Health & Safety Considerations for Schools

School rugby, Birkenhead, England 1967

Schools are obliged to provide and promote a safe environment; to protect pupils, staff and visitors; to look after their health, both physical and mental and to ensure their safety at all times within the school environment and at times, beyond.

Depending on whether a school is private, state, community or voluntary funded, the responsibility for drawing up the health and safety guidelines may lie with different bodies, such as the local authority, council or, in the case of independent schools, the institution itself. However, in terms of implementing the measures set out, it is generally the staff and management team in a school who will carry out the enforcement at ground level. The key is to effectively designate responsibilities among appropriate members of the team so that all considerations are taken into account.

For example, schools run CRB checks to make sure that any adult who comes into contact with the young people is legally allowed to do so and has no prior record that might put the children at risk. This kind of paperwork is dealt with by the administration team whenever a new member of staff is appointed or a visitor to the school is referred by the teacher who has invited them.

Schools have codes of practice in place to ensure that all staff members are familiar with their responsibilities for evacuation procedures so that should an emergency occur, everyone is clear on their role in the system. Similarly, staff will be well versed on the dos and don’ts in terms of heavy lifting, first aid requirements and who to call to fix faulty equipment or if an injury occurs. It is incumbent on schools to maintain the safety of all equipment onsite, including computers, projectors, laboratory and sports apparatus, theatrical lighting and sound rigs.

In specialised areas where students are at more risk of injury such as PE or dance, staff must enforce rules about suitable attire, ensure participants are properly warmed up and explain the techniques in order that exercises are completed safely. What is more, they should always keep activity areas clear of hazards. These measures are vital to avoid musculo-skeletal damage or injury.

Classroom-based, day to day considerations that may affect the health of both staff and pupils include eye strain from excessive computer use and repetitive strain injury from writing and typing. Pupils are also often at risk of back problems from carrying heavy bags. Schools must encourage regular breaks from prolonged sedentary activity whether via timetabling or within lesson plans. Staff may be able to use PSHE lessons to emphasise the importance of good posture and quality backpacks to limit back-strain.

School policy will dictate that risk assessments must be carried out for endeavours which are out of the ordinary such as school trips where students will be off-site or activities week where there are chances to try new things or interact with guest practitioners. These are valuable learning opportunities and it is crucial that the staff member or team in charge takes into account the practical concerns and possible hazards that could occur. What’s more, it may also be necessary to take into account the capability and capacity of all participants – including physical, emotional and psychological – and ensure they are not exceeded.

The mental and emotional well-being of students is a fundamental part of schools’ obligations of health and safety. Students may be under stress, whether generated by family, social or study pressures. They may be suffering from abuse or neglect. In extreme cases, where students’ psychological health is affected, it can lead to self harm including eating disorders.

Additionally, within any of these challenges may lie cross-cultural factors that need to be handled with sensitivity, and so, as with all health and safety issues, schools need to have policies, measures and procedures in place for early intervention in these instances. Staff will be trained to spot initial signs such as absences, unusual eating patterns, lack of energy or motivation or changes in behaviour. They can then flag up the cause for concern with the designated person who can deal with it initially and refer the student as appropriate.

By having clear procedures, codes of practice and lines of contact for each specific area of health and safety, schools are able to ensure every person they are responsible for is safe and protected. If any concerns are raised it will be clear how to deal with the issue.

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Andrew Wilkinson

Andrew Wilkinson works with Corporate Health, a charity that was set up in 1947 to provide occupational health services in the aftermath of the Second World War. He is passionate about workplace health matters, and blogs regularly on proactive measures.

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