Setting out and packing away heavy equipment can be dangerous. Kris Lines sets out safety precautions that will minimise the risks to pupils and staff

Sports equipment is integral to physical education, but there are many hazards associated with its use. Every year hundreds of pupils are injured setting out gymnastics apparatus, judo mats, games and athletics equipment.

This article will discuss how the introduction of simple safety rules, risk assessments and the provision of increased training for pupils and staff can prevent negligence liability arising from use of sports equipment.

GENERAL PRINCIPLES
Each activity or apparatus will have specific instructions for use, but there are a number of general principles for making equipment use safer.

The place to start this discussion is the equipment cupboard. Any equipment stored should be stable, accessible and secure. Too often these spaces become repositories for junk, with equipment being used on a last-in, first-out basis.

Whether the equipment area is an alcove, lockable cupboard, or simply a designated wall of a gym, it is vital that it be kept clean and tidy, and regularly inspected.

It is not enough for schools to rely on an annual spring clean — every user of the gym, at every session, must take responsibility for keeping these areas tidy and secure.

Dangerous items
If specific equipment needs to be stored in certain areas, consider using markings on the floor, or posters on the walls, to say what location it should be returned to.

In particular, rebound equipment (such as trampolines, trampettes and springboards) must be securely stored when not in use. These objects are dangerous in the wrong hands and the school will be liable for injury caused even where an unauthorised person uses them (without permission) and suffers an injury.

The governing body British Gymnastics recommends that the frames of all trampolines be secured with padlocks to prevent unauthorised use. This type of equipment should not be left out unsupervised (and unlocked) in an empty gym between lessons or overnight.

It is also important to keep equipment maintenance records
up-to-date. Apparatus should be physically inspected at least monthly, and visually checked each time before use. Any faults in the apparatus or fixings should be reported immediately (and a note to that effect affixed to the apparatus). Qualified personnel should then remedy the faults.

Where there is a foreseeable risk of vandalism, rust or damage to the equipment, inspections should be more frequent and thorough.

Under the Manual Handling (Operations) Regulations 1992, and the amendments in regulation 4(3) 2002, all manual handling operations at work should take account of:

  • risk assessment findings
  • physical suitability of operators
  • training and education needed to perform the task
  • clothing or footwear worn
  • protective equipment required

Although the general principle that every child learns how to handle apparatus and position it for use is laudable, it is not enough for teachers to be passive onlookers during this process. What is needed is a wider framework of assessment, training and supervision.

This process must start with a risk assessment of the dangers associated with use of the equipment. (See Five steps to risk assessment, www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg163.pdf).

Footwear
One particular problem in school environments is footwear. Anyone lifting or moving heavy objects should wear the appropriate footwear, to prevent injury to the feet if the object comes into contact with them, and to minimise slip and trip accidents.

Often, though, school PE lessons have pupils lifting and arranging apparatus in socks. Inadequate footwear is a hazard that the risk assessment must deal with.

Size, weight and strength
All children can be involved in some aspect of equipment handling, but teachers must be careful to allocate tasks according to pupils’ size, weight, experience and strength.

It is not appropriate to assume that all pupils are equally able to lift, fold and unfold apparatus used.

Specialist equipment
The use of trampolines and other specialist equipment requires particular thought. If pupils are not tall or strong enough, or if they have not been trained to fold and unfold the equipment, their participation in the assembly or dismantling of the apparatus may be a hazard.

If so, consider using additional  staff or older pupils to help set up the trampolines, and the newer, younger pupils to position mats. Or consider timetabling younger age groups between older classes, so that smaller pupils will not need to set equipment out.

Supervision
The code of practice issued by the governing body for the sport (British Gymnastics) states that teachers should be physically involved in unfolding and folding trampolines (pupils can be trained to assist).

Pupils should be prevented from putting out equipment without the direct supervision of a member of staff.

Schools should train pupils to a level that is appropriate for helping staff. What is ‘appropriate’ will vary from school to school, and depend on the risk profile of the institution.

BAALPE guidance
As a result of the dangers associated with trampoline apparatus, the guidance in the BAALPE (British Association of Advisers and Lecturers in PE) Safe Practice in Physical Education: Ensure that all pupils are involved with assembling and folding the trampoline has now been amended in the 2004 edition of BAALPE Safe Practice, to: Pupils should be taught how to erect and fold away school model trampolines. This should always take place under the direct supervision (and often with the physical assistance of school staff/coaches).

  • SUITABILITY AND POSITIONING

Before the pupils use equipment in a lesson, it is vital that a member of staff check that the apparatus is appropriate for the skills being taught, and positioned correctly.

Schools should therefore assess what matting (if any) is required for each apparatus used — and this decision should form part of the earlier risk assessment for the activity. The choice of matting should not be left to the pupil, or depend on what mats are available for that session.

Guidance on equipment for each activity can be obtained from the respective professional body.

The final part of any equipment
set-up is the positioning of the apparatus. Take particular care that pupils will not be too close to walls, other obstructions, or each other when using the equipment.

The direction of movement on and around the activity will also be important, especially in multi-apparatus arrangements or where projectiles are used.

YOU CAN AVOID ACCIDENTS
Although many accidents in school sport are an inherent risk of participation, a significant number of accidents are avoidable — caused through the misuse or negligent handling of equipment.

Schools should have policies in place that cover how and where equipment should be stored, handled and maintained (and by whom).

Pupils may require additional training. The nature and length of this training will depend on the activities being pursued and on the pupils and staff taking part.

Dangerous items
If specific equipment needs to be stored in certain areas, consider using markings on the floor, or posters on the walls, to say what location it should be returned to.

In particular, rebound equipment (such as trampolines, trampettes and springboards) must be securely stored when not in use. These objects are dangerous in the wrong hands and the school will be liable for injury caused even where an unauthorised person uses them

Fowles v Bedfordshire County Council (1995)
In this case, a 21-year-old man set up a trampette and matting against a wall to demonstrate his prowess at front-somersaults to a group of friends. No instructor was present at the time. During the course of his display, he over-rotated a somersault against a wall and was, as a result, paralysed.

Although the case concerns a youth hostel rather than a school, the judge commented that in schools, gymnastics equipment should be made secure outside lesson-times.
[1996] ELR 51

This has implications for the use of school sports equipment. Schools must consider what equipment is to be used, in which lessons, and by whom:

  • Do all classes need to use that particular equipment?
  • If so, who is going to get it out and prepare it for use?

Good practice would also recommend that all children be taught from an early age:

  • how to work as a team with other pupils and staff
  • how to apportion the weight of the equipment amongst an appropriate number of lifters
  • how to bend their knees and deadlift correctly when lifting any item of equipment from the floor
  • to lift and lower apparatus in a controlled manner, being careful not to trap hands or feet beneath it
  • to look in the direction the apparatus is being moved
  • to ensure that their pathway is
    free from obstructions before they start moving

Suggestions for training pupils
Schools could give an initial class on setting out the equipment, explaining the dangers. To maximise lesson-time, this could be given before class, before or after school, or at break.

More cautious schools could take a register of the pupils who have attended this class — and give internal school certificates.

This will provide the school with a legal record of having trained the pupils in equipment handling, and the pupils will get a certificate for their record of achievement portfolio.

As with any form of training, it is important that this not be treated as
a one-off exercise — pupils may become complacent, forget instructions or need their techniques corrected over time. Refresher courses will be necessary.

Inappropriate apparatus
In Povey v Governors of Rydal School (1969), a 16-year-old boy fell while dismounting from a set of Olympic Rings in a school gym. He landed on his shoulders and neck on a tumbling mat beneath the rings and was paralysed.

The judge held that the tumbling mat used as a landing area beneath the rings was inappropriate and did not provide sufficient protection against injury caused during a fall.
(1970) 1 ALL ER 841

Kris Lines is a gymnastics and trampolining coach. He also teaches  at Birmingham University, where his research area is sport negligence law.

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