minimal, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is isolated and short-lived.
- Medium (Level 2) – any impact that is significant, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is limited to one function or group, but there is a material operational impact and the effects may continue.
- High (Level 3) – any impact that is severe, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact impairs a critical function and/or has a systemic impact and the effects may be long-lasting or permanent.
School caretakers must ensure an assessment has been made of any hazards, which covers:
- What the potential hazard is – the risk assessment should take into consideration, for example, the type of equipment used, the way in which it is used and the environment it is used in
- Who or what could be harmed by the hazard
- How the level of risk has been established
- The precautions taken to eliminate or control that risk
Managing risk is an ongoing process that is triggered when changes affect the school’s work activities; changes such as, but not limited to:
- Changing work practices, procedures or the work environment
- Purchasing new or used equipment or using new substances
- Workforce changes
- Planning to improve efficiency or reduce costs
- New information about the workplace risks becomes available
Risk assessments should be recorded and records regularly reviewed and updated whenever necessary. Should an accident occur, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will request copies of the risk assessments.
There are a number of laws and regulations that apply to the management of schools and the work of the school’s caretaker including, but not limited to:
The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HASWA) lays down wide-ranging duties on employers. Employers must protect the ‘health, safety and welfare’ at work of all their employees, as well as others on their premises.
Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981 – these regulations require employers to provide the following:
- Adequate first aid equipment and facilities
- A sufficient number of first-aiders, and
- A first aid appointed person, for when a first-aider is unavailable.
Under the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (MHOR), manual handling which might cause injury is prohibited unless an assessment has been made, and if the operation cannot be avoided, suitable control measures should be in place. In all cases, reasonable alternatives to manual handling should be employed.
Why is PPE important
Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 2002 place a statutory duty on employers concerning the provision and use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at work. Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects workers from hazards such as trips, burns, electrocution and falls. While there is some PPE that is universal to many trades, school caretakers have certain PPE which is specific to their job.
This includes, but is not limited to:
- Eye protection to protect their eyes from hazards their job role might present to them, such as dust particles, debris and chemicals splashing up.
- Safety gloves / disposable gloves protect against different hazards such as corrosive chemicals and prevent germs and bacteria from people’s hands from being directly transferred onto items being cleaned and used.
- Bump caps – hard yet lightweight head covering to protect from knocks to the head.
- Overalls and/or outerwear provide protection from spillages or marks, and protect maintenance staff from the elements.
- Safety trainers – an alternative to steel toe-cap boots, they offer greater sensations underfoot on ladders and steps.
- Mobile phone – lone working school caretakers require a method to maintain contact when working alone, particularly out of school hours.
What training should school caretakers take?
In addition to any occupational training, school caretakers will need to participate in adequate health and safety training to ensure that they are competent to do their work. When school caretakers are trained to work safely, they should be able to anticipate and avoid injury from job-related hazards. Safety training is essential for all school caretakers appropriate to their role, and training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained.
This training for school caretakers might include, but is not limited to:
- Health and Safety for Employees
- Health and Safety for Managers
- Manual Handling
- Paediatric First Aid Training
- Workplace First Aid
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Assessing Risk
- Fire Safety Awareness
- Fire Safety in Schools
- PAT Testing Awareness
- COSHH Awareness
- Working at height
- Slips, Trips and Falls
- Lone Working
- RIDDOR Awareness
- PUWER Awareness
- Asbestos Awareness
- Ladder safety
School caretakers should at a minimum refresh their safety training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).
Get started on a course suitable for school caretakers
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