Last reviewed 4 May 2012

Introduction

Owners of buildings used by the general public, such as early years provisions, have a duty of care to ensure that people using the buildings are not placed at risk and buildings are kept in a serviceable condition. Buildings maintenance is a key factor in achieving this and ensuring that acceptable and safe standards of accommodation are maintained.

Not only can the safety and comfort of all building users be compromised by poor maintenance but staff morale and sickness absence can also be adversely affected by working in a substandard environment.

In the case of early years provision, buildings maintenance is even more important. In such nurseries, the upkeep of buildings is a key element of the service provision and all premises, fittings and equipment must be suitably maintained and kept in efficient working order and in good repair. In addition, the quality of the built environment is important in creating an effective place for play and learning and parents may consider registering their children elsewhere if the nursery premises are seen as poorly maintained or inappropriate.

The risks of poor building maintenance

Poor or ineffective buildings maintenance can create risks for early years providers in many ways. Poorly maintained buildings can be inherently dangerous and unhealthy, especially for small children. Problems such as damp and cold caused by drafts and ineffective heating systems can make children ill and neglected safety features, such as tending to slip and trip hazards or electrical safety, can cause accidents and injuries. In addition, the neglect of items such as windows and doors can raise the risk of security breaches.

Services such as electrical and water systems present many hazards if not maintained properly. Poorly maintained electrical systems can increase the risk of fires and electrocution and poorly maintained water systems can give rise to problems such as legionella contamination.

However, poor buildings maintenance not only affects safety but can also impose a number of costs on a business.

The maintenance of the premises is an important factor in running buildings in an efficient and cost-effective manner. For instance, defects in the fabric of a building, particularly in older buildings, can quickly worsen and cause the building to deteriorate. Leaks and damp are well known and obvious defects that can cause long-term damage. However, faults such as dripping taps, ineffective insulation, cracked windows, unserviced boilers, broken radiator thermostats, missing roof slates and leaky gutters can all also lead to expensive repairs.

In addition to the fabric of the building, services such as water, lighting, heating and air-conditioning systems must also be maintained to ensure that the building is safe and comfortable to use and to ensure that energy is not wasted. In this context poor maintenance has a direct link to higher energy costs. Poorly maintained and poorly insulated buildings are hard to keep warm and heating costs can spiral.

Infection control and cleanliness

In addition to the above, buildings maintenance is also a key factor in ensuring the cleanliness of a building, again an important consideration for an early years provider.

Poorly maintained buildings are hard to keep clean and this can have a monetary cost as well as producing poorer infection control standards. Peeling wall surfaces, loose skirting boards, damp and mould, worn floor surfaces and unprotected wood all present real challenges for cleaners and will probably always look scruffy no matter how much cleaning effort is put in.

Infection control becomes a real issue in areas such as kitchens and toilets which can rapidly become unsanitary if they are not maintained properly. Defects such as cracked and dirty wall or floor tiles or surfaces can make cleaning very hard and present a perfect environment for dirt and bacteria.

Pest control and protection from pests is also a critical area here, especially with regard to pests such as rats, mice, cockroaches and flies. Poor buildings maintenance can encourage the presence of such pests, allowing them ingress through cracks and poor sanitary fittings and providing food and water through leaks and a build-up of grime.

The neglected building

If buildings maintenance is not given the priority it deserves in a nursery then it is likely the buildings will start to show signs of neglect. This can lead to a vicious cycle whereby staff stop reporting faults and defects and start to just accept the building as it is. This is a dangerous situation as staff are the “eyes and ears” of the manager and the importance of their reporting faults cannot be overstated.

In a well-maintained building, on the other hand, where priority is given to the quality of the built environment, the opposite is true. Staff are encouraged to report problems because they know that the reports will be responded to and remedial work will be arranged. They feel proud of the building and are happy to help to contribute to maintaining it.

Maintenance systems

All early years provisions should have in place agreed policies, procedures and systems for ensuring that the maintenance of their buildings and estate is properly planned, organised, tracked and recorded. Buildings maintenance should be the direct responsibility of the provision's manager, or a delegated member of staff. If the premises is part of a school, there may be a premises manager in place and where the premises is shared, specific roles and responsibilities for maintenance must be agreed.

The maintenance system should form part of a fault reporting and tracking system whereby faults or potential problem areas are logged and followed up until they are recorded as completed. Faults or problems should first be subjected to a risk assessment by a competent member of staff and the urgency or seriousness of the repair recorded and communicated to appropriate maintenance staff or contractors. The setting should then check that any necessary work has been completed satisfactorily. Where there is a delay in the work being done the setting should take whatever action is necessary to control any risk and make regular checks to review the situation.

An example may be to cordon off an area where the floor is unsafe and place appropriate warning signs.

Records kept should enable the setting to track progress on all outstanding maintenance jobs.

In many nurseries such a log forms part of a buildings improvement plan whereby building needs are regularly identified and reviewed and a timetable set for improvement or development. This is especially useful where high-cost or major projects, renovations or building works may have to be considered.

