Experts reveal 10 greatest health and safety risks facing the education sector
Managing health and safety within the education sector is not only challenging but a very complex area, one which requires expertise. At Ellis Whittam, we provide specialist four-pillar support to education establishments across the UK and, as such, our experienced Health & Safety Consultants have first-hand insight into the unique set of risks schools face on a daily basis.
We asked our experts what they believe to be the top 10 health and safety challenges facing schools right now so that you can focus your efforts for 2021. Here’s what they told us.
The following are in alphabetical order and not ranked in order of importance.
1. Asbestos management
All too often, our consultants find that schools miss the mark when it comes to managing asbestos risk. Most notably, they often discover that asbestos surveys have been undertaken but that there has been little to no remedial action thereafter to address the issues identified. Other common shortfalls include a lack of:
- An asbestos management plan;
- Asbestos awareness training for those who require it; and
- Communication to teaching staff of the location and presence of asbestos.
Kent County Council was fined £200,000 with costs of £21,000 for exposing school staff to asbestos after the school failed to act on recommendations from a survey to remove asbestos disturbed by its caretaker. While a fine of £12,000 is not insignificant, fines can be much higher.
2. Contractor management
Frequent non-compliance actions found by our consultants include:
- Failing to check that contractors are part of the necessary third party relevant to their trade;
- Poor holding of documentation (risk assessments, method statements, insurance documents, etc.);
- Failing to inform and alert contractors to the presence of asbestos; and
- A lack of a suitable induction for contractors coming onto your premises.
3. Educational visits
Typically, our consultants find that this is an area schools manage well; however, there are certain improvements that can be made to minimise risk off-site, namely making sure that the Educational Visits Co-ordinator (EVC) has received sufficient training, and appointing an approved Outdoor Educational Advisor (OEA).
We recommend following RoSPA guidance for Planning and Leading Adventurous Activities and Educational Visits (page 7 explains the expectations on schools and should provide some reassurance), as well as our own Guide to School Trips.
The good news is that, of the estimated 7 to 10 million days where learning takes place outside of the classroom each year, there were only two prosecutions in the UK between 2005 – 2010 relating to school trips. Therefore, whilst educational visits can involve a higher degree of risk, they are generally well managed.
There are 1,500 fires each year in schools across the UK, which disrupts the education of approximately 90,000 students. The closure of a school due to fire also has a large social and economic impact on local communities.
According to figures from the Association of British Insurers, the most expensive school fires cost in the region of £2.8 million to address. What’s more, over a four-year period, an average of 24 large loss fires occurred in schools every year, incurring total costs of £67.2 million.
There is an ongoing call by the National Fire Chief’s Council (NFCC) for all new and refurbished education premises in England to have a sprinkler system installed in order to maintain the same standard across the UK and align with Scotland and Wales.
While this would certainly help to mitigate the damage caused by fires, our consultants frequently come across more fundamental failings in respect to Fire Risk Assessments. Again, these are often conducted, but in many cases little to no remedial action is taken. This is further compounded by a lack of fire training for those who require it.
5. Infection control
Generally, the management of pandemics (particularly COVID-19) across the sector has been acknowledged as good by the regulator.
That said, whilst education providers are doing the best they can with what they have to ensure the safety of all concerned, our consultants suggest that, based on their visits to schools, there is still scope for improving compliance by ensuring that all documents (such as policies and risk assessments) have been seen and acknowledged in writing by staff.
This is not an easy situation to manage, not least because it is evolving all the time. Our free Coronavirus Advice Hub provides a free source of regularly updated information – including education-specific FAQs, checklists, risk assessment templates and guides – designed to help employers meet their responsibilities.
6. Manual handling
You might not consider manual handling to be a major risk within an education environment; however, rearranging classroom furniture, lifting or moving sports equipment and pushing heavy TV trolleys all come with manual handling risks. Poor manual handling practice can cause a number of injuries and conditions and schools have a duty to ensure staff have the knowledge required to undertake these tasks safely.
Following a similar pattern, frequent non-compliance actions found by our consultants include a lack of manual handling assessments (specifically Task, Individual, Load, Environment (T.I.L.E) assessments), plus a lack of manual handling awareness training for anyone who needs to understand the principles of safe manual handling.
7. Stress management
According to the HSE’s Education statistics, 55% of all work-related ill-health cases in education are due to stress, depression or anxiety. In fact, comparing industries, the education sector has the fourth highest rate of stress, depression or anxiety at 2,170 employees per 100,000 – statistically significantly higher than the industry average of 1,570. The current pressures on education providers are likely to exacerbate the issue further, making it a high-priority area for schools.
