In the second of our two-part series, the Health and Safety Executive answers readers' questions raised in the wake of the court case resulting from a lecturer being burnt in an accident with a container of acid.
New to the job
Q: I am a new lecturer in charge of health and safety - purely in the sense that all members of staff are told this is our responsibility. I previously worked in the building industry where the subject was taught in safety training courses. It appears this is not the case in FE. Am I legally responsible if a student is injured when under my supervision, regardless of whether I have been trained in health and safety appropriate to my teaching job?
A: The responsibility for managing workplace risks rests with the college. Employers should share with their employees, and their representatives, the results of risk assessments for hazards in their workplace, and provide training where appropriate. Employees have a general duty to co- operate with the results of their employer's risk assessments.
Can I be prosecuted?
Q: Can individual employees be prosecuted if there is a health and safety breach, or just the college?
A: The employer is responsible for complying with statutory duties for health and safety. However, employees have duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act to co-operate with their employer to enable them to comply with the law. Employees also have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their actions or omissions at work. Where there is a breach of the law, the HSE would look to take action against the employer. If there was sufficient evidence to show that an individual caused an offence or gave rise to it through personal neglect, consent or connivance, then legal proceedings could be taken against that person - but this is rare.
Q: Does the HSE investigate breaches brought to its attention by members of staff concerned about their work environment. If so, is our identity protected?
A: The HSE's policy is to investigate every such complaint. The executive would request the name of the person making the complaint, but we would not disclose this to the employer if the person wished to remain anonymous. We do, however, have to let the employer know that a complaint has been received. The executive will not investigate if the complaint is being made by an employee who has not first brought it to the attention of the employer or a trade union representative.
Q: A school near our college had a visit from an RAF helicopter - something I would like to arrange for our engineering students. Who is responsible for insuring against the thing crashing through the roof of the main campus? And how do we assess the safety implications?
A: It would be sensible to work with the RAF in understanding the precautions they take to guard against the eventuality you mention, as part of a risk assessment. You might also want to talk with your insurers, as well as the school nearby, to see what they advise.
The safest careers
Q: I would like to give our vocational students some hard facts about health and safety in their chosen careers, to encourage them to enter work with an awareness of the dangers. Is it possible to access industry- specific accident statistics?
A: Accident statistics across industry are available on the HSE's website. The Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, with assistance from the HSE, has produced a Basic Hazards Awareness course. This allows students to demonstrate their awareness of workplace hazards and how to prevent harm.
Q: Our college has increasing numbers of students, aged 14-16, coming in part time from schools on vocational courses. Should we be getting special training in health and safety for this age group?
A: If you feel your employer's health and safety policies are not robust enough to deal with changing circumstances, you should raise this with them. Employers should revisit their policies periodically to see whether anything has changed. Employees play a key role in bringing such changes to the attention of their employers as, for obvious reasons, they are best placed to recognise emerging problems. As for special training, this is something that should be taken up with your employer if you feel you are not equipped.
Q: Some sports, like rugby, seem intrinsically dangerous and impossible to make tragedy-free with any amount of legislation. In a sense, we are responsible if a student dies because we've let them do a sport which is dangerous. Are there any sports we should avoid altogether?
A: The HSE does not recommend avoiding sporting activities. All activities should be subject to a risk assessment, the purpose of which is to facilitate the activity, not stop it. For the sport you mention, the Rugby Football Union produces guidance on safe approaches to the game at various levels of ability. The Association for Physical Education promotes and maintains high standards and safe practice in all aspects and at all levels of physical education.
Further information on these and other matters at www.hse.gov.uk.