COVID-19 has shaken the education sector, with schools now operating out of households throughout your community and parents stepping in as temporary teachers.
However, there will come a day when staff, parents and pupils congregate at the school gates, ready to return to normal, and you will you need to ensure you are prepared.
From a health and safety perspective, there has been very little relaxation of legislation or standards for schools during COVID-19. In fact, compliance has never been more important.
As duty holders, health and safety legislation requires that you take all ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to ensure your school is safe during and post COVID-19.
The vital role of risk assessment
The key hinge in any health and safety management system is risk assessment, and the management of COVID-19 is no different. Vulnerable staff, new and expectant mothers, and those with pre-existing health conditions require risk assessments to ensure their safety during and after the pandemic.
Areas of focus should not just be on staff and pupils but ensuring the safety of all users of your schools, including individuals such as delivery drivers.
Don’t forget, volunteers supporting your school are your responsibility and you need to ensure that they are safe, too. This means ensuring they have health and safety information for your buildings, such as basic fire arrangements.
As duty holders, you will need to focus on your safety-critical assets in your asset list that are required to be fully functioning and safe prior to full re-occupation.
Don’t prevent insurance inspection visits or any other maintenance visits and use this time to ensure that your school’s compliance is on form.
Use a risk-based approach to determine whether you need to ensure that your water systems are safe rather than posting a safety sign.
Importantly, keep an evidence trail of the steps you have taken, as this will demonstrate to enforcement agencies that you have made ‘all reasonable efforts’ to ensure the safety of staff and pupils at this time.
Consider postponing non-essential activities
If there is work that is deemed as non-essential, such as using a ladder to change a non-essential light bulb, can you postpone this work until later in the year?
A fall off a ladder would not only provide an injury to the person(s) involved (and have subsequent legal and financial implications for your organisation) but may divert critical NHS resources away from the COVID-19 front line.
Check your unoccupied buildings
Where you have consolidated schools, your duty to the school(s) in use and those that are now unoccupied is no different than normal. There may be simple checks in an unoccupied building that you are no longer required to undertake for the time being, such as testing a passenger lift alarm.
However, there are specific and important checks, such as flushing of unused outlets to prevent a build-up of bacteria within your water systems, that you will need to carry out.
Control contact with those outside your school
The precautions taken to allow your school to function as normal will likely include visits from contractors, including insurance inspectors. You will need to ensure that the attendance of these individuals at your school does not place them, you, staff, pupils or the school building at risk.
If you have staff who don’t typically work from home but are doing so now, have you considered how you are going to get IT kit to them where this has been requested/deemed to be required? You may need to consider deliveries that are cleaned upon receipt or deliveries from online retailers.
Ramp up your cleaning regime
Infection prevention and control is crucial to managing COVID-19, and whilst you may have a robust cleaning schedule in place, what steps have you taken as a school to ensure that cross-contamination is prevented in staff rooms, school kitchens and other rooms?
Have you checked the stock of your cleaning supplies, and are you likely to need to place further orders to ensure you are able to resume normal service with sufficient supplies well into the first and second term?
Involve pupils in social distancing efforts
The promotion of social distancing amongst your school community is not to be underrated. Having pupils involved and teaching them about health and safety during COVID-19 is likely to improve the management and control of the virus.
As teaching staff, an opportunity arises like no other for health and safety to be embraced in our schools and workforces for the benefit of all.
Have systems for staying informed
With the situation evolving rapidly, it is crucial to make sure you are acting on the most up-to-date advice. An example of this is the recent changes to the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences (RIDDOR) Regulations.
Were you aware that you are now required to report COVID-19, in certain circumstances, as a biological agent (disease)/dangerous occurrence?
Plan for a smooth transition to normality
Finally, with regards to full re-occupation, have you started working on a plan to ensure that your school(s) is operating safely and functioning as normal to support your local community and the wider country when the time comes?
It is more than likely that you will need to reoccupy in waves of staff to ensure that a further spike in any virus is reduced.
Your facilities management team, aided by your school business managers/bursars are likely to be the first people involved in any resumption of normal service; however, have you considered what you would do if, for whatever health reasons, they are unable to support you?
Do you have contingency plans in place to ensure a smooth transition where possible? Has your school(s) implemented forward planning of safety-critical items that are required to be in place, serviced or inspected prior to bringing back your teaching staff and finally your pupils?
At this moment in time, are you able to include others as a team effort to re-establish your premises by sharing the workload?
All of this will give teachers ample homework in the coming weeks and months.
- Don’t waste hours of your time trawling through the various guidance that is publicly available and changing daily. Resources such as Ellis Whittam’s free Coronavirus Advice Hub pull together all the latest information you need in one place.
- Prioritise key safety requirements first and worry about non-safety-critical assets at a later date.
- Remember, risk assessment is key. This isn’t about creating reams of paperwork, but you do need to document the sensible, practical and proportionate measures you have taken to keep people safe. Are you able to utilise homeworkers to review current risk assessments?
- Use technology to keep track of and document your compliance, including what statutory and non-statutory checks are required and when. Less paper is less time wasted, meaning more time can be dedicated to your re-opening efforts.
- So long as you manage contractors, the necessary DBS checks are in place, and you apply common sense, logic and the Public Health England guidance, you can safely allow contractors to carry out any work you have been waiting to undertake so that you are maximising this opportunity.
- If the work is non-essential, then wait until normal service resumes.
- Ensure your governors play an active role in the management of your school, namely the various compliance duties that are required under the various legislation.
- Involve staff and pupils in the promotion of COVID-19 measures and utilise this opportunity to change the face of health and safety amongst your teaching staff and the wider community.
- As a society, we should exit this time with a greater understanding and awareness of the dangers of complacency and the moral, social and economic benefits of ensuring the health and safety of our neighbours.
Scott Crichton is Senior Health & Safety Consultant at Ellis Whittam.