News

Watchdog checks out safety faults in 300 schools

– Investigations include asbestos and dangerous gates
– No legal requirement to tell parents of failings

The health and safety watchdog has launched nearly 300 investigations at schools in the past three years, Schools Week can exclusively reveal.

Inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have investigated 293 incidents at schools since April 2011, including nine fatalities.

Of those, 150 were into major incidents requiring a heightened response because of the potential of death, serious injuries or extensive property damage.

More than 100 enforcement notes have been issued as a result of the visits, which require schools, or the council, as the employer, to urgently address health and safety failings or face court action.

However, while the notices are published on the watchdog’s website, there is no legal requirement for schools to inform parents of the breaches.

Our investigations also reveal that schools have paid a total of £410,215 in fines due to failings on their premises. These include children losing fingers in school gates or doors, exposure to asbestos and a pupil falling down a lift shaft.

Frances Pickworth, a researcher who specialises in health and safety for education support provider The Key, said: “There are so many pitfalls for schools. They are dealing with so many different aspects, and there’s no clear list of what’s statutory and what’s simply good practice.

“Schools have a duty of care towards pupils, but this is not always easy to define and it is often unclear how far it extends.”

The freedom of Information figures obtained by Schools Week show 102 enforcement notices have been issued in the past three financial years.

Nine were prohibition notices requiring an activity to be immediately stopped.

The remaining 93 were improvement notices, where remedial action has to be completed by a set date. Inspectors follow up to check the schools have complied.

The notices remain on the HSE’s website for five years. However, there is often a delay of at least nine weeks between a notice being issued and published, to allow for appeals to be lodged.

Of the 102 notices, a total of 23 related to asbestos. Smita Jamdar, partner and head of education at law firm SGH Martineau, said: “One of the main things people are worried about is asbestos in their building, and it’s a problem finding the resources to manage that.

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“It has become harder for schools as the system becomes more fragmented – in the past it would be for the local authority to manage. It’s a real challenge.”

Our figures also show there have been 28 prosecutions for health and safety breaches at schools in the past three years.

The largest fine was £100,000 issued to Stonyhurst College, an historic private school in Clitheroe, Lancashire, after a stonemason developed silicosis.

He could have been exposed to silica dust in excess of 80 times the workplace limit, the HSE said, during a 21-month project to repair the building.

The City of Salford Council was also fined £20,000 in April last year. A six-year-old boy with autism and learning difficulties lost his index finger after his hand got stuck in a gate at Springwood School, in Manchester.

An HSE investigation found the council had failed to act on an earlier report that identified the risk of children trapping their fingers in gates.

Department for Education guidance released in February last year urged teachers to adopt a “common sense” approach to health and safety.

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But Ms Pickworth said school staff have called The Key to get clarification on their duties in numerous situations, from assessing risks to children with nut allergies to dealing with seagulls diving near pupils in the school playground.

She added: “Staff shouldn’t see health and safety as a barrier. Thinking about health and safety is meant to protect pupils. It shouldn’t get in the way of their education, or stop them taking part in activities they’ll learn from and enjoy.”

 



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2 Comments

  1. I have read the report by Schools week & it does highlight several good items for further discussion. Firstly, what are the accident statistics since schools became in charge of their own budgets?? Have they gone up or down?? Secondly, who are the people on site, now doing the H&S inspections?? Are they being done in-house or by an independent company??

    One line in the report does puzzle me though. It says

    “Schools have a duty of care towards pupils, but this is not always easy to define and it is often unclear how far it extends.”

    This is partly true. Schools have a “Duty of care” to anyone who comes on to the school premises. Even to a Burglar!!!

    My last point is that the HSE don’t always make it easy for the general public to understand H&S regulations. AITCo Consulting is a very niche company in H&S as we only look at Glass safety within commercial properties. And it is this topic which even the HSE don’t make owners / mangers of buildings aware of what they should be looking at. The dangers of unsafe glass in a commercial property is in the same bracket as Asbestos, which the report mentions, and if i’m really honest, is probably an even bigger danger than asbestos!! I have just written an article featured in SHP online giving our thought in to why such a big safety item has been ignored as a topic by the HSE.

    http://glasssafetysurvey.co.uk/real-story-glass-safety-regulations/

    I would be interested to find out whether any of the 293 incidents investigated by the HSE were involving glass.

  2. David Barry

    The issue of a fragmented schools system making it more difficult to deal with safety issues rang a bell with me. I became really concerned about an Asbestos issue in a new Free School near me. (Whitehall Park School). Basically whereas with a community, or council school all I would have had to do would have been to pick up a phone with Whitehall Park School and the Bellevue Place Educational Trust it was essentially impossible to find out what was going on. I was not the only person concerned about this, but we could not get anywhere. Then a post appeared on Mumsnet. The response to the questions asked on Mumsnet could have been to explain how, and in what way, the correct precautions were taken.

    But to date there has been no official response at all. However there WAS a response of a kind from someone. A legal attempt was made to shut me down and have my blog postings on the Local Schools Network taken down. The rather unorthodox mechanism was not a threat of a defamation suit, but a process under the whistleblower Act which enabled the person, or persons acting against me to conceal their identity. The attempt has failed of course as otherwise I would not be posting this but it is clear that someone, unknown, was very uncomfortable about me talking about asbestos.And they went to a lot of trouble to hide who they are. All very odd. I have blogged about this strange experience here:

    http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2016/06/a-protective-mask-and-a-gag-are-different-things-free-speech-whitehall-park-school-and-asbestos