SCHOOLS | The Health & Safety Challenge

Schools should be safe havens. 

After all, when a child doesn’t feel safe, they won’t learn.

Moreover, safeguarding people from risk of harm is a legal duty. Indeed under the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974, school employers must take reasonable steps to make sure staff, pupils and others are not exposed to Health & Safety risks. This applies to activities on or off school premises.

HSE Investigation  

Yet, Health & Safety incidents in schools are all too common. Data shows that over a three-year period nearly 300 schools were investigated by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Of those investigations:

  • 150 were major incidents that meant there was potential death, serious injury or extensive property damage
  • more than 100 enforcement notes were issued, requiring schools to address their failings or face court action
  • 28 Health & Safety prosecutions followed
  • a total of £410,215 was paid in fines (excluding legal costs) due to failings on premises – incidents included children losing fingers in school gates or doors and exposure to asbestos

Like all institutions and buildings, schools harbour hazards. Schools are also involved in a range of activities. The associated risks must be managed to ensure people’s safety. So, awareness and understanding of Health & Safety law is all-important.

What then are some of the common school risks?

Curriculum Activities

Sports, recreation, arts and craft are activities that may involve risks that need to be carefully managed to make sure everyone involved in the activity is safe.

An appropriate planning process should be in place to identify, minimise and mitigate the risks.

It is important to note the actual risk level will vary according to the specific circumstances and these must be considered when planning curriculum activities.

Real World Example

In 2013 a school was fined including costs more than £10,000 after a pupil fell from a climbing wall and broke his heel during a PE lesson. Pupils were attempting an advanced ‘lead climb’. But HSE investigators found they were not aware what lead climbing was nor the risks involved and had not been properly trained or prepared for it.

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fines (excluding legal costs) due to H&S failings on premises

School Trips

