Focus

Focus Archive

Health and Safety in Schools

March 1997
Sheila Pantry, OBE

The Education System in the UK and for that matter elsewhere, in addition to meeting legal obligations, promotes awareness of safety in school children, by training in road and leisure safety including swimming.

The long term goal for the education sector should be to give life long health and safety awareness and the adoption of the practice of risk assessment in the individual's everyday thinking.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, a UK charity, has long campaigned and worked hard to ensure that health and safety is featured in all school activities. It has also lobbied government for the wider inclusion of health and safety in curriculum activities and in teacher training. RoSPA's Together safely - developing a whole school approach to health and safety and the Find it, Fix it publications are available from RoSPA and will help all those who seek to improve standards of health and safety in schools.

In the UK the Education Reform Act 1988 gives school governors important new powers and duties in controlling school premises and running schools, including health and safety responsibilities towards staff, pupils and visitors. With local management of schools (LMS) school staff, governing bodies and the local education authority (LEA) need to work together to establish their health and safety objectives using legal requirements as a minimum to be achieved.

These requirements are not new, and generally schools are run without risk to health and safety. What is new is the increased responsibility of school governors to achieve this end. The aim is to raise awareness amongst governors of their health and safety duties.

As with other matters concerning the effective management of schools, it is the responsibility of head teachers to carry out the policies agreed and monitored by LEAs and governing bodies. Health and safety is not different in this respect, and detailed decisions about the day-to-day health and safety management of the school, such as taking unsafe equipment out of use, may also be delegated to the head teacher by the LEA or governing body.

There is guidance and advice which give the legal duties of governing bodies, LEAs and others, in relation to health and safety matters, and gives practical guidance to governors about what they should know and do to ensure that their school is being run in a safe way and without risks to health. It will not make them experts in school health and safety but will help them decide when and where to go for further specialist advice.

Different school management arrangements apply in Scotland, where the requirements of health and safety legislation apply principally to the education authorities. Members of school boards in Scotland may, nevertheless, find this guidance to be of interest.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSW Act) places duties on employers to safeguard so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees (Section 2 of the HSW Act) and the health and safety of persons not employed (Section 3 of the HSW Act) but who may be affected by the work activities, such as pupils and visitors. Employers have additional duties under other health and safety legislation such as the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH).

Persons who conduct an undertaking which involves control of premises also have duties under Section 4 of the HSW Act to take reasonable measures to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable that the premises and any plant and substances provided for work use are safe and without risk to health.

All employees have duties under Section 7 of the HSW Act to ensure they work in ways which are safe and without risk to health both to themselves, other staff and visitors. They must also co-operate with other people who have health and safety duties, for example by adhering to advice and instructions on health and safety matters from their supervisors and by reporting unsafe practices.

Under Section 36 (1), where any person commits an offence under health and safety legislation which is due to the act or default of some other person, that other person may be charged with and convicted of the offence.

Inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) enforce health and safety laws in schools. They may visit without notice but will have identification. They may wish to inspect the school, or to investigate an accident or complaint.

They have the right to talk to employees and safety representatives, take photographs and samples and even, in certain cases, to impound dangerous equipment. They are entitled to cooperation and answers to questions.

Inspectors give help and advice on how to comply with the law. If there is a problem they may issue formal notices requiring improvements or prohibiting activities or the use of equipment. Recipients of such notices can appeal to an industrial tribunal. Inspectors have the powers to prosecute organisations or individuals for breaking health and safety law.

The introduction of local management of schools (LMS) has not changed the local education authority's (LEA's) role under the HSW Act as employer in county and controlled schools. However, governing bodies also have:

Depending on the circumstances, the courts could hold to account either the LEA or the governing body, or both, for a breach of the health and safety legislation.

In aided schools, the governing bodies employ the teachers and, normally, all non-teaching staff except school meals staff, and are responsible for school buildings. They will therefore have the duties outlined in the above paragraphs. They should be carrying out these duties. Governing bodies of grant-maintained (GM) schools and independent schools are responsible for all aspects of the school's management, including those related to health and safety.

Outside contractors often employ staff who work in schools, e.g. school meals and cleaning staff and building workers. These contractors will have 'employer' duties as outlined above, likewise LEAs and governing bodies will have duties towards contractors' staff.

Head teachers and other staff have a legal duty to co-operate with their LEAs and governing bodies so far as is necessary to enable health and safety requirements to be complied with.

Because governing bodies except for GM and independent schools are unincorporated, responsibility for complying with health and safety legislation rests with the governors as individuals. Governors who act responsibly, taking note of relevant guidance and asking for advice if in doubt, should have no difficulty in meeting their obligations.

Hopefully we can expect, because of all the efforts being made, that the next generation of workers will have a clear understanding of good health and safety standards which they will expect whatever their working environment.

See the March 1997 Editorial for details of publications and computerised sources of further information.

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