Schools, Early Childhood Development Centres, Kindergartens and Colleges are all workplaces. OHS laws apply. Schools (etc) have a range of health and safety risks that need to be properly managed to make them safe and healthy workplaces, and to minimise the chance of staff being injured.
Victoria’s Department of Education – DET – (formerly Education and Early Childhood Development – DEECD) is Victoria’s largest employer (with more than 53,620 staff employed in 1,531 government schools). Under the OHS Act 2004, DET is responsible for the health and safety of these employees. While DET sets policies and provides guidance, it is DET ‘managers’ and the school leadership (viz School Principals and Assistant Principals, Business Managers et al) who are the legal agents of the employer in their schools.
Principals are responsible for managing OHS in their individual schools.
DET’S OHS MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
DET’s 2012 OHS policy outlines schools’ OHS commitments and requirements. Implementation of the policy is supported by DET’s OHS Management System (OHSMS), the framework for managing health and safety risks in schools.
The OHSMS comprehensively addresses legislative requirements. Yet DET-commissioned audit  results show that few schools have achieved full compliance and many need considerable improvement to do so.
DET has been progressively rolling out the framework over the past few years. This has involved DET, through its regional OHS advisers and service providers visiting government schools to providing guidance and support to help schools transition to the new system. The OHSMS rollout to schools was completed in June 2012. DET engaged additional contractors in mid-2011 to begin auditing each school to test whether they had successfully implemented the OHSMS. (Note: Occupational Safety and Health Associates – OSHA – was not one of these contractors.)
In addition to the school principal’s role and responsibility in managing OHS at individual schools, staff in schools have responsibilities set out in legislation and policy to contribute to healthy and safe work environments. DET’s OHS Policy states that staff must:
- report hazards and incidents
- participate in training
- consult and cooperate with DET on safety-related matters
- follow safety instructions and observe the wearing of personal protective equipment as required.
The OHSMS provides schools with the tools and guidance they need to achieve OHS compliance. Schools are expected to independently manage OHS risks and hazards.
An online incident and hazard reporting system is accessible to all staff and service providers can offer technical assistance. (Although not a contracted service provider, OSHA consultants are able to provide a similar service to schools; viz telephone advisory service and site visits.)
TRENDS IN OHS INCIDENTS IN SCHOOLS
In the DET schools system, the three main types of injuries resulting in claims are:
- musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) – manual handling sprains and strains, OOS-type conditions, etc (the dominant claim type)
- other—includes a broad range of injuries including burns, heart attacks or inhalation of dangerous fumes.
[Coming blogs will discuss each of these areas in more detail. In the meantime, CLICK HERE to see WorkSafe Victoria’s “Injury Hotspots for the Education Sector”.]
Although the incidence of new claims has reduced in the past three years, the average claim costs in government schools are consistently higher and the rate at which injured workers return to work is consistently slower than in the non-government school sector).
The number of new claims lodged by injury type has been consistent over the past five years. Therefore the reduction in new claims has been spread across all injuries rather than an improvement in any one particular category of injury. This suggests that previous campaigns targeting particular injury types have not been successful.
Return to Work rates
One in five (21 per cent) WorkSafe claimants from government schools were not back at work, in either full or partial capacity, six months after their claim was lodged. By comparison, only six per cent of WorkSafe claimants from the non-government school sector fell into this category.
Claimants generally return to work faster when their injuries are less severe and require less time to recover, making return to work rates a useful measure of workplace health and safety.
TOWARDS VICTORIA AS A LEARNING COMMUNITY (TVLC)
In the VAGO survey, school staff felt that their schools did regularly engage with OHS procedures, but DET’s internal compliance audit results indicate that only 31 per cent fully comply with audited elements.
A large majority (72 per cent) of school staff surveyed in the VAGO Report agree that the OHSMS made their school safer. This is a strong indication that staff recognise the value of the system.
A majority of staff said they had seen improvement in health and safety since the introduction of OHSMS, despite the significant time commitment required to implement the OHSMS.
Some schools would benefit from access to an appropriate OHS Resource (that is familiar with the education sector and the DET OHSMS) to help implement the system. Those schools that had achieved high audit compliance scores had already taken the initiative to hire an appropriate resource to work with school management to embed the system into daily practice.
Decisive action to allocate resources to OHSMS makes a clear difference in improving compliance in these schools.
The main uses schools make of the OHSMS include:
These results show that schools do regularly engage with some OHS processes. However some procedures—including those for purchasing, traffic management and plant and equipment management—are ranked very low. In some cases, purchasing procedures are considered to be quite onerous.
The low result for plant and equipment management is of particular concern considering that this has been the subject of a number of prosecutions, and a specific compliance audit, in recent years.
STAFF PERCEPTIONS OF HEALTH AND SAFETY IN SCHOOLS
Over 4 500 staff in government schools in Victoria completed the VAGO survey about their workplace health and safety. Staff were asked to rank both current areas of concern and emerging risks that are considered likely to arise in the next two to five years. Staff had the same three top concerns for both time frames. The figure below shows the main emerging risks of concern reported by surveyed staff.
Good occupational health and safety (OHS) practices encourage a safe and healthy work environment. Apart from meeting legislative requirements, there are ethical and financial benefits for employers and employees to exercise sound occupational health and safety practices.