Danger signs ahead on work placements

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Schools and employers must be aware of the requirements on health and safety, say Ian Gilchrist and Hugh Wylie

EDUCATION for work is commendable - but check out the health and safety arrangements first. Two important related documents have recently appeared. HMI's Education for Work was launched with a call for more businesses to become involved with enterprise education and work-

experience projects. Second, and with much less public fanfare, new guidelines have been issued on managing health and safety on work experience.

These are a timely reminder of the responsibilities. In June 1997, 14-year-old James McKay died on work experience on a Dorset farm. He was asphyxiated in a grain silo which was being emptied. The company was fined pound;10,000 after admitting failure to ensure his safety, in that the boy's supervisor had left the work area for about 10 minutes.

The judge highlighted the importance of employers conducting proper risk assessments, matching pupils to placements, briefing and debriefing them, and of the need for work-experience co-ordinators and other visiting staff in schools to be competent in assessing health and safety arrangements. There should be documentation on the vetting of placements, accurate job descriptions, monitoring, induction and supervision arrangements

The new guidance produced by the Health and Safety Executive, in association with the Scottish Executive Education Department, is intended to promote good practice. But it deserves a higher profile since it affects employers, local enterprise companies, careers service companies and education-business partnerships, as well as students and parents.

The legislation on which the guidelines are based, the Health and Safety (Young Persons) Regulations 1997, came into force in March 1997, but there is evidence from organising work experience for Midlothian secondary schools that familiarity with these legal requirements is not as widespread as it should be. This could potentially place pupils at risk.

The HSE's guidance makes it clear that "education employers", that is, the education authorities, have duties both to their employees and to students. In particular, they should ensure students on work experience are not exposed to risks to their health and safety.

So what is the position at present? Probably a very mixed picture across Scotland, with some authorities already having effective procedures in place. Elsewhere, the situation is much less clear and there are, undoubtedly, worrying gaps in health and safety responsibilities.

In conjunction with neighbouring authorities, most placements for Midlothian's six secondary schools are arranged through Career Development Edinburgh and Lothians, which maintains a database of employers that includes an assessment of each placement in terms of health and safety. However, a sinificant proportion of young people make their own arrangements, often through family contacts or with employers where they already have a Saturday or vacation job.

The most recent cohort of Midlothian students have turned up in locations as exotic as broadcasting studios, model agencies, gamekeeping, tree surgery, art galleries and livery stables. Some have opted for a range of office environments, which one would normally consider low risk activities, until it emerges that a student can be expected to sit alone in a reception area with no immediate supervision. There should always be a risk assessment before students take up any placement. Immaturity, inexperience and lack of awareness of risks have to be taken into account.

In some cases, the result may be work-shadowing rather than hands-on experience. For example, students involved in veterinary practices cannot be exposed to X-rays and are not allowed to handle animals.

Larger employers are generally aware of the new regulations and have ensured compliance. The Bank of Scotland has very clear documentation for its staff on what is expected. The induction programme on the first morning takes young people through health and safety procedures and risk assessment information is compiled, with a copy given to the student or parentguardian and the original retained by the bank for a year.

But a large motor company, which engages health and safety consultants to carry out risk assessments, was unaware that regulations apply not only to students on work experience but to all other young people under 18. There was consternation when managers realised they were possibly in breach of regulations for some of their full-time apprentices.

Most students are placed with small or medium-size enterprises, but the HSE warns that manufacturing workers in such workplaces are twice as likely to be killed or lose a limb. What, for example, should be the procedure where a student wants work experience on a one-man farm?

It is unrealistic to expect teachers to have the time, let alone the competence, to assess high or medium-risk activities. Recent experience in Midlothian suggests that it is more productive to co-ordinate monitoring arrangements on risk assessment and have a competent member of staff contact or visit each placement provider. By reviewing an individual placement and talking through the risks involved, it has often been possible to help smaller employers complete a written assessment, as the new regulations require.

Before becoming too excited about national initiatives on Education for Work, we need to ensure that the health and safety of young people are not compromised.

Ian Gilchrist is an educational consultant recently working on a work experience project in Midlothian. Hugh Wylie is Midlothian's education officer for staff development.

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