Health and Safety

Ensuring school safety during building work

Dave Garioch, Chair of the Education Group at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and health and safety manager at London Borough of Sutton, examines who is responsible for health and safety during school refurbishment projects.

Refurbishment and building work is regularly required in schools. The ideal time to do this work is during school holidays.

However often there are situations when it must be done during term time. This brings with it some significant safety and health challenges. But having hundreds of students and staff moving around a school building at the same time that contractors are on site need not cause hazards, as long as the right procedures are in place.

So how do you manage these risks? Before starting off on a project to refurbish school property it is important to understand where the responsibilities lie.  

Clients, who in this situation are the schools, need to meet the requirements of Section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. This stipulates that clients must keep others, not in their employment but who may be affected by their undertaking, safe. As the work is commissioned by the client this accountability cannot be delegated to anyone.  

It is therefore essential for the client to be able to demonstrate they have done all that is reasonably practicable to fulfil this legal requirement. As the enforcing authority, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) may visit a site where there has been a significant failure, which may lead to prosecution. The HSE Fee for Intervention Protocol has given the HSE another lever to challenge the client into showing they met this requirement to select and monitor suitable contractors to carry out the work.  

Where they deem there is a material breach of a legislative duty, they can then charge for all of their time at £124 + VAT per hour. It is not unusual to have a fee of over £1,000.  There are many cases of Section 3 prosecutions of clients which you can find on the database, including for poor management of asbestos during refurbishment work.

So how can the client show they have done all that is reasonably practicable? Firstly they should ensure there is a clear specification for the work to be undertaken, including providing details on known hazards, for example asbestos and the location of electrical, gas and sewer services where necessary.  

Where the client does not have the knowledge, skills and competence in any high hazard area, it is essential to get help from someone with the necessary skills, knowledge and competence to provide suitable and sufficient support for work to be undertaken safely.

Where is the asbestos?
An academy trust and a glass company were jointly prosecuted by the HSE after an investigation found they put employees at unnecessary risk. The trust undertook a project to replace old windows at the academy. Four workers from the appointed contractor attended the site, but did not receive an induction by any employee of the academy. Nor was any information provided to the glass company’s employees on the location of any asbestos containing materials.

The school’s site manager told the contractors that ‘to the best of his knowledge’ there was no asbestos containing materials in the window area. While removing the windows, two of the workers encountered strips of asbestos insulating board (AIB) packers, which prevented them from installing the new windows. The packers were removed from the frame using a crowbar, then snapped and dumped next to an asbestos decontamination unit on the school site that was being used for unrelated work by licensed asbestos removal contractors.  

After the case, an HSE inspector said: “Although the school had not been under local authority control since 2011, it failed to ensure employees and management received adequate training to make up for the loss of local authority support and ensure that a suitable asbestos management plan was in place.”  

The school was fined £7,500 and ordered to pay £3,000 of costs. Additional to this was a bill for £20,000 for decontamination and replacement of floor coverings. Furthermore, soft furnishings and children’s work had to be disposed of and parts of the school could not be used for the second part of the summer term.

This case demonstrates the need to have competent advice and the importance of having a full assessment of the work to be carried out. Where the fabric of the building is going to be disturbed, it is essential for an asbestos refurbishment survey to be carried out prior to the works starting. This would have identified the location of the unknown asbestos insulation board and prevented contractors from being exposed to the harmful substance along with all of the knock-on effects on the school and pupils.  

Unsafe subcontractor
Another area that requires close scrutiny and oversight is the main contractor’s use of subcontractors. Schools should get details from the main contractor of how they select competent subcontractors and what their monitoring arrangements are.

In one case, a children’s centre was being added to a school. The area was effectively segregated and meetings were held with the main contractor about the work and safety arrangements. Everything was going to plan and the work was progressing safely.  

Once the walls were constructed the main contractor brought in a roofing company. The roofing contractor had their own risk assessments, which identified there was no requirement for the wearing of hard hats when working on the roof, as nothing could fall on the heads of workers, however they would be worn when at ground level.  

However the roofing contractor’s employees were seen not wearing hard hats when at ground level and this was brought to the attention of the principal contractor. Meetings were held and the roofing contractor was warned about their lack of adhering to safe systems of work.  

This led on to the principal contractor having to send their clerk of works to the site on a more regular basis than had been planned to monitor the situation. The roofing contractor stated in their tender for the work that suitable edge protection would be provided to prevent staff from falling from height along with appropriately-sited crash bags inside the building to minimise the impact of anyone falling into the building from the roof.  

The school had concerns when seeing the contractor working and contacted their health and safety adviser, who went on site and stopped the work from continuing due to the poor safety standards of the subcontractor and not following their own safe system of work. The principal contractor was contacted and also came down to site to enforce the contractor to install the safe systems of work identified in their risk assessments and method statements.

No-one was injured during the work, but the potential for a serious accident was high and the school, as client, took positive action to ensure safe systems of work were employed through the good communication between them and the principal contractor. This case study shows how the client, understanding their accountability for the work being undertaken, followed up significant issues they identified and helped to prevent a serious accident from occurring.

Getting it right
The following should help schools plan for and achieve safe refurbishment works. Firstly, specify in sufficient detail the work to be carried out, including details of health and safety requirements (for example no large vehicle movements at times students arrive/leave school). Know your limits and when to get help and competent advice. You should be able to identify, at this stage, if the work is notifiable under the Construction Design and Management Regulations.

Secondly, identify the known significant hazards and find out about the foreseeable hazards not already known about, such as asbestos. Provide specification and details of hazards to those invited to tender, ensuring they provide details of how the tasks will be done safely, including their selection and monitoring of any subcontractors.

Furthermore, review submissions to identify the best value quotation, not necessarily the cheapest, and have a meeting pre-start date to set out the expectations and monitoring arrangements.

Carry out monitoring as agreed. Have regular meetings with the contractor to discuss issues and resolutions put in place. The frequency will be determined by the pre-start meeting and also by the number of problems being identified.

Once the work is complete, review the process to identify what went well and what needed further action. Use this learning for subsequent work. If the refurbishment is taking place during term time, it could be a good opportunity for the pupils and students to learn about workplace risks and how they are adequately controlled. It will depend on the willingness of the contractor, the time available and the safety of the location.

Issues for discussion can include: the development of the specification and the tender process; the separation of the refurbishment area from the remainder of the school; the use of low voltage/battery pack hand tools; COSHH assessments and why they are required when using hazardous substances; hazard spotting and the need for good housekeeping; safeguarding and use of mobile phones on site; working at height as the largest cause of workplace accidental death; noise and the potential for hearing loss, methods of communication; and any other relevant hazard and risk control. Schools should also remember to look at the skill set of the staff they are asking to manage the project. Where they have a skills gap, schools should either provide them with training and/or appropriate support from competent advisers.

In IOSH’s Education Group – and the organisation as a whole – we believe that all workers in all industries should be covered by a culture of care. In situations such as school refurbishments, the client, namely the school, is responsible for ensuring this culture is in place. They should plan to succeed and ensure they provide adequate resources for the project to be completed safely.

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