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As well as a moral responsibility to ensure that educational establishments are a safe and healthy environment for all who use them, schools have a legal obligation to follow the rules, regulations and procedures laid out in law that fall under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and its associated regulations. Health and safety is important in schools because there is a very particular duty of care to the children who attend, and this applies in the classroom and at playtime, as well as, for example, during school clubs and off-site trips. Schools are also employers, and as employers they have a legal duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees.
Accountability for the health and safety of school staff and students lies with the employer or, in the case of independent schools, the proprietor. However, the day-to-day running of the school is usually delegated to the headteacher and the school management team, and this includes responsibility for health and safety matters. Both the staff and management of the school should work in partnership to ensure that its statutory duties with regard to safety are met at all times.
As there are countless safety hazards for those working and using schools that need to be overcome on a daily basis, staff 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?
School education in the UK is divided into two main parts – primary education and secondary education – and is also split into “key stages” which are broken down as follows:
- Key Stage 1: 5 to 7 years old
- Key Stage 2: 7 to 11 years old
- Key Stage 3: 11 to 14 years old
- Key Stage 4: 14 to 16 years old
Primary school education begins at age 5 and continues until age 11, secondary school education begins at age 11 and continues until age 16, and once a student reaches the age of 16 they can either continue for a further 2 years or choose to transfer to a sixth form college or a college of further education as an alternative.
There is a variety of different staff that work in a school setting. In addition to the headteacher there are many other roles inside and outside of the classroom that contribute to how a school operates, although specific role titles and duties may vary between individual settings.
Depending on where, and the type of work that they are doing, the role of staff and management in schools may involve, but is not limited to:
- Headteachers – they are ultimately responsible for the smooth running of the school, the achievement and welfare of pupils and the management and welfare of staff.
- Head of year – also known as the main class teacher, in addition to teaching responsibilities, they have a strong relationship with the year that they are attached to and know the students very well.
- Subject teachers – they teach, track, assess, plan, mark, maintain behaviour, engage students etc.
- Teaching and learning support – these are roles in the classroom working with teachers to deliver education to students and help them learn. They can work with individuals, small groups and students with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND).
- Safeguarding officer – this often involves liaison with external agencies, promotes and monitors child protection and acts as a source of support, advice and expertise to staff on matters of safeguarding.
- Support staff – these roles often include receptionist and/or school secretary, librarian, exam/quality officer, finance, HR, maintenance/facilities, cleaners, catering/kitchen staff, school nurse, special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCo), specialist and technical including IT and science lab staff.
Generic to all roles is ensuring compliance with all relevant policies and procedures, and legal and regulatory requirements including health and safety. All staff will be working closely alongside other staff to deliver high-quality provision for children. The above lists are not exhaustive and there is often a crossover of duties between roles. Whatever the environment they work in, school staff and management 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 staff can encounter?
Schools undertake a large number of activities in order to deliver the curriculum to their students. As well as the activities directly related to classroom teaching there are also a lot of support functions taking place. 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 are caused by a slip or a trip.
A major area of risk is the possibility of slips, trips and falls when staff and students move around, either in the classroom or elsewhere in the building. Areas of concern would be the condition of floors, whether there were changes in levels that needed to be highlighted and whether gangways are kept clear. There should be no obstructions and lighting should be bright enough to allow access and exit. Any stairs should be provided with handrails, and spillages should be promptly dealt with.
Outside play and sports areas can also be a source of slip or trip accidents. School managers should ensure that outside play and sports surfaces are flat and well maintained. They should try to avoid surface water accumulations through effective drainage and remove algal growth where it appears. Anti-slip or soft impact surfaces are available and all children using an area should be supervised and encouraged to wear appropriate footwear for the surface. Objects that are not put away or are left where they shouldn’t be, can be knocked off shelving or desks and tripped over.
Objects falling from heights occur, for example, when storing/accessing materials and/or equipment. This is a very real hazard in schools, as too is the risk of people themselves falling from steps and ladders when accessing stored objects. A box or swivel chair is not an appropriate way to reach something up high, and any staff needing to access objects stored at height should use steps or ladders and should be adequately trained to do so safely.