Any buildings maintenance schedule should include a rolling programme of redecoration and improvements to ensure that the nursery presents an acceptable environment at all times.

Types of maintenance systems

There are various types of maintenance systems that can be employed but by far the most effective and efficient is what is known as a “planned preventive maintenance system”.

Such a system involves the careful inspection and assessment of equipment, plant and buildings on a regular basis as well as a well-established fault reporting system whereby staff can alert the management of the setting to any problems. Work is then risk-assessed and prioritised and included in a costed plan of works. In-house maintenance staff will then assess and complete the work at a convenient time or it can be contracted out.

Planned preventive maintenance is preferable to its main alternative, that of “reactive” or “ad-hoc” maintenance which consists of performing repairs and replacements only when items of plant, equipment or building structure fail. Such unplanned maintenance action is usually far more expensive than planned work and can lead to disruption and inconvenience. In addition, it does not allow for forward planning.

Emergency repairs

Planned preventative maintenance systems will ensure that emergencies to do with the premises or services are kept to a minimum but cannot rule them out altogether. All maintenance systems must therefore have an effective way of identifying urgent repair requests or maintenance emergencies which occur where there is a potential danger to the safety of staff or to children.

A repair is usually considered to be an emergency if there is a danger to the health or risk to the safety of children or staff or a danger of serious damage to the building. Examples include:

  • property insecure or failure of security systems (broken windows, etc)

  • flood/fire

  • blocked and overflowing drains

  • water supply failure

  • serious structural damage

  • complete heating system failure in winter

  • complete hot water system failure.

Emergency repairs should be dealt with immediately and appropriate action taken to ensure the safety of the occupants of the buildings.

Maintenance inspections

The best way to run a planned preventative maintenance system is to conduct regular inspections of the premises to check for defects and to plan work.

There are no set frequencies for maintenance inspections. However, specialist electrical equipment should be inspected according to the manufacturer's guidelines and in line with guarantees or statutory requirements. The terms of a lease may also dictate buildings maintenance schedules.

After an inspection has been carried out, the results should be appraised so that appropriate action can be taken. The purpose of the appraisal is to compare the condition of the item with any fixed standards and to assess the degree of urgency for repairs or replacements. Items can be prioritised using the following tests.

  • Does the item require urgent attention?

  • Can the repairs or replacement be incorporated into the planned maintenance schedule?

  • Can the repairs or replacement be postponed, so long as they are regularly monitored?

When considering each building component, care should be taken that postponement of work does not result in major defects over the long term. Also, the anticipated life of the building components should be considered to prevent money being wasted on extensive maintenance on an item that is approaching the end of its life.

Inspection checklists are often used to comment on and score the condition of each element. In this way, a readily available maintenance history can be established over a series of inspections. This is valuable in determining the effectiveness of maintenance previously carried out and the reliability of a component, or for monitoring the rate of deterioration of a component.

Kitchens and toilets

These are areas where the buildings maintenance plan is especially important.

Kitchens and other food preparation, storing and serving areas must be kept well-maintained and in good condition at all times. They should be designed so that they are “fit for purpose” with adequate facilities to enable staff to perform any food preparation duties effectively and to maintain high standards of hygiene.

Areas of damp, chipped plaster, broken tiles or chipped work surfaces should be repaired as soon as possible, as such damage can make the kitchen hard to clean and bacteria can live in the cracks. Holes in walls or windows should also be repaired as a priority as they can allow the entrance of pests.

Extractor fans and filters should be checked regularly to make sure they are working properly and are free from grease and dirt.

Without an effective maintenance plan and a proper cleaning schedule toilets in early years provision can easily become dirty and smelly and a source of problems. Toilets in a poor state of repair, especially broken seats, doors and toilet roll holders, will discourage children from using them and in an early years provision this may put off some children just at a time when they are developing their toilet habits.

In toilets, as with kitchens, cleaning and maintenance go hand-in-hand. Good maintenance means that toilets can be cleaned more easily and cleaning methods will be more effective.

Buildings maintenance safety

It is essential that all maintenance works carried out in the setting ensure the safety of not only the maintenance staff or contractors involved but also other nursery staff, children and visitors.

All maintenance personnel employed by the early years provider should:

  • be adequately trained

  • be provided with suitable tools

  • be provided with personal protective equipment and clothing such as hard hats, overalls, gloves and reinforced boots.

Maintenance tools should never be left unattended and should always be used safely and be locked away when finished with. Materials which may be hazardous, such as glues, paints, varnishes, sealants and white spirits, must always be used within safety guidelines provided by a COSHH risk assessment.

Any areas where maintenance work is being carried out should be clearly marked as such and access restricted.

Access to any relevant risk assessments, drawings, instructions, handbooks and records should be provided to maintenance staff. These should include the results of any risk assessment and buildings survey which highlights the position of any undisturbed asbestos which may be present in the building.

The problem of maintenance workers being exposed to asbestos is a major one and HSE statistics show that every week on average 20 tradespeople in the UK die from asbestos.

Early years managers should ensure that any contracted maintenance workers are aware of their health and safety policies and work within them at all times.