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Schools Health and Safety Conference, 11 March 2010

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at your conference today. This is my first visit to the new Wembley Stadium so it is a double pleasure for me to be here.

You have asked me to speak about the current health and safety challenges in schools. I have already noted that later today you will hear from speakers on subjects ranging from asbestos in school premises, to management of stress and infectious diseases to safety on school trips and sports activities!

This shows that you are clearly aware of the breadth of health and safety issues which present challenges in schools. I intend to provide the HSE perspective on all of these topics and maybe a few more. But I also want to touch upon one other important aspect of health and safety in schools and that is the pivotal role you play in shaping the attitude of the next generation workforce towards health and safety.

I believe that the best way to place all this in context is to start by talking about HSE's new Strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century.

The progress we've already made in Great Britain in health and safety could not have been achieved without the commitment of the whole community of stakeholders. We want to improve further and, as the new Strategy clearly states, we need everyone to be part of the solution.

Every member of every workforce across the country, in whatever sector, has a fundamental right to work in an environment where health and safety risks are properly managed and controlled. This is not the same thing as working in an environment where all risk is eliminated. Risk is clearly always going to be part and parcel of people's lives - both within and outside of work - and learning to manage risk is the important thing.

October last year marked the 35th anniversary of the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act, which still remains the basic legislation under which all Health and Safety regulation operates. The Act is just as relevant now as it was in 1974 - a truly remarkable feat considering the significant changes that have taken place in the workplaces across Great Britain. One reason for this resilience is the goal-setting approach - providing clear principles, not least of reasonable practicability.

The legislation is based on the principle that those who create the risk are best placed, and indeed required, to manage that risk. That still applies to all workplaces today. It's legislation that has proved to be effective - measured by a performance in health and safety in Great Britain, which is world class.

The overriding mission in the new Strategy is to:

"prevent death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities".

To do this, we must maintain all that is good - and what works well - about our regulatory system, and at the same time we must also reset the direction and adapt to allow us to take account of change and the broader context. As well as many changes to the economy of Great Britain, the Board recognised the need for the Strategy to address:

The role of HSE is to provide strategic direction, to lead the health and safety system as a whole. Our role includes inspection, investigation, enforcement, research, proposing new regulation where and when needed, and providing information and advice.  

But it is important to remember that others recognise their role and play their part as well.

Strong leadership, engagement and a common sense approach are key to effective health and safety - in any and every organisation. Leadership is fundamental because it sets the tone for whether health and safety happens - or not, and how it happens. The type of health and safety culture that exists in organisations will be decided by how leaders manage it. If they see that it makes good business sense this will lead to openness and involvement. Leaders will be seen to care about the people they employ and manage. But if, on the other hand leaders see health and safety as being all about bureaucracy, paperwork and procedures, this is likely to lead to health and safety being seen as a chore, a burden and therefore not properly and appropriately addressed.

The Strategy also recognises that building on people's knowledge and competence applies to everyone in the system. We need people who lead, who are confident and competent to exercise judgment and common sense. This is true of all organisations - they need good, reliable and fit for purpose advice and guidance from professionals. Competence has to be measured in a sensible and proportionate approach to tackling real risks with a minimum of paperwork. We don't lead the world in health and safety performance by generating paperwork. We do it by managing risks sensibly and proportionately.

So, how does all of this apply to the Education sector?

Let's look first of all at how it applies to you as teachers and staff - employees within the Education Sector. The hazards to which you may be exposed are many:

By far the most prevalent causes of absence and ill health in the education sector are stress and injuries caused by slips, trips and falls.

Stress is a serious issue for teachers and has a major knock-on impact on children's learning. Many of us in many professions are expected to work under pressure, and we know that doing so can have a positive effect in terms of driving us to succeed and deliver results. But stress occurs when that pressure becomes too great and its effects can be very debilitating, leading to more serious illness and also making it more likely that we will get injured.

It seems obvious to say that because of its serious consequences, and often long periods of absence from work, by far the best way to manage stress is to prevent it happening in the first place or, more realistically, recognising the early warning signs. There is a good deal of practical advice and support available to help with putting processes in place for early intervention and management - HSE's management standards for stress.

There will be those among you who have already worked out what works in practice in your school. I strongly urge you to find ways of sharing those good practices with others. Managing stress is not something that management can do alone - it needs active involvement from all staff to find solutions as well as to identify where there are problems. Clearly, in schools it involves dealing with difficult causes of stress including tackling bad behaviour and intimidation. But remember that being involved is important to find the right solutions and in no way removes the legal responsibility from management. HSE gives its full support to workforce involvement in every workplace - schools and colleges are no exception to that.

Slips trips and falls remain the most common cause of major injuries in every workplace - and teaching follows exactly the same pattern - they account for around 40% of all injuries reported. One of the reasons they remain so commonplace is that people fail to recognise the potentially serious consequences that result from a fall - broken bones can often lead to permanent loss of mobility and movement. And, because they are not recognised people walk past slipping and tripping hazards - wet or uneven floors, they see potentially dangerous practices - standing on chairs or tables and fail to act until someone does get hurt.

The steps required to reduce the level of injury and suffering to teachers from slips trips and falls are pretty straightforward, common sense, measures and they are things everyone can do - they don't have to wait for someone else to fix them. If we could do that we would make a huge difference to health and safety in teaching and it would give us the basis to then move on and tackle some of the other key challenges facing us.

HSE's shattered lives campaign is very much aimed at raising people's awareness of this often overlooked but very serious cause of so many injuries in a whole variety of workplaces.

