A recent article on fire safety breaches at five primary schools in Ireland didn’t surprise me all that much. When undertaking risk assessments as part of the compilation of Safety Statements, time & time again I have come across fire safety breaches in a number of schools. Some of the most common occurrences are large gaps around fire doors, or having fire doors propped open permanently, rendering them useless in the event of a fire. More often than not there are good intentions behind the reasons for keeping doors propped open, as staff don’t want students’ fingers getting caught in heavy doors, and in trying to control one risk give way to a much bigger one. More often than not, in my experience, it is a case of not recognising the severity of the fire risk involved in having those doors propped open that leads to the heightened risk.
In some schools Health & Safety is given the necessary time & resources to ensure it is managed optimally, and great Safety Management Systems are in place. In contrast, I have seen Safety Statements out of date by up to six years in some other schools, meaning that the hazards in that school haven’t been reviewed during that intervening period. It is a legal requirement for every workplace to have a Safety Statement reviewed annually, and that includes schools. Why are we seeing these lapses in safety? Why isn’t Health & Safety given the time and resources it needs in all schools to ensure they are deemed safe places to work and to learn?
Maybe it is a case of “we’ve operated like this until now with no serious injuries or damage to property, why fix it if it’s not broken?”. But we have seen numerous schools devastated by fire around the country, that approach is not a wise one to take. The problem may lay in the fact that a safety template that has been circulated for many years is used by a teacher/member of staff appointed to the role of Safety Officer, or maybe by the Principal, to identify any hazards and assess any risks arising from that hazard. In theory this might sound acceptable, but in reality, can individuals not trained in Health & Safety be considered competent to undertake such a task?
It is my view that they are not, and I believe it is a very unfair burden to place on them. A lot of responsibility goes with the territory of undertaking risk assessments, and when not equipped with the knowledge in relation to certain hazards, how can a person be blamed for not seeing what is obvious to someone specialised in this area? No more than I could be expected to go and teach, say, religion to a class of students, nor can a person without appropriate training in Health & Safety be expected to complete a thorough and comprehensive risk assessment.
Budgets and lack of resources no doubt play a big factor in deciding who gets to undertake risk assessments or compile a Safety Statement for a school, and whether it will be undertaken in-house or by external specialists in this area. My advice to any Principal & Board of Management out there is to get it undertaken by a competent Professional, who will undertake a rigorous audit of their school and highlight any areas posing high risk of injury or ill-health to those who work, study and interact with their school. They will have peace of mind that their staff, students and they themselves are protected, in so far as is reasonably practicable, from the threat posed by many hazards present in their schools.
If you would like to learn more about Safety Statements, and the legal, business and ethical case for undertaking them annually, please see our webinar or alternatively e-mail us at info(at)upstreamhealthandsafety or call us on +353 87 6409975.