Wireless technology is useful, but raises health concerns. Vicky Lapins looks at schools’ obligations for safer use

Wireless networks offer great benefits for schools — many schools have already installed a network. Wireless technology is part of many schools’ plans under the Government’s ‘building schools for the future’ initiative. But ‘Wi-Fi’, as the technology is known, is a contentious and emotive subject, generating media interest and concern about its use. There is controversy over the health risks, and debate over whether there has been sufficient control over the use of Wi-Fi in the classroom.

  • This article will review the health issues connected to wireless technology, and suggest ways for the prudent school to react.
  • The article will also look at some general health issues connected to the use of ICT in schools.

HEALTH CONCERNS

Wi-Fi — which operates without cables — is popular because of the flexibility and mobility it offers. Its use has boomed over the last five years, particularly in Britain. But it isn’t all good news — the media has recently highlighted health concerns over the use of Wi-Fi in schools. The media interest has led one MP to urge the Department of Health to commission an investigation into the effects of Wi-Fi on children’s health. And parents have begun to pressurise schools to remove their wireless networks until clear information on health risks becomes available. Exposure to Wi-Fi is said to lead to: loss of concentration, headaches, fatigue, memory and behavioural problems — and even the possibility of cancer in the long term. There is concern that children are more at risk since they have thinner skulls, and their nervous systems are still developing.


What do the experts say?

Scientists argue that the technology is harmless because there is no scientific evidence of its ill effects. But in view of parents’ fears, the Health Protection Agency has revisited its guidance — and confirmed its support for the use of Wi-Fi in schools. The agency says: ‘On the basis of current scientific information Wi-Fi equipment satisfies international guidelines. There is no consistent evidence of health effects from RF exposures below guideline levels and therefore no reason why schools … should not use Wi-Fi equipment’.

A lack of research

The Health Protection Agency says that exposure to Wi-Fi radio waves is comparatively low compared to that of mobile networks — 20 minutes on a mobile phone is equivalent to a year spent in a wireless classroom. Advice from BECTA (the British Educational Communications Technology Agency) is that while secure wireless networks can complement an institution’s wired network, they should not replace it. It is recognised, however, that there is a lack of research. According to Dr Andrew Goldsworthy, a retired biologist of Imperial College, London, the existence of safety guidelines should not be taken as proof that Wi-Fi networks are safe. Sir William Stewart, Chairman of the Health Protection Agency, has also called for a precautionary approach and further research to give parents as much reassurance as possible.

SHOULD WE STOP USING Wi-Fi? The ambiguous information on Wi-Fi health risks has caused a number of schools to turn their backs on the technology — but this response may be unnecessary.

One school in Wales decided that parental concerns were of greater importance than the advantages of Wi-Fi, and quickly removed its network. Others have followed suit, including Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, after there was an allegation that one of its teachers was suffering from radiation poisoning.


Who decides?

And to intensify concerns, the DfES places the responsibility for deciding whether to install Wi-Fi technology firmly in the hands of the individual school. So how are schools meant to make informed decisions about installing Wi-Fi — or indeed any form of information and communications technology?

THE LAW As is always the case, schools owe a duty of care to pupils and staff to take reasonable steps to prevent them suffering reasonably foreseeable harm under the common law of negligence, supported by case law.

  • There is also a statutory obligation. The Children Act 2004 s10(2) gives a definition of the concept of ‘welfare’ based on five outcomes: including physical and mental well-being, and protection from harm. The DfES publication Safeguarding Children in Education now explicitly extends safeguarding duties to include pupil health and safety. Every Child Matters guidance defines the safeguarding and promoting of children’s welfare to include preventing impairment of a child’s health.
  • General legal obligations are also set out in the Health and Safety at Work  Act 1974. Along with the Health and Safety Commission, the Health and Safety Executive is responsible for regulating the risks to people’s health and safety in the workplace.

Employers’ duties

Health and safety regulations state that employers must ensure that risk assessments are made and put in place to manage any identified risk. In the case of schools, the employer (the local authority or the governing body, depending on the category of school) should provide health and safety policies and should ensure that schools put these into operation. These policies should cover the use of ICT in schools. Employers may delegate certain tasks to schools, including risk assessment, but the employer retains overall responsibility for health and safety management. In practice, however, it is often the head teacher or classroom teacher who holds the day-to-day responsibility for ensuring that ICT equipment is used correctly and safely.

‘Reasonably foreseeable’

In contemplating bringing a claim alleging damage to health as a result of any form of new technology, be it Wi-Fi or mobile phones, the individual must prove that it was ‘reasonably foreseeable’ that the technology would cause a risk of injury to health, such that any reasonable employer in those circumstances could not reasonably have failed to recognise that risk.

The absence of this forseeability

is probably enough to prevent successful legal action — but the potential threat of legal proceedings will remain a risk for schools. Before coming to a conclusion on the use of Wi-Fi, it is useful to place this technology in the context of more general ICT use in schools:

ICT AND SAFETY

Photo sensitive epilepsy Display screens cannot cause epilepsy, and are unlikely to cause problems to sufferers of most forms of epilepsy. Photo-sensitive epilepsy however, is a rare form of epilepsy, which puts the sufferer at an increased risk of experiencing an attack through display screen work. It is unlikely that this form of epilepsy would become apparent for the first time working with display screens, but as a precaution, enquiries should be made of parents where children are known to be suffering from epilepsy or are in an epilepsy risk category. Training Both pupils and staff should be trained on the safe use of ICT. The school must provide them with appropriate information and equipment to avoid or reduce risk. Design and layout One of the most critical factors affecting the health of computer users is the design and layout of the workstation. A badly arranged workstation can lead to the adoption of bad working posture — leading to back neck pain, as well as the risk of serious repetitive stress injuries. The most important factor in workstation design is adjustability. This is particularly important in schools because a wide range of users of different sizes and shapes will be using the equipment. Particular problems are likely to arise in infant schools where pupil desk heights and  chair sizes will not be adaptable to suit adults. Teachers should always ensure that, as a minimum, they sit on a chair design for an adult when working with a very young child.  Ergonomics is also about ensuring a good ‘fit’ between people and the use of the equipment they use. The likelihood of pupils or staff suffering health problems linked to computer use will also be related to the amount of time spent using them — another important factor to consider. There should be enough space around a workstation for paper books and other materials and for more than one pupil at a time — and for the teacher to gain access. BECTA recommends that there should be a minimum of one metre between workstations at which one pupil is working, but 1.5 metres allows two pupils to work comfortably together. It is important that chair heights are adjustable to accommodate a wide range of heights. The Schools Building and Design Unit of the DfES can provide guidance on purchasing furniture and equipment.


Disability duty

It is important to ensure that workstations are designed to meet the needs of all pupils and staff, including those with disabilities. LEA advisory staff, physiotherapists and specialist teachers may be able to provide advice during the planning and designing stage. Frequent breaks Whilst there is no legal limit to how long an individual should work at a computer, under health and safety regulations it is better to take shorter breaks more often than longer breaks less often, therefore a five to 10-minute break after an hour is preferable to a 15-minute break every two hours. Ergonomics Screen monitors should tilt and swivel to suit the requirements of the individual users. Screens should be positioned to reduce reflections and glare. The Display Screen Equipment regulations 1992 say that all workstations must be assessed for ergonomic and other safety aspects. Keyboard users should have the keyboard flat or tilted as they require. It is important to develop a good keyboard technique. Repetitive stress injury is a risk for anyone typing with only one or two fingers. For children with years of typing ahead of them, using the keyboard with index fingers only is highly risky. Lighting Lighting levels in ICT suites need to be slightly lower than lighting recommendations for standard classrooms so that there is an appropriate contrast between screen and background. Other factors include room temperature and flooring — which should be non-slip and anti-static. Electromagnetic radiation Concern about electromagnetic emissions from screen has led manufacturers to make ‘low emission’ screens. Equipment should state whether it meets the voluntary ‘MRP2’. Electromagnetic radiation is also relevant to mobile phone handsets where the health advice is still not clear-cut. Although there is no clear evidence that mobile phones are associated with any health risk it is also accepted that children could be more at risk from radio waves emitted by mobile phones. Steps to take for safer mobile use:

  • keep conversations short
  • choose phones with external aerials so that it is as far away from the head as possible when in use
  • avoid handsets with a high SAR value. See  www.mobile-phones-uk.org.uk/sar.htm

Skin rash Those who use display screens sometimes report skin rashes. In many cases environmental factors contribute, but static-electric fields building up around screens, low-level X-ray emissions and ultraviolet radiation given off by screens may be linked to skin rashes. This is another area where further research is necessary. Interactive whiteboards and projectors Use of interactive whiteboards with projectors is becoming increasingly common in schools. Certain precautions should be taken to avoid discomfort and possible eye damage. Training in the use of the equipment is essential. BECTA has issued guidance on the use of this equipment. Electrical safety The Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 require all electrical systems and equipment to be constructed and maintained in a safe condition — and this work to be done by suitably qualified staff. The National Union of Teachers health and safety briefing ‘Electrical Safety in Schools’ provides full guidance on safety precautions. Wireless networks should be installed only by specialists who are familiar with industry standards for network cabling. The system should be configured to ensure correct performance.

Laptops

Many schools offer laptop computers to pupils for use within and outside the school. Whilst laptops are very useful, there are also hazards associated with their use. Laptops are not designed for continuous use. They normally have elevated and compressed keyboards, and a small display screen, which is not ergonomically sound. Incorrect or inappropriate use of laptop computers may expose the user to hazards that may be harmful to their health. There are no national regulations or guidance specifically relating to the ideal weight of laptops for children — and it is advisable to check if the local authority offers advice. The Health and Safety Executive has suggested a number of ergonomic factors to be taken into account when choosing portable computers. See ‘Find out more’, below.

Wi-Fi: A CONCLUSION RM, one of the largest education ICT suppliers has been asked to contribute its views to the Wi-Fi debate. It has confirmed its support of the technology — and will provide impartial, up-to-date advice to any school considering installing such networks.

They recommended that active computers not be kept on pupils’ laps for any length of time. Professor Laurie Challis, Chairman of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme, supports this advice.


Keep up-to-date

In short, schools are advised to seek advice from all relevant organisations and familiarise themselves with current guidance issued by the Health and Safety Executive, BECTA and the DfES. The challenge for risk management is to gauge the level of uncertainty and then give it appropriate weight. Such assessment should be an ongoing process.

Benefit and risk

Schools may well be right to be cautious with Wi-Fi — although as illustrated above, everything carries some degree of risk. The question is always one of balancing benefit and risk — for example, between the current unsubstantiated risks of Wi-Fi radiation against the very real benefits of wireless education. There is at present no conclusive scientific evidence that these networks are damaging. Schools, particularly those in older buildings and based on more than one site, are finding wireless networks to be popular and beneficial. Provided that schools can show that they have adhered to current guidelines and best practice, they should not be discouraged from introducing and using this technology, and should not fear the threat of future litigation. Vicky Lapins is a Legal Assistant at Browne Jacobson.

FIND OUT MORE

Health Protection Agency guidance on the use of Wi-Fi in schools: www.hpa.org.uk/radiation/understand/radiation_topics/emf/wifi.htm The Health and Safety Executive guidelines for laptop use: www.hse.gov.uk/research/

crr_pdf/2000/crr00304.pdf

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