In the line of duty

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Hundreds of teachers are injured on the job every year by anything from faulty equipment to angry parents. Su Clark reports on life in the front line.

It takes Jim a few moments to recognise the agonising pain in his hand. He looks down and sees the pencil being pulled back as he tries to restrain the small child who has stabbed him in a fit of fury. His wound is minor compared to some injuries sustained by teachers in attacks. Nor is it as serious as injuries teachers have suffered following accidents in badly maintained schools, or even the aches, pains and illnesses developed simply doing the job. A dab of disinfectant and he's back at his desk.

Teaching is a physical profession. It can involve a lot of walking, lifting, bending and shouting. You may have to lug around furniture and repeatedly bend down to pick things up. The large class sizes and unachievable targets can create unbearable levels of stress. And then there is the growing threat of physical violence from pupils, ex-pupils or parents.

Every year hundreds of teachers are hurt or injured doing their job. The damage may be slight, like Jim's, or it could be major, like the nervous breakdown suffered by one 45-year-old teacher whose head failed to respond to complaints about his school's violent atmosphere. Earlier this month the teacher, who has never been named and who has since taken early retirement, received a record payout for a stress-related illness of pound;300,000. The teacher was backed by the National Union of Teachers, which is pursuing 150 other stress cases.

Last year, the NUT dealt with 174 claims for occupational injuries, with compensation payments running into tens of thousands of pounds. "The most common injuries come from slipping and tripping," says a union spokeswoman. These vary from injured feet and knees to damaged backs. The NUT has dealt with the case of one teacher struck by a cabinet falling off a wall, another hit by the tail lift of a mini-bus, another slipping on a wet patch in the PE hall, one tripping due to a missing carpet tile and another hurt when a chair collapsed.

Jim Quigley spokesman for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, blames schools for many of the minor bumps and scrapes. "Much of it comes from the lack of investment in general maintenance," he says. He cites the case of John Gill, which NASUWT dealt with earlier this year. Mr Gill taught science at the Royal Manor school in Portland, Dorset, for 16 years. During that time he repeatedly complained of odour in the classroom and began to suffer migraine attacks. Finally a faulty heating system was found to be leaking noxious fumes under his desk. He was awarded nearly pound;600,000 in damages.

Unions have become more optimistic about the problem of crumbling classrooms since the Government promised to release more capital spending funds, but the statistics have yet to justify their faith. "The previous government failed to invest in school maintenance," says the NUT spokeswoman. She says increased investment in buildings should make schools safer and more secure for both teachers and pupils.

But teachers still have to take steps to protect themselves. Chris Purser, assistant secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says teachers should be versed in health and safety. "I teach a course in this and am amazed at the low knowledge base," he says.

Health education could also help prevent some of the illnesses commonly associated with teaching. The bad backs that affect primary and nursery teachers could be alleviated by improved posture awareness, for example. Maeve Larkin, a chartered physiotherapist, has treated many teachers for muscular and skeletal injuries. "Teachers of small children are vulnerable because they tend to bend and flex their backs a lot," she says. "The most common back injuries are caused by an accumulation of strain rather than any one incident." She also believes the incidence of back complaints is increasing because of sedentary lifestyles. The solution is simple: more exercise.

Certain materials used in schools also demand care. The dust from medium-density fibreboard, for instance, a cheap substitute for wood often used in design and technology classes, is a cause for concern. "Several cases concerning MDF use have been forwarded to our solicitor," says Jim Quigley.

Voice projection training could also help teachers avoid the common problem of voice damage. Few can get by without having to raise their voice at some time, yet not all teachers receive voice training at college. And even those who do may find damage unavoidable. "We had a case where one woman damaged her voice so much she had to give up teaching," says the NUT's spokeswoman.

Stress can also badly affect voice projection as Jill Scheuer, a teacher in south London, discovered. She found it caused her to hunch her shoulders and tighten her throat, which accelerated voice damage. Even after an operation and weeks of therapy, Ms Scheuer's voice remains husky.

Stress is perhaps the most widespread occupational hazard teachers face. According to Jim Quigley, the NASUWT is periodically inundated with calls regarding stress, "especially if there has been a case reported in the newspapers. It leads to a flood of enquiries."

Many teachers complain that low moods, depression and anxiety are becoming a regular feature of their lives. Sarah, who teaches in an east London primary school, blames huge class sizes for the stress she suffers. "It would be a lovely job if the classes were smaller," she says.

For many teachers it is almost impossible to resolve a stressful situation. Like assault, it can be beyond an individual's control. It is also difficult to seek redress for any injury caused by stress. "You have to pursue the case within three years, you have to have proof that it has caused a psychological illness, that there is a causal effect between the workplace and the condition, and, finally, that it was foreseeable," explains Jim Quigley.

Physical violence is the area of most concern, however, with the NAHT reporting an alarming rise in threats and assaults against headteachers. "This is partly because they are being recorded more, but it is also because there are more incidents," says Mr Purser. The association has up to a dozen compensation claims pending at any one time, and in the past year the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority has awarded more than pound;100,000 each to two heads forced to retire early after being attacked by pupils.

Last week, a survey commissioned by a teacher helpline showed that more than one in six teachers has faced verbal or physical threats from pupils, and nearly one in eight has received similar abuse from parents. Telephone calls to Teacherline about aggressive parents and pupils are now running at about 1,000 a month, with counsellors citing intimidation in schools as a contributing factor to stress.

However, the NUT reckons that while verbal abuse and threatening body language may be increasing, the number of reported assaults is falling. Its statistics show that while 120 of its members were attacked five years ago, only 48 reported incidents in 1999.

Teaching is not a particularly dangerous profession. Teachers suffer their share of accidents, but compared with other industries, such as construction, which reports fatalities almost every week, it is relatively safe. Teachers can do little to predict accidents or assaults such as the one on Jim, but they can minimise the chance of injury by paying careful attention to basic health and safety rules.

See Book of the Week, The Teacher's Survival Guide, page 22.


Incident: a chair collapses causing a teacher to fall backwards Injury: the teacher was suffering from a pre-existing degenerative condition to neck and back. Medical evidence supported an exacerbation of his injuries by two years.

Payout: pound;28,500.

Incident: a blackboard, which isn't secured properly, falls, hitting the teacher on upper back.

Injury: accelerated symptoms of a degenerative cervical and lumber disc disease.

Payment: pound;2,400.

Incident: a teacher has to move some extra desks into her classroom.

Injury: prolapse of an invertebral disc.

Payment: pound;15,666.

Incident: teacher trips because of missing carpet tile.

Injury: exacerbated existing condition by three years.

Payment: pound;10,000 to teacher.

Incident: teacher slips on a wet patch in the sports hall after water penetrates through roof vents.

Injury: left with permanent back injury, took early retirement.

Payment: pound;100,000.

Incident: teacher struck on the head by the tail lift of a mini-bus.

Injury: headaches leading to long-term disability.

Payment: pound;37,500.

Incident: wall-mounted cupboard containing television collapses on a teacher, trapping her right arm. The television then falls on her head.

Injury: headaches and injury to shoulder.

Payment: pound;2,714.

Incident: bullying and inconsistent behaviour of headteacher.

Injury: psychological injury.

Payment: pound;300,000.

Source: NUT.

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