Getting the balance right

The guidance set out below will enable you to check that your health and safety management arrangements strike the right balance – in other words are you:

  • Getting it just right? - Striking a sensible balance
  • Doing too much? - Going beyond sensible management
  • Doing too little? - Failing to reach a sensible balance

Sensible health and safety management

Sensible management test

When we have sensible health and safety management:

  • the school leadership team understand the safety policy and apply it practically to the real risks in the school
  • key staff have clearly established roles and responsibilities
  • paperwork is kept to a minimum with the significant hazards identified, their risks adequately controlled and precautions clearly documented where needed
  • school leaders consult with staff including employee / trade union safety representatives – looking for practical solutions to health and safety issues
  • learning is enabled by making proportionate decisions

There are many benefits to be gained from successful health and safety management – both in the school and outside. Outdoor learning activities help pupils develop a greater understanding of a subject and help in developing their risk awareness. HSE has published case studies demonstrating sensible and proportionate risk management practices for school trips that reflect the principles of successful health and safety management.

Going beyond sensible management

Sensible management test

When we go beyond sensible health and safety management:

  • the Board of Governors, Local Authority or school managers adopt an overly cautious approach which might include insisting on written precautions for even the most trivial risks
  • the culture aims to provide an environment of absolute safety, where the elimination of all risks squeezes out all other considerations
  • paperwork becomes a priority taking up staff time while sensible and practical suggestions for more appropriate approaches are not considered
  • existing resources to make life easier, for example HSE's classroom checklist and CLEAPSS/SSERC advice, are not used as intended

Failing to reach a sensible balance

Sensible management test

When we fail to demonstrate sensible health and safety management:

  • no one leads or takes responsibility for health and safety
  • there is a lack of understanding about risks, priorities and risk management
  • precautions for higher risk activities, eg off-site or work at height, have not been identified
  • important documents and records are not kept up to date
  • senior managers are unaware of staff concerns and there is no engagement with staff on risk management
  • members of staff are left to deal with difficult decisions without the necessary skills, experience and training
  • key information is not passed to contractors working on site

When sensible health and safety management is neglected, the consequences can be severe.

These cases highlight examples for school leadership teams to consider:

Disregarding real risks

The unsafe removal of asbestos insulating boards at an independent school during refurbishment work led to several people being exposed to asbestos fibres. There was inadequate planning and a failure to carry out a full asbestos survey - despite a sample having identified the presence of asbestos. The school was fined £60,000 with £13,000 costs. The director of the company responsible for the project was fined £10,000 with £6,000 costs.

Significant risks such as asbestos must be effectively managed. Anyone who has responsibility for the maintenance and/or repair of non-domestic premises, including schools, is a 'dutyholder' (Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 - Regulation 4). Dutyholders should know whether their premises contain asbestos, where it is and what condition it is in. They must assess and manage the risks from asbestos ensuring that anyone who is likely to work on, or disturb, asbestos is provided with information about its location and condition. Checklists and guidance on the management of asbestos in schools are available to guide schools through the duty to manage requirements.

Failing to take responsibility

A foundation school governing body was prosecuted following an investigation into the handling and use of plaster of paris by pupils. In the absence of sensible precautions a pupil received skin burns. No adequate instructions had been provided on the dangers of the material and safe handling procedures. The governing body, as the school employer, was fined £16,500 and ordered to pay costs of £2,500.

Many materials or substances used in schools could be harmful to health. Harmful substances can be present in anything from cleaning products to chemicals used in the science laboratory and materials used in art and design and technology. To begin to control exposure to hazardous materials you need to do a risk assessment. This involves identifying the harmful substances using product labels and safety data sheets. Practical guidance on sensible and proportionate control measures that can be applied in the school environment is available from organisations such as CLEAPSS and SSERC.

Failing to check on significant risks

A local authority (as employer) was prosecuted for failing to check that schools under its control had up to date gas safety checks - the gas appliances went unchecked for two years because of changes in contracts and council personnel. The oversight was only identified when a gas alarm was activated in a school kitchen. The council were charged with a breach of gas safety legislation and fined £5,000 with costs of £6,500.

Employers should have arrangements to check their policies and procedures are working in practice. A simple system of 'Plan, Do, Check, Act' will help employers ensure they are doing what they need to do. HSE web pages on 'Managing for health and safety' provide further detail.

Out of sight - out of mind

The chef employed by a catering contractor in a school kitchen tripped on some damaged floor covering and fell, striking their head on a steel table. As a result, the chef was knocked unconscious and sustained a head injury. Even though the school had known about the damage for seven months, it failed to take suitable remedial action for this straightforward defect. The school was fined £5,000 with costs of £3,000.

Slip and trip incidents are the most common cause of injury at work. They are preventable and solutions are often simple and low cost to implement. In this case had effective and timely repairs been implemented the incident would have been prevented.

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Updated: 2023-08-16