Last reviewed 11 May 2020

A phased-return to primary schools expected by early June after more than two and a half months of COVID-19 lockdown could be more demanding than usual from a health and safety perspective with not only new and strange but also old and familiar risks. Jon Herbert reports.

With boredom and excess energy taking their toll in lockdown homes across the UK, the Government wants a rapid but safe return the classroom for the youngest children thought to be at least risk in the current pandemic – and, of course, all school staff.

A helpful health guide to Re-opening the workplace after lockdown – part 1 can be seen here. Other updates will follow.

However, as tentative steps are taken towards a ‘new normal’, it is important to remember that old normal risks remain with us.

Many changes

With limited staffing – and some key staff members possibly changing their roles - heads, departmental leaders, schools and colleges should make sure that anyone who volunteers to ‘step into the breach’ does have the necessary experience, skills and knowledge to avoid injury to themselves and others. In fact, this could be a good time to review risk assessments with staff.

Running over maintenance requirements following a lengthy closure period may also be important, perhaps with trade professionals. For example, if HVAC systems have not operated normally, humidity could cause mould and moisture damage. Water that has stagnated in mains, piping and water heaters may increase the risk of Legionella infections (https://www.hse.gov.uk/legionnaires/).

Classroom H&S checklist

While written assessments have not been required for ordinary classrooms unless new activities create additional risks because school-wide measures should be in place, a sensible and proportionate approach to health and safety is needed.

To help, HSE provides a downloadable Health and safety checklist for classrooms.

This guide is not mandatory should not be regarded as complete. But it can be used as an awareness-raising tool that may also assist school management teams in reviewing and updating whole-school risk assessments while helping employers meet their responsibilities under UK health and safety law.

Under normal circumstances, the checklist might be carried out by class teachers, teaching assistants, department heads or premises staff at the start of each term with the aim of providing reassurance that the most common areas of classroom risk are being controlled adequately.

The list does not cover drama and sports amenities, or specialist rooms such as laboratories, art, IT, design and technology facilities or pupil referral rooms. Here, a common sense approach is needed.

Clearly, circumstances today are not normal and additional COVID-19 measures - such as spacing, special access arrangements and one-way walk flows - need to be taken into account.

Key questions

The checklist groups key questions around practical risks areas for easy use.

The first looks at one of the major causes of workplace injury – slips and trips – in a school context of ‘Movement around the classroom’. The second is a standard classification – falls – and puts ‘Work at heights’ into an everyday classroom setting.

The other key categories are ‘Furniture and fixtures’, ‘Manual handling’, ‘Computer and similar equipment’, ‘Electrical equipment and services’, ‘Asbestos’, ‘Fire’ and ‘Workplaces’ which covers ventilation and heating.

Further action needed poses a question against each category, with yes or NA answer options.

Having set the ball rolling, the checklist then provides spaces for ‘Additional issues’ depending on specific circumstances.

Importantly, in a supplementary section Further action needed is broken down into Hazards noted: and Action taken and when: - the date, plus name, position and signature of the person carrying out the survey are then added to complete the audit trail and ensure it is not left as a paper exercise.

Key aspect areas

Movement around the classroom

Questions to ask here include whether internal flooring is in good condition and if any changes in floor level or the type of flooring need to be highlighted. Whether gangways between individual desks are kept clear might be particularly important just now. No trailing electrical leads or cables should present a risk.

Lighting must be bright enough for rapid exits if needed. It is also important to have good procedures in place to deal with leaks or spills of water, or even blood from cuts.

Where standalone classrooms are involved, two additional questions to ask are whether access steps or ramps are properly maintained and if stairs or ramps have handrails?

Working at heights

HSE asks if an ‘elephant-foot’ stepstool or stepladder is available where needed in classrooms and whether a window-opener is provided to open high-level windows. Improvised methods of reaching high-level areas are not acceptable.

Fixtures and fittings

This is a wide category which can typically include ensuring that fixtures such as cupboards, display boards and shelving are in good condition and fastened securely. Is furniture similarly in good condition and suitable for the size of the user, whether child or adult?

It is important to ensure that portable equipment is stable, such as a heavy TV set on a suitable trolley. On upper-floors, any window-restrictors in place must be in good working condition. Hot radiator surfaces should be protected to prevent burns.

Manual handling

Again, this refers to the availability and use of trolleys to move heavy equipment such as computers.

Computers and similar equipment

Where computers are involved, workstation assessments must be carried out. Pupils must also be advised about good practice when using computers.

Electrical equipment and services

Questions to ask here are whether fixed electrical switches, plug sockets, plugs and cables are in good repair. Has portable electrical equipment, such as a laminator, been checked visually and where necessary inspected fully at suitable intervals to ensure safety – test stickers may be visible? Another area not to overlook is whether damaged equipment has either been taken out of service or replaced.

Asbestos

The presence of asbestos in schools varies and any location and condition must be explained to anyone carrying out a checklist survey. Anything untoward should be noted.

Fire

A number of basic key questions must be asked here. If a classroom has fire doors, are they a) unobstructed, b) kept unlocked, and c) easy to open from the inside? Further questions are: - d) is fire-fighting equipment in place in the classroom, e) are fire exit procedures shown clearly, and f) are the right people aware of the evacuation drill – including arrangements for vulnerable adults and children?

Workplace

Issues to consider here are whether a classroom has natural ventilation, can a reasonable room temperature be maintained, and are special measures in place, such as blinds to protect from the glare and heat of the sun?

Summary

Opening up school facilities after a prolong closure raises basic health and safety risks questions that may need to be considered in addition to special COVID-19 measures.

While risk assessments are not normally required for every classroom activity because school-wide measures should be in place, HSE provides an easy-to-use classroom checklist for staff members to help raise awareness and pinpoint risks that require a response. It can be downloaded at https://www.hse.gov.uk/risk/classroom-checklist.pdf.

The checklist asks questions around a series of key H&S aspects - more can be added for local conditions. Risks and solutions may include:

  • Movement around the classroom – floor conditions, wires, cables and other obstructions, exit routes, lighting, leaks and spills.

  • Work at heights – ‘elephant-foot’ stepstools or stepladders, plus high-level window openers.

  • Furniture and fixtures – typically cupboards, shelving, plus trollies for heavy equipment – TVs.

  • Manual handling – again, trolleys to move heavy equipment such as computers.

  • Computer and similar equipment - workstation assessments, plus pupils good practice advice.

  • Electrical equipment and services – ensuring switches, plug sockets, plugs and cables are in good repair, portable equipment is inspected and damaged equipment removed or replaced.

  • Asbestos – the location, condition and anything untoward must be noted.

  • Fire – a series of vital questions must always be asked.

  • Workplaces – ventilation, plus temperature, sunlight glare and heat control.