Tags: Health and safety | Learning Environment | School Buildings | School Business Manager/Bursar | School Financial Management

Back in October 2007, Gill O’Donnell explained how to review health and safety procedures at the start of an academic year

A new academic year inevitably brings changes and many of these will have implications for health and safety on your school site. Sometimes there are major changes, such as the appointment of new key personnel or the opening of a new teaching block, and the effects of these are easy to recognise. However, in health and safety terms it is the small changes which can sometimes grow into major issues, all too often because so much else remains familiar it is easy to overlook how some of the smaller changes can impact on the bigger picture. The start of the new academic year is, therefore, a valuable time to hold a full safety audit in your school. Ideally, all health and safety issues should be subject to a continual updating process but in practice the start of term is generally a good time to check that everything is still in order and still relevant. The following headings should help you with this process and provide pointers on how to ensure that you don’t fall behind in your health and safety housekeeping.

Changes to buildings

Begin by considering any actual structural changes which may have taken place. These can be as large as the building of a new block on the campus or something as simple as the creation of a dividing wall in a classroom, or the re-siting of an exit. With a new building the impact is fairly obvious and naturally you’d realise that this new facility would require inclusion in the school fire risk assessment and evacuation plan… but what about that new wall? Consider whether or not this has any bearing on the previously existing fire-routes. Remember also that the dividing wall probably does not go up beyond ceiling level, so that while at ground level there may seem to be a fire-break situation this may not be the case in the roof cavity, where fire can spread far more quickly. It is also important to consider whether the re-siting of the door alters the way students move around the area and whether this might cause any additional hazards. Even something as straightforward as changing from an inward opening door to an outward opening door can alter how easily traffic flows in an area. Observation at key changeover points in the day will soon indicate if this is the case.

Change of purpose

This is very easy to overlook, after all does it matter if a classroom which last year was a literacy base is this year used for something else? Unfortunately the answer might well be yes! Different subjects do tend to create different areas of risk, for example the change of purpose might well involve the installation and use of more computers or other electrical equipment in the room. These need to be correctly installed to ensure that a system overload does not occur and appropriate precautions put in place to prevent accidents caused through trailing cables and such like. Similarly, increased use of computers in an area may also require the provision of more appropriate seating in order to comply with visual display regulations. Other changes in purpose (for example, timetabling a former classroom as a drama practical area) might mean that more physical activity occurs within the space – at which point you should look at the state of the flooring to ensure that you reduce the possibility of slips, trips and falls. Other problems can occur when areas become used as temporary storage areas; it might be convenient to use the foyer as a temporary base for the gym-mats or table-tennis tables, but not when they obstruct access to the fire-exit or extinguishers.

Change of personnel

This is a much overlooked area in schools. In the majority of workplaces all new employees undergo a period of induction – at a time when the rest of the workplace is functioning normally – during which they are given full health and safety briefings. The fact that the workplace continues to function around them is very important as it allows them to observe the hazards they are likely to encounter as they go about their daily tasks. Induction in this way is rarely the case in schools, for a start – if the students aren’t there then the situations are not actually normal and if the students are there then it is not easy to allow the new teachers time off timetable for this kind of training. However, effective induction for teachers is vitally important – they need to be familiar with the layout of the school, the fire drill procedures and alternative fire-routes, and the school health and safety policy and how it functions on a day-to-day basis. It is also important to include manual handling training as part of the induction process as the correct movement of equipment is essential – many working days per year are lost as a result of injuries stemming from accidents caused by incorrect manual handling techniques. Of course, teachers are not the only newcomers on the staff. Full and appropriate health and safety induction is important for all newcomers at all levels whether they are domestic cleaning staff, office-based staff, site maintenance workers or classroom assistants and technicians. Remember also that volunteers who visit the school on a regular basis need to be aware of health and safety policy issues and matters such as fire-routes and exits. Similarly, supply teaching staff will need to know fire procedures – they are important to the smooth running of the school and even though engaged as temporary employees you have a full duty of care towards them. It is not sufficient simply to point to a door and tell them that is the nearest fire exit. The biggest change of all though is that every year the school will have an intake of new students. They too require certain induction training, including information on how to move safely around the premises, fire-drills procedures and safety information on all new equipment which they encounter.

Change of equipment

Whenever new equipment is introduced the user must always be given a full safety briefing as part of their training on how to use the equipment. While you might argue that some of this is just common sense, failure to provide such training could prove to be expensive if an accident were to occur. Again, this training might include manual handling training. For example, a cleaner provided with a new style of floor polisher may well find that they can no longer lift it in the same way in which they could lift the previous model and need to be shown a safe method of handling. This is also a useful juncture to consider issues around maintaining up-to-date records on staff training. All induction training or training updates should be recorded on staff files so that a complete record is always to hand.

Change of role

Changes in personnel often bring about changes in role, but again the health and safety aspects of this can easily be overlooked. This is particularly the case when there are internal reshuffles. Policy documents should always reflect what is actually taking place in the school – not what used to happen. The sentence, ‘In the event of a fire-drill, Mrs Jones will issue all class registers’ is of no value whatsoever if Mrs Jones actually left the school three years previously! More importantly, if there has been an incident such a phrase would immediately indicate to investigators that health and safety was not recognised as a high priority within the culture of the organisation. The start of an academic year is a good time to check that everyone knows the health and safety aspects of their role and that all documentation reflects this accurately. Ensuring that it is up to date in other respects is also important, so do remember to check the latest dates on regulations. The HSE website is a useful source of information in this respect (www.hse.gov.uk).

Change of use and user

For many schools one of the biggest changes this year will be the increased role which the school plays in the community. Having ‘outside’ users creates a number of additional safety issues. There is a responsibility to ensure that all members of the public using the premises are safe. Fire risk assessments are essential in order to ensure that safe access and egress is guaranteed at all times. While it might be very tempting to ‘lock-off’ certain rooms in order to ensure that no-one can enter them, it cannot be done if in doing so you are impeding a fire route. Linked to the increased numbers on the premises are the complex issues of security and the safety of the school population – these are areas which require very careful consideration. A method of monitoring and recording who is on the premises at any time is helpful not only to assist with this key area, but can also provide a useful resource in the event of an emergency and should be considered as part of any health and safety review.

Change in regulations

Perhaps the most obvious change in regulations to impact on health and safety this summer has been the introduction of the ban on smoking in all public buildings in England. This ban extends to school premises and so it is important that all external users of the premises are aware of this. A notice to this effect, displayed outside the building, is the simplest way of informing members of the public that smoking is not permitted. It is, however, important to check with local authorities as to how far this extends, as in some areas of the country the ban also is being extended to include the grounds of public buildings and, while many people might realise the sense of this in the case of hospital grounds, they may not necessarily regard a school field or playground in the same light. The introduction of this new ruling also means that a school is not obliged to provide a ‘smoking area’ for those staff who wish to smoke, even if they have previously done so.

Changes in attitude

Attitudes towards health and safety at work are changing rapidly and while previously it tended to be seen as being all about ‘banning things’ – a knee-jerk reaction often engendered by media reportage of decisions out of context – the majority of health and safety professionals will vociferously tell you this is not the case. It is about identifying problems and effecting changes so that people can go about their lives in a way which doesn’t compromise their safety or health, while still allowing them to do what they want to do. It is about providing practical solutions to real problems and making sure that lax attitudes and ignorance do not lead to situations which endanger workers.

This article first appeared in School Financial Management – Oct 2007

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