Health and safety in Education | 5 high fines from 2020 and focuses for 2021
In 2020, COVID-19 was the obvious focus of schools’ health and safety efforts. However, while the impact of the pandemic on education is ongoing and the risk of infection still very much present, last year’s fines for health and safety breaches unrelated to COVID-19 highlight just how important it is to manage all health and safety issues in the year ahead.
Educational institutions have a duty to comply with the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and associated regulations. Education employers have duties, so far as is “reasonably practicable”, to ensure the health, safety and welfare of staff, students and visitors.
The following prosecutions from the last 12 months reveal areas where some schools and colleges fell short. Hopefully, these cautionary tales will help you to reflect on potential weaknesses in your own safety management system and, in doing so, strengthen it in 2021.
1. Violence and aggression: Council fined £104k after teacher assaulted
A local authority was prosecuted after a teacher was assaulted. A pupil who disrupted a class refused to go to an isolation room. An assistant headteacher was called to deal with matters but suffered a sustained assault.
A Health and Safety Executive investigation found significant shortcomings in the school’s measures regarding violence and aggression posed by pupils to others. Consideration was not given to the risk of injury or death, despite the school having a history of violent incidents. The court learned:
- Governors had not adopted a violence and aggression policy, despite workplace guidance from the Department for Education.
- The school had no risk assessments in place to protect staff from violence – paperwork was found for safeguarding but none for the risk to staff from aggressive pupils.
- The school did not implement measures to reduce the risk to as low as reasonably practicable.
Local authority schools are largely run by headteachers and governors. This led Luton Borough Council to plead not guilty based on few intervention powers over the school. However, it later changed its plea to guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was fined £104,000 with £60,000 costs, reduced from £300,000 due to limited revenue following the coronavirus pandemic.
The judge said: “This was a large organisation which, to a very large extent, relied on employees conducting the day-to-day running of the school as it could not, and did not, have complete control over the daily functioning of the school. However, I am satisfied that the systems that were in place were inadequate and oversight by the local authority was ‘light’. I accept that no concerns were brought to the attention of the local authority but that, equally, it does not appear that the local authority invited matters to be brought to its attention.”
The local authority failed to:
- Ensure the school had people running it with sufficient competence to address the violence and aggression risk;
- See to it that school staff had training to remedy that shortcoming or deal with violent and aggressive pupils in ways that did not expose them to risk (no one had recent health and safety training and no training dealt with the potential risk from aggressive pupils); and
- Monitor the adequacy of the school’s measures – the council thereby failed to pick up and address shortcomings.
The HSE stressed: “In community schools, where the local authority is the employer, the local authority must monitor the arrangements its schools have in place to manage the risk from violence and aggression.”
How to avoid a similar scenario
To minimise the risk, schools should:
- Employ competent people by, for example, providing relevant staff training.
- Carry out staff protection risk assessments and look at past incidents when considering hazards.
- Regularly review risk assessments, including after incidents.
- Carry out audits and act on shortfalls.
- Provide regular refresher training.
Councils should similarly:
- Employ competent people to manage health and safety.
- Carry out audits and address shortcomings.
- Monitor and review incidents.
2. Fire safety: School foundation fined £10k over fire safety offences
Wakefield Grammar School Foundation was prosecuted by West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority for failing to take general fire precautions at its schools. The foundation’s health and safety risk assessor was also prosecuted for failing to make suitable and sufficient fire risk assessments.
During a visit to one school, fire protection inspectors identified several potential hazards, including coat hooks lining escape routes and a partially obstructed final exit door. In a follow-up inspection, further concerns included the removal of cloakroom doors and devices fitted to fire doors that prevented their closing.
Under government guidance, cloakrooms are deemed “high risk” due to potential for rapid fire spread and should not be open to spaces or means of escape. Inspectors visiting a second school found coats and bags stored in an area that served as a means of escape. At a third school, inspectors again found coats and bags hindering a means of escape, contrary to previous advice. Exit doors in the main hall were also blocked by chairs and equipment.
The foundation pleaded guilty to failing to have suitable and sufficient fire risk assessments, as well as failing to take general fire precautions. It was fined £10,000 for fire precaution failings and ordered to pay £14,533 in costs. It received no further penalty for the risk assessment failings. The judge took the view the foundation was a charity, hence the relatively low fine. The fire risk assessor was fined £10,000 for failing to make suitable and sufficient risk assessments and ordered to pay £5,000 costs.