Every day, countless workplaces are subjected to the risk of falling objects posed by unsecured materials or equipment; when these objects fall from height, the potential for injury is substantial. All materials used in the school must be stacked or stored safely, with the weightier objects stored at the lowest levels. Cupboards and shelving should be kept in good condition and securely fastened to walls where necessary. Furniture should be kept in good repair and be of suitable size for the user. Portable equipment, such as a TV trolley, should be stable.
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 anyone working in schools who 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 staff having the use of trollies to move heavy equipment, and all staff should receive manual handling training to prevent and avoid injury.
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.
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.
School leaders need to be able to confirm that:
- Firefighting equipment is in place.
- Fire evacuation procedures are clearly displayed.
- All staff and students are aware of the evacuation drill, including arrangements for any vulnerable children and adults.
In order to remain effective, fire risk assessments must be kept up to date. It is recommended that the responsible person completes a fire risk assessment at least once a year, and must conduct a review whenever there is a significant change in the environment.
Food handling and preparation. Outbreaks of food poisoning or other infectious diseases often occur from meals prepared in the kitchen in a school or from food service through unhygienic practices when handling, storing and cooking food. Anyone working with food should be trained in best hygiene practices to avoid contamination.
Some of the main elements of good food management and hygiene practices are:
- Good personal hygiene, including washing hands, wearing protective clothing such as aprons and hairnets and general cleanliness.
- Cleaning procedures, including washing and disinfecting the kitchen, equipment, plates and cutlery.
- Food storage, such as using proper containers, labelling and temperature control, especially with sensitive foods like meat and fish.
- Preventing cross-contamination of harmful bacteria through the use of separate chopping boards and storage, also with regards to allergens.
- Cooking food at the appropriate temperature, again particularly with meat, fish and also rice.
Medication in schools presents many risks. School management should assess each child’s needs for storing their medicines and ensure that medicines are stored safely and securely. They should provide storage that meets the child’s needs and the risk assessment and should consider medicines storage such as:
- Temperature requirements of the medicines
- Who needs to access the medicines
- How access will be restricted to authorised people
- The legal requirements relating to medicines storage
- The children that the medicines are for
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.
Prolonged use of computer workstations and display screen equipment (DSE) can lead to neck, shoulder, back or arm pain, along with stress, fatigue and temporary eyestrain. It is an employer’s responsibility to protect employees from the health risks of working with DSE. Most people working in schools spend several hours a day using all types of display screen equipment (DSE) such as, but not limited to:
- CCTV screens
- Desktop computers
- Equipment display screens
- Handheld devices
- Interactive whiteboards
- Projection screens
- TV screens
There are several health risks associated with using DSE for extended periods of time; these include:
- Upper limb problems
- Shoulder, neck and back pain
These health issues can usually occur with poorly designed workstations or the improper use of DSE, including their overuse. Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is a general term used to describe the pain felt in muscles, nerves and tendons caused by repetitive movement and overuse. It is also known as work-related upper limb disorder, or non-specific upper limb pain, and may be caused by improper use of DSE. As an employer, there is a specific duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HASAWA 1974) that must be complied with regarding Display Screen Equipment (DSE). The law states that employers must have risk assessments of equipment with display screens, helping to ensure display screen safety and minimising negative health effects on all employees who use DSE. There are many types of ergonomic equipment including desks, chairs, computer keyboards etc. that can prevent these types of injuries. If a specific risk here is identified, these could be effective ways of mitigating it.
School science laboratories can be the source of many health and safety incidents. The common accidents, which often occur simultaneously, are fire, explosion, chemical and thermal burns, cuts from broken glass tubing and thermometers, absorption of toxic, but non-corrosive chemicals through the skin, and inhalation of toxic fumes. Less common, but obviously dangerous, is the ingestion of a toxic chemical. Handwashing should be second nature by now, but lab users must fully decontaminate themselves after using hazardous materials. Good ventilation also proves an essential safety measure to stop the build-up of toxic vapours. School labs should never let their guards down and always use the appropriate equipment to handle toxic material; we will look at PPE later in this guide. Safety drills help pre-empt common lab accidents and decrease the harm they cause after they occur.
Whilst it is management’s responsibility to ensure that the school is clean, it is also important that they ensure that any cleaning products cannot be accidentally consumed or inhaled by staff or students.
