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A stitch in time saves on litigation

Accidents happen. But could your school afford a damages claim? Stephen Hoare reports on an initiative to improve safety precautions

TO HEADTEACHERS and local authorities, risk is associated with lack of attention to health and safety. School buildings and grounds - even the curriculum - are potentially dangerous, not just to children but also staff and members of the public.

On school trips inadequate supervision can lead to serious accidents. Each year, local authorities pay out thousands of pounds in claims - money which would be better spent on educating children.

Zurich Municipal, a leading local authority insurer, has devised a schools risk assessment procedure that aims to help to minimise claims. It involves a full inspection of health and safety management, procedures for reporting hazards and making schools safe. Rachel Coventry, the company's marketing controller, says: "We look at the risks that exist within the school environment and advise LEAs and schools on how they can be reduced."

A risk assessor from the company and a member of the local authority risk management team make a walk-through inspection of a school, noting any possible hazards and what policies need to be introduced to deal with them. Pertinent questions are asked: are the Health and Safety at Work regulations being observed? Are the right measures in place for handling dangerous chemicals under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations?

Statistics indicate that in any year more than 3,500 school staff will suffer significant injuries as a result of accidents at work. The Health and Safety Executive reports that many injuries suffered by teachers are caused by mishandling equipment. Last year 700 teachers were injured by lifting or carrying heavy items and a further 400 suffered falls or sports injuries.

Slips and stumbles in schools are the biggest source of personal injury claims. Many accidents can be prevented by simple measures such as fitting non-slip surfacing in corridors, controlling and supervising the use of staircases during peak times and repairing ill-fitting carpets or worn stair-treads. Managing those risks helps to prevent accidents and saves litigation and insurance claims.

The important message is that a safe, well-run school benefits financially. Rachel Coventry says: "The costs of putting things right is minimal compared with an insurance pay-out for injuries and the school's loss of reputation."

The Department for Education and Employment's fair funding initiative means the responsibility for health and safety is the headteacher's. But local authorities continue to hold a blanket responsibility. Most still self-insure school buildings, charging schools a premium but, typically, picking up the first pound;100,000 of any laim from a contingency fund. Insurers underwrite the bigger claims, such as fire damage resulting from arson attacks or compensation for serious injury.

A year ago, Zurich Municipal visited Hylton Castle primary as part of a Sunderland-wide inspection of all the authority's 140 schools. The audit revealed ways in which the school could tighten up on safety and save money. The head, Mike Wooler, says: "Looking at our health and safety reporting log book we were able to pinpoint that several children a year were getting their fingers trapped in doors. To avoid it happening in future we fitted anti-jam devices to all our old-fashioned corridor access doors at a cost of pound;60 a door.

"We now have a safety culture in school where children will report things they think are unsafe. I had a loose carpet reported to me only last week, which the caretaker was able to nail down. It's stopping accidents before they happen."

He now sits on a risk management committee and talks through safety issues with other local headteachers before reporting their concerns to the local authority. By swapping notes, the heads discern ways in which accidents in schools can be cut.

Today's priority is accommodating the information technology part of the national curriculum. Mr Wooler says: "Setting up an IT room has serious implications for health and safety. The installation has to be checked and certified by a building surveyor."

Richard Cantrel, the health and safety co-ordinator for Sunderland schools, believes that only concerted authority-wide action can tackle the rising costs of claims and insurance premiums. He has produced a guide to health and safety which summarises the main points arising from the inspection of local schools and sets out headteachers' legal requirements in a

simple fashion. He says: "We're getting our message across in a co-ordinated way rather than the old ad hoc approach."

The insurance company had noted, for example, that wheelie bins near buildings were an invitation to children to set alight rubbish and push the bins up against mobile classrooms. Bins are now sited in secure


A school minibus drivers' registration scheme has reduced premiums by centralising paperwork. It will be followed up by specialist safety training.

Mr Cantrel's department is also producing a health and safety policy in consultation with schools - which many have found useful when school inspectors visit. Richard Cantrel says: "In terms of school governance, the policy is something lay inspectors are looking at. It's useful for schools to have health and safety documentation and a risk assessment in place."

For information on Zurich Municipal's health and safety risk assessment service call Rachel Coventry on 01252 387653

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