The fire authority said: “This case highlights the importance of not only the duty placed on those responsible for the building but also those contracted to carry out specialist services such as the fire risk assessment. It is a fundamental pillar in the principles of fire safety and anyone appointing someone to carry out such an assessment or other specialist service needs to ensure they hold the relevant competence.”
How to avoid a similar scenario
Have your fire safety policy, risk assessments and fire precautions reviewed by a competent person. If you haven’t already done so, consider appointing a health and safety professional to help you manage all areas of compliance, including fire risk.
3. Risk assessment: Private school prosecuted for failing to assess bandsaw risk
An independent school was fined after a pupil suffered a serious hand injury. Pupils in its design and technology workshop were making wooden boxes using a bandsaw. HSE investigators discovered that the school did not:
- Make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks from using the bandsaw, classed as a dangerous machine.
- Adequately supervise pupils while they were using the bandsaw – the pupil was making a free-hand cut without adequate workpiece support and wasn’t adequately supervised.
Cargilfield School pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £3,350.
The HSE said: “A bandsaw is considered a dangerous machine when used by adults, let alone children. This significant and very serious injury could have been prevented had the risk been identified and properly managed.”
How to avoid a similar scenario
Carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of all workshop equipment.
Pupils must never use machinery unless they have been shown how to operate it safely – make sure students are adequately supervised at all times.
4. Asbestos: Refurbishment work leads to college prosecution
Newnham College received a fine for exposing employees and contractors to asbestos during refurbishment of college property.
Refurbishment work was being carried out when asbestos insulation debris was discovered in floor voids. No asbestos refurbishment survey had been carried out prior to the debris being found. One employee, who contaminated his gloves and clothing with loose asbestos debris, did not have asbestos awareness training and spread asbestos outside the property.
HSE investigators discovered that the refurbishment work was not adequately planned and managed.
Newnham College pleaded guilty to breaching the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. It was fined £12,000 and ordered to pay costs of £4,450.
While a fine of £12,000 is not insignificant, fines can be much higher – 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.
The HSE said: “Asbestos surveys need to be carried out prior to refurbishment work which disturbs the fabric of a building. Asbestos is still present in hidden locations in buildings and needs to be located before work starts that could potentially expose individuals.”
How to avoid a similar scenario
Approximately 90% of schools in England contain asbestos. Asbestos-related diseases are untreatable and claim some 5,000 UK lives each year. Many schools built before 2000 contain asbestos – its use wasn’t banned until 1999.
Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations, anyone responsible for the maintenance, repair or control of school or college premises is a duty holder.
In most schools, this will be the employer; however, who the employer is depends on the type of school and legal structure. Where budgets for building management are delegated to schools by the local authority, the duty to manage asbestos is shared between school and local authority. As a duty holder:
- Take reasonable steps to find out if there are materials containing asbestos in premises.
- Assess the risk of any identified asbestos.
- Prepare and keep up-to-date a risk management plan.
- Provide information on location and condition of asbestos to anyone liable to work on or disturb material.
5. Work at height: Council fined after fall from school roof
A local authority was sentenced after a worker fell from a school roof when climbing from a stepladder to retrieve a child’s shoe.
A HSE investigation found that the council did not have a risk assessment or safe system of work in place to retrieve items from the roof.
Central Bedfordshire Council pleaded guilty to breaching the Work at Height Regulations 2005. It was fined £9,308 with £7,699 costs.
The HSE said: “Falls from height remain one of the most common causes of work-related fatalities in this country and the risks associated with working at height are well known.”
It added: “Those in control of work have a responsibility to devise safe methods of working and to provide the necessary information, instruction and training to their workers. If a safe system of work had been in place prior to the incident, the serious injuries sustained by the employee could have been prevented.”
How to avoid a similar scenario
Safely working at height requires proper training, focus and the right safety precautions to be in place.
The Work at Height Regulations say employers must ensure work at height is:
- Properly planned;
- Appropriately supervised; and
- Carried out, so far as reasonably practicable, in a manner that is safe.
Raise health safety standards with support from Ellis Whittam
By managing risk more effectively, schools and colleges will be less exposed to prosecution and better equipped to defend civil claims in 2021. With a duty to manage the ongoing complexities of COVID-19 on top of other ‘basic’ risks, competent advice and risk assessment support has never been more important.
Ellis Whittam’s extensive experience working alongside education providers has led to the development and refinement of a General Risk Assessment structured around four key areas for health and safety in schools: Health & Safety Management, Facilities Management, Curriculum Related Risks and School Specific Risks.
To find out more about how our unique four-pillar approach can help you stay on top of your safety responsibilities this year, call 0345 226 8393 or find out more about our specialist education support.
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