I now want to turn to the subject of asbestos in schools, which I know is of great concern to many of you - not least because of the potential for adverse and potentially fatal health effects such as mesothelioma, which only become evident many years after exposure. Sources of exposure which could be from anywhere not only school, may be difficult to identify. All this increases anxiety

We must recognise that schools are no different to any other non-domestic buildings which contain asbestos - in the sense that the asbestos containing materials must be properly managed, and everyone concerned must be clear who's responsible for what. And of course HSE will continue to take enforcement action where appropriate to require that asbestos is managed properly in schools.

Despite some high profile civil cases, there is no evidence that teachers or pupils are at significant risk in schools. Indeed, a recent research report has confirmed that mesothelioma rates among teachers are in line with those for the population as a whole. That same report shows that those who have a much higher risk of developing mesothelioma are people who worked in the construction industry in the 1960s and 70s.

Let us be clear that HSE takes the issue of managing asbestos very seriously. Our evidence-based view is that proper management in situ is preferable to removal. But we are also clear in stating that where asbestos containing materials are in vulnerable positions or liable to damage (for example by children) then they should be removed. I acknowledge that this remains an issue of concern for many of you and we will never lose sight of that. We will continue to work with DCSF and others to improve asbestos management in schools.

The evidence also tells us that schools and Local Authorities need help to understand their responsibilities and to act on them. HSE's Public Services sector, in conjunction with DCSF, has been working on some web-based guidance entitled 'Roles & Responsibilities for different types of school' and 'Sensible Risk Management guidance for Schools'. This will be accessible via the HSE website with links into Teachernet in the next few months.

I now want to turn to the subject of school trips and more general practical and experiential learning in schools.

Organising and running school trips can create a lot of pressure and sometimes stress. I understand that there are some real concerns about requirements and responsibilities. There are some very unfortunate myths about individual teachers being held liable and even personally prosecuted - but the important thing to note is that they are myths. Teachers are not personally sued and in the very small number of cases where teachers have been prosecuted it has happened because teachers have ignored direct instructions and departed from common sense.

We have participated actively in work with DCSF to produce guidance based upon good practice. We really do want learning outside of the classroom environment to take place but we have to be realistic. There can be no guarantees of absolute safety on the one hand or of no enforcement action on the other, but we can build a very different picture of what is wanted - which is all about common sense and doing what is reasonable.

Alongside a very few, but very high profile, cases where things have gone wrong on school trips, many thousands of activities take place every year up and down this country in schools and other youth organisations. Young people take part in ski trips, foreign exchange visits, outward-bound activities as well as curriculum based field activities and they gain a huge amount from the experiences. These events take place without incident, the learning is immense and the young people are left with memories of an enjoyable experience, which means that both the enjoyment and the learning will stay with them for a long time. There is no evidence at all that the number and type of trips has diminished - in fact they have broadened. Part of the problem we all face is that isolated incidents get a huge amount of coverage, the many events which take place without incident and the enormous benefit which young people derive from them gets little or no coverage.

I believe that there is a great deal that we can all do to share good practice. So many events take place without incident cannot be down simply to good luck - they happen because many organisations understand what is required, they adopt a common sense and proportionate approach. The very best examples will also involve the young people themselves - and their parents - in understanding the risks that can be controlled and those that simply and realistically cannot.

Part of the process can and should be about setting realistic expectations and making those who want to take part in the activities aware that in doing so they are exposing themselves to risk - and that's a good thing!  Why? Because life itself is full of risks we cannot avoid. We all survive by learning how to deal with risk; and helping young people to experience risk and learn how to handle it is part of preparing them for adult life and the world of work.

I have been asked many times why we in HSE regard learning outside of the classroom as such an important issue. The reason is very clear. The next generation who will become the workforce of tomorrow need to be prepared for the workplace. If young people grow up in an artificial cotton wool environment they will enter the world of work risk naïve and, in short, a liability to their future employers.

In some cases it may be sensible to involve parents in discussions about what precautions and risk management measures can reasonably be taken and what cannot. It is a fact that in our increasingly risk averse society, there can be a strong tendency to look for someone else to blame on those rare occasions when things do go wrong.

My own daughters are now in university, but when they were at school they went on numerous visits as part of their courses - geography field trips to remote parts of Britain and expeditions to Mexico and Tanzania - and on every occasion their school held meetings for parents. We were made part of the process of deciding whether the level of risk was acceptable to us - before the trip took place. On more than one occasion I saw one or two parents choose not to send their children on trips but they were by far the minority and the process had made us part of the decision.

Sensible risk management applied to experiential learning mean:

DCSF's new guidance, which has just completed its consultation phase, is intended to help teachers, youth leaders, local authorities and providers of learning outside the classroom to prepare properly for events but without going over the top. It aims to cut red tape and to build confidence as well as prudently reminding people of what to do if things do go wrong.

We have stated explicitly in the new Strategy that it is important for the education system to embed a basic understanding of risk as a life skill so that young people mature and join the workforce more risk aware. We do not need them to be taught Health and Safety as a subject in a classroom, we need them to learn how to deal with risk properly and sensibly as and when they encounter it. That will be achieved through real experiences and learning both inside and outside the classroom.

Health and safety is important in any workplace but in your workplaces it takes on an added dimension because of the educational impact on future generations.

We really do need all of you to be engaged in health and safety and be playing your part - in ensuring your workplaces are safe and healthy for you and your colleagues, and that your health and safety culture "infects" the next generation with the right approach to risk - to prepare them for work and adult life.

Thank you for your time, for your invitation and for listening. I am happy to take questions.

Updated 2010-12-03