Probably the most overlooked risk is that schools often create a highly stressful environment and can aggravate existing or cause mental health issues. Stress can be a real hazard in the workplace, with the HSE reporting over 11 million days of work being lost a year because of it. Workplace stress can be caused when employees are overloaded and can’t cope with pressures. Employers can tackle this by adjusting workloads to match employees’ rate of work and skills.
As well as being prepared for stress, it is also important that employers are aware and sympathetic to other mental health issues, whether ongoing or new. Stress and other mental health issues amongst other complications have been known to lower immune systems making employees more susceptible to illness. Employers can also conduct stress risk assessments as well as be open with employees to encourage them to talk about their issues.
Safe staffing and safe recruitment are a fundamental part of getting education and support right for individuals and operating a healthy and safe environment. Safe staffing is about having enough staff who have the right values and skills to deliver high-quality education and support. Safe recruitment is about ensuring that only individuals who are suitable for working with children, whilst keeping them safe from harm and risks, are appointed. These make sure that children receive safe and effective education and support that is responsive to their needs. If a school does not implement safe staffing and safe recruitment it could put staff and the children that they care for at risk. For example, staff shortages or unsuitable appointments put services under extreme pressure and can mean staff have to choose what education and support can or can’t be delivered that day; this could lead to neglect and/or a safeguarding incident.
Health and safety law does not expect all risks to be eliminated but states that “reasonable precautions” should be taken and that staff are trained and aware of their responsibilities and can make sensible judgements in children’s best interests. Carrying out a full risk assessment in the school will help to manage health and safety standards. By law, schools must appoint a competent person to ensure they meet their health and safety duties. A competent person is someone with the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to give sensible guidance about managing the health and safety risks at the school.
School trips can be a valuable addition to the school curriculum, and it is important that fear of additional paperwork and complicated risk assessments does not prevent these from taking place. To repeat HSE advice, risk assessments should be proportionate to the activity involved, only focusing on real risks. Some trips will be simple and low risk, so they will be quick and easy to organise. Similar activities will often take place on multiple occasions, but it is important to keep assessments under regular review, particularly for the benefit of new staff.
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.
Schools 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 including, but not limited to:
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.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 – COSHH regulations require employers to assess and prevent, or adequately control, the risks to health posed by the use of any hazardous substances in the workplace. This can be anything from cleaning products to toxic chemicals in a science classroom.
Food Safety Act 1990 – it is vitally important that all schools involved in catering comply with food safety legislation.
Why is PPE important
Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects workers from hazards such as trips, burns, electrocution, infections and falls. While there is some PPE that is universal to many occupations, school staff have certain PPE which is specific to their job.
This includes, but is not limited to:
- Disposable gloves (vinyl or nitrile) should be worn when there may be exposure to blood, bodily fluids, secretions or excretions and when handling contaminated equipment such as in a science lab.
- Lab coats protect clothing from becoming soiled and provide limited protection against minor splashes of chemicals.
- Protective eyewear is the minimum PPE required for a school lab. Strict goggle policies keep eyes safe and hazards visible.
- Respirator mask – used to prevent overexposure to an inhalation hazard or irritant where the hazard is not controlled adequately.
Some main pieces of PPE that can help limit risks and boost safety for kitchen staff include:
- Apron – hot liquids and spills can be kept at bay while using an apron.
- Oven gloves – these protect the hands of the employees who need to move hot plates and pots and pans around the kitchen.
- Footwear – non-slip shoes should be worn at all times, no matter the environment, to prevent slips and falls.
- Disposable vinyl gloves – these protect hands from hot foods, such as chillies and peppers during preparation that can irritate the skin and eyes.
- Hair ties or nets for those with moulting or long hair – this will mainly keep their hair from falling down and getting in the way of visibility and help prevent any hair and dirt from touching and affecting food preparation.
Maintenance and cleaning staff roles can come with a different set of hazards and risks. PPE requirements may include:
- 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.
- Overalls and/or outerwear provide protection from spillages or marks, and protect maintenance staff from the elements.
What training should school staff take?
Depending upon their role, staff and management working within schools will have completed training and qualifications specific to that role. In addition to their occupational training, school staff will need to participate in adequate health and safety training to ensure that they are competent to do their work. When school staff 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 employees 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 staff 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
- Food Safety and Hygiene for Catering Level 2
- Safer Recruitment
- Administering Medication
School staff should at a minimum refresh their safety training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).
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