Asking the right questions about school safety

Is any asbestos in your building regularly checked? How safe are your windows? Are goalposts on your football pitch correctly set up? These are some of the safety and health issues which must be considered in schools.
The effective management of safety and health standards to protect staff and students from harm requires us to have robust controls for foreseeable building and playground risks.  
It is vital that such controls are put in place in schools and all other workplaces. In the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s (IOSH) Education group – and the Institution as a whole – we believe that safety and health is an investment, not a cost.

Maintaining standards
What do we need to check to ensure these standards are well maintained? Several areas come to mind, like the management of asbestos. We must ensure an up‑to‑date ‘Duty Holder Inspection’ is carried out every year, to check the condition of all known and suspected asbestos.  
For a suitable and sufficient inspection, you should make sure photographs are taken and compared with the previous year’s pictures to check for any damage or degradation of the asbestos-containing material. This will help to demonstrate whether the condition of the materials is the same as it has been in previous years or that the condition has deteriorated and action is required to reduce the risk.  
Asbestos is the best-known cause of cancer in the workplace. Late last year, IOSH launched its No Time to Lose campaign to raise awareness of occupational cancer and provide businesses and organisations, including schools, with advice on how to reduce exposure to carcinogens.
Another area where problems may arise is with your water system and the potential for the development of Legionella bacteria.
Your school should have a water systems risk assessment, which will give details of the necessary actions to minimise the risk, for example weekly flushing of showers.  The water risk assessment should also detail where there are cold water storage tanks, along with their condition, especially insulation and suitable tank cover.  

The problem with poor insulation is that it allows the sitting water to be between 20ºC and 40ºC, which can encourage rapid bacteria growth in the tank. If the tank cover is not positioned correctly or missing, there is the possibility of dead animal carcases sitting in the water, which also promotes bacteria growth.   
It is also desirable to check if the water risk assessment has identified any known dead-leg areas in the system, which should be removed where reasonably practicable.

Time to think about winter
When winter arrives, we will want to ensure the boiler system is working effectively, as a building without heat is likely to close the school. The important issue here is to use a competent contractor.  
Those with a gas boiler system will need a Gas Safety Registered fitter; importantly it is not the company but the gas safety engineer who turns up on-site who must have the appropriate qualification. An engineer with a qualification for working only on domestic systems will not have the right skills to work on an industrial boiler. You can easily check the competence of the engineer before they start work on your boiler by checking their Gas Safety Registered card with the database.

We must not forget your electrical system. The number of electrical items being used in schools continues to increase, so you need to check the fixed wiring is up to the task. Under the regulations you need to check the whole of your fixed wiring system every five years. What some schools do is carry out an inspection of 20 per cent of the system every year to spread the cost. There are several bodies which can be used to check on the competence of your electrical contractor, including the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA), the National Association for Professional Inspectors and Testers (NAPIT), the National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting (NICEIC) and the Electrical Contractors’ Association of Scotland (SELECT).
Remember to ensure the gas safety engineer and electrician see the asbestos register before starting work, as there is the possibility of asbestos gaskets being used in older equipment.
Then we have the issue of ensuring the portable electrical appliances are safe, achieved through carrying out Portable Appliance Testing (PAT) every year. There is nothing specifically noted in the legislation that requires testing, however it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure equipment is safe for use; over 70 per cent of electrical problems can be identified through visual and tactile checking of the equipment.  
The HSE advise annual PAT testing for equipment in low-risk areas is not necessary. Therefore if you keep good records for all your electrical equipment, it is possible to save money by carrying out less frequent PAT tests on low-risk equipment.

Are your windows safe?
Have you considered window and glazing safety? You should have in place a glazing risk assessment which will detail all glass in areas where there is the risk of human impact.
Georgian wire glass is not safe for human impact but is necessary for fire safety. You can either replace glass or have it covered with a protective film. I have had to investigate accidents where angry students have punched Georgian wire glass and put their fist through the glass, causing cuts up the wrist due to the wire.
Working at height is the largest cause of workplace death. If you have any jobs that require working at height, it is essential to use the correct equipment. Ladders should only be used as access equipment, except if the work can be completed in less than 30 minutes. You should also be aware of fragile roofs and roof-lights, making sure they are adequately guarded or do not allow anyone to access these areas. You should look to eliminate working at height before using any other control.

Slips and trips can be avoided
Let us also ensure we get staff and students safely in and out of the building. Slips and trips are among the most common types of accident reporting from schools; during wet weather it is often caused by excess water in corridors as a result of insufficient matting at entrances to the building.
We need to have sufficient matting for each entrance way to get the water off the soles of the shoes before anyone reaches the hard flooring.
Playgrounds and the school environment need to be checked for safety as well. If there is any outdoor fixed-play equipment, this should be inspected by a competent contractor every year, along with the regular checks by the site care staff. You can use the Register of Play Inspectors International for a list of accredited inspectors.
You should also ensure mobile equipment is adequately maintained and weighted/fixed when being used. There have been accidents where students have been crushed by goalposts toppling on them. The FA and AfPE have guidance on the correct set up of goalposts. Remember to correctly weight down netball goals.
This is not an exhaustive list of issues. You should be able to refer to your competent health and safety advisor for more detailed advice for the hazards in your school.
At IOSH we have a vision of a world of work which is safe, healthy and sustainable. With the right management systems in place, schools using sensible and proportionate controls for the risks will help us achieve this vision and also help educate the workforce of the future.

Further information