Health and safety is not only essential, it can also be a very useful planning tool if approached sufficiently far in advance of a school event

I frequently hear derogatory comments about ‘elf and safety’, and let’s face it the media is full of horror stories about schools who are not allowed to do what the press consider to be normal activities because of perceived ‘safety risks’. However, I also sometimes come across situations where I simply cannot believe how careless people can be with the welfare of their students. This was brought home to me when I overheard someone say that they don’t bother with risk assessments at their school for events where members of the public are present because it is too much trouble; they simply cross their fingers and hope nothing happens – after all, it never has so far! When I challenged this view I was informed that, if there was an incident, that’s what the school has lawyers for!

This person patently has very little understanding of their legal responsibilities under Section 4: Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) as regards to the safety of those using their premises, or the fact that if an incident occurred and they cannot demonstrate that they carried out these obligations they might well find themselves not covered by their insurance and facing criminal charges. This article guides you through the complexities of school health and safety relating to events such as performances, stressing the point that by thinking ahead – and taking health and safety obligations seriously – you can make things so much safer for everyone.

Common myths

There are a lot of myths or misconceptions surrounding health and safety in schools. These need to be tackled head on by the person responsible for health and safety in your school to encourage a more positive attitude towards this important issue. The last thing you would want to be uncovered during your next Ofsted inspection is a lazy or outdated attitude to health and safety among staff, because this would be taken very seriously. I deal below with five common myths and present some possible responses if you hear them uttered in your school.

Health and safety is about stopping you doing things, the moment you do a risk assessment you find you can’t do what you want to do
A very common misconception! In fact, carried out properly, a risk assessment will actually help you to work out the best way to do what you want and ensure that you can do it. A former colleague said that she wasn’t going to use a ‘smoke-screen effect’ in a show because health and safety would never allow it – however, by carrying out a check on the actual procedure that would be used, checking the chemicals involved with a professional company and putting a few simple precautions in place the special effect was not only able to be used but was extremely effective – and safe!

Health and safety is time consuming and expensive!
It can be, but it isn’t nearly as pricey as ignoring it. If something does go wrong and you haven’t taken the appropriate actions then not only could there be huge fines and costly court cases, you could find yourself not covered by insurance and with a PR disaster on your hands and a reputation in tatters. You could even find yourself in prison.

Schools are different, the regulations don’t apply to us!
They do! A school is the same as any other place of work in this respect and if you invite members of the public on to your premises you must ensure their safety at all times.

The fire regulations don’t apply in the same way because schools are exempt from the need to get a fire licence
This old chestnut is often trotted out by those who simply haven’t bothered to stay up to date. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 replaced the previous regulations and came into effect in October 2006. The old fire certificate was replaced and all premises are obliged instead to carry out their own fire risk assessment which is subject to inspection by the local fire authority and licensing authority at any time. A ‘special event’ would therefore require a full additional fire risk assessment for that venue.

We’ve always done it this way and so it must be safe or we wouldn’t be able to do it – It goes without saying that this simply isn’t the case. Failing to stay up to date with current legislation is a recipe for disaster. One establishment I know regularly had audiences of 500 plus people in their main hall. When a proper assessment of fire risks was carried out it demonstrated that in an emergency they would have been able to evacuate less than half that number.

The health and safety challenge

Having taught for a number of years and been responsible for organising events I’ll quite happily admit that dealing with health and safety can be a real chore and a one which, in the hustle and bustle of staging a major event such as a performance, seems like just one more aggravation. However, it is not only essential, it can also be a very useful planning tool if approached sufficiently far in advance of the event. Leave it too late and you can find yourself with the dilemma of having sold more seats than you can safely fit into the auditorium or with a stage design which is not workable.

So when do you begin and what do you need to do? I would suggest that it should begin at the same time as all the other planning – right from the moment you decide to invite the public into your school for a performance of any sort you should be looking at what your obligations are towards them. Before any event is staged you should carry out a full risk assessment which covers all the issues which are connected with the build-up to the event and the breakdown afterwards and then carry out a further assessment for all matters connected with the event itself (eg seating arrangements, width of aisles, the need for stewards and fire routes). Only then can you truly proceed safely.

Writing the risk assessment

Before beginning an assessment for an event familiarise yourself with the existing school health and safety documentation so that you are working on the same scales when calculating risk. I prefer to use a five-point scale when making assessments as anything smaller makes it difficult to differentiate between the categories and anything much larger becomes unwieldy.

By multiplying together the likelihood of harm and the probable severity you achieve a risk rating.

Next make sure that you are familiar with the steps required in producing an effective assessment:

  1. Identify the hazards.
  2. Decide who might be harmed and how.
  3. Evaluate the risks arising from the hazards and decide what precautions need to be in place.
  4. Record your findings on your risk assessment.
  5. Review your assessment periodically to ensure that it is still accurate. Be prepared to add extra precautions to ensure safety at any stage in the proceedings and also be constantly aware of the fact that unexpected hazards might occur at any point (eg the decision to use a strobe lighting effect) and these will need to be logged as additions to the risk assessment.

Your first step will probably simply result in a list. It is always useful at this point to get a second person (or even a group of students) to also carry out this process and then compare results. It is usually the everyday familiar hazards which are most often overlooked in the initial assessment. Once your hazard list has been drawn up you can then proceed to your assessment. Sample layout of risk assessment for a build up to a school performance Note that this does not show a full assessment, merely a selection of hazards and how they might be recorded.

Fire regulations

This is an area which really should be considered well in advance of the performance as the number of people that can safely be evacuated from a venue will have a direct impact on the number of people in your audience and therefore on your ticket sales. Again there are certain key points to bear in mind when making judgements about fire routes:

  • If you are using tiered seating then you must remember that while this improves viewing it also creates hazards. You will need to highlight (with white paint or hazard tape) the edge of the tiers and for the purposes of fire evacuation regard the tiers as a flight of stairs and add extra evacuation time.
  • Temporary seating should be secured in lengths of no fewer than four seats and no more than 12. No seat should be more than seven seats away from a gangway as people will need to make their way along the row of seating to reach a gangway in an emergency. All lengths of seating should be secured to the floor. There must be a clear distance of 305mm between the back of one seat and the nearest point of the seat behind it.
  • It is good practice when considering the position of wheelchairs in the audience to remove four seats from the body of the block of seating for every wheelchair to ensure a safe turning circle in an emergency.
  • Standing or sitting in gangways or in front of exits (by staff or students) should never be permitted.
  • When working out the distance of a fire route always calculate your distance from the seat which is furthest away from the fire exit to the final external exit.
  • The external exit should never open out into an enclosed area such as a walled-in courtyard. Where a fire exit from an auditorium leads into a corridor then the distance from that point to the final external exit must be included in the calculations for the fire route. The width of the corridor itself must be measured in order to assess the number of people who could safely pass down its length in the course of a minute. It is therefore important when this occurs on a fire route to ensure that the corridor is not blocked in any way (eg with display material) which would cut into the width of the corridor or by storing props in this area.
  • The table above gives basic calculations of ‘safe distances’ for fire routes. Please note that this varies according to the number of fire exits provided. Where two or more fire exits open on to the same area (particularly if they were to open on to a corridor where the flow from one exit might impede the progress of people evacuating via the other) and therefore would both be put out of action by a hazard in that area, then they can only be regarded as one exit.

Safe numbers for any venue are based on the risk assessment regarding the fire routes, fire exits and factors such as the seating and activities taking place. It is vital to bear in mind when calculating these figures that they are not just the ‘audience’ figure but relate to all persons in that section of the venue including the cast on stage, the stage crew, the lighting crew and any front of house stewards and band. The time for escape depends on a range of factors, including the distance that has to be travelled to reach a place of safety and the risk rating of the premises.

Reasonable escape times based on the route lengths given above are: two minutes for higher risk premises, two and a half minutes for normal risk premises and three minutes for lower risk premises. If you feel that it would take longer than three minutes for a full evacuation you are looking at a failure of care.

Finally one word of warning: many people look around theatres and cinemas and think that they seem to be getting away with having narrower aisles and longer rows of seats etc. The regulations covering places of public entertainment do differ slightly and as such buildings are purpose-built and in the main they do have to pay more attention to the provision of fire routes and fire exits in the auditorium. School halls are not cinemas or theatres, but they are places of work and when they are hosting public events do need to conform fully to safety requirements. For additional information on these matters it is well worth consulting the document Fire Safety and Risk Assessment: Small and Medium Places of Assembly.

Gill O’Donnell is an educational consultant with a special interest in health and safety matters