Common issues our consultants see include the lack of:
- A Stress Policy in place at Trust/school level which sets out how you are going to manage stress; and
- An organisation stress risk assessment. This is key to controlling the risk of stress and should be based on the HSE’s six management standards: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.
- Stress awareness training.
Once you have a policy in place, you can then benchmark it with a stress survey of the organisation to determine how your staff feel and get their opinion of how you are managing stress.
Some organisations have, and we would certainly encourage, an Employee Assist Programme (EAP) in place which includes access to counselling, 24/7 confidential helplines, occupational health, online resources, regular health and wellbeing check-ins with staff/particular senior staff, etc. This may be something to consider for 2021
8. Traffic management
Given the high potential for harm and the tragic and very public incidents that have occurred over recent years in regard to school transport, an effective traffic management plan is essential.
In the main, the issues our consultants observe centre around a lack of (or inadequate) traffic management risk assessments, which can lead to a serious safety incident or even a fatality.
In 2018, the regulator embarked on an inspection campaign after a 15-year-old pupil was struck and killed by a school minibus inside school gates as he ran to catch a bus home. Bridgend County Borough Council was fined £300,000 for failing to address “hazardous” bus parking provision, despite issues being brought to their attention on more than one occasion.
9. Violence and aggression
The number of violent incidents in schools has risen dramatically in recent years, to the point that it is now considered an occupational hazard in many institutions.
Frequent non-compliance actions found by our consultants include a lack of violence and aggression risk assessments and training. It is therefore imperative to have a risk assessment in place that controls and manages the risk of violence and aggression with awareness training for staff being in place.
Just last year, Luton Borough Council was fined £104,000 after an assistant head teacher was attacked by a pupil, sustaining a permanent brain injury. An investigation found that the school’s measures were inadequate, with no violence and aggression policy or risk assessment in place to protect staff.
10. Work at height
Falls from height continue to be the number one cause of fatal injuries to workers, accounting for around a quarter of all work-related deaths in 2019/20. Work at height should be avoided wherever possible, and where it is unavoidable, employers must put in place measures, such as suitable work equipment and procedures, to minimise the likelihood and seriousness of a fall.
In schools, our consultants often note a lack of working at height risk assessments (including consideration of elephant stools, step ladders, ladders, fixed ladders and accessing/egressing roofs), necessary equipment checks and training for those involved.
The have been a number of health and safety prosecutions relating to falls from height in recent years, including the death of a three-year-old in a playground fall and a maintenance worker who was seriously injured in a fall while repairing a roof.
3 key takeaways and how we can help
In all, we believe that the key barriers to managing health and safety within a school environment (and the three areas where Ellis Whittam helps to identify gaps within an education provider’s health and safety management system) can be boiled down to the following root causes:
- Financial – The education sector is under financial pressure to deliver the same provision and standard of education to their local communities whilst facing cutbacks. We can help you to prioritise what we believe to be the higher risks that you need to invest in to prevent non-conformity.
- Documentary – Poor document and record-keeping is a common issue our consultants encounter. This can range from a lack of policies, risk assessments and safe systems of work to a lack of statutory and non-statutory maintenance and inspections, as well as a general lack of communication and acknowledgement of key documents to the running of an education establishment.
- Training – Another common issue is a lack of a training needs matrix/assessment which determines individual employees, their roles and the training that they are required to have undertaken to fulfil that role, coupled with a tracker that determines whether training is up to date. We believe that a lack of training often means a lack of knowledge as to individual employees’ responsibilities, which can in turn contribute to a poor health and safety culture.
Principal Health & Safety Consultant Scott Crichton says: “In our experience, education providers want to do the right thing and willingly put in place what they believe are the right practical solutions. Unfortunately, much of what our consultants determine is that there are often gaps in the required documentary procedures.
It is important that education providers deal with health and safety risks and that this is overseen by the school’s Governing Body. The costs to any organisation these days is huge, and the ripple effect that poor safety management can have on the education sector is significant, disrupting the provision of education to the next generation – something educators are passionate about. The management of health and safety risks should therefore be fundamentally intertwined into the operation of your premises.”
Find out more about how Ellis Whittam’s unique four-pillar approach to health and safety can help you stay on top of your responsibilities by reviewing your Health & Safety Management System, Facilities Management, Curriculum-Related Risk and any School-Specific Risks or request your free consultation using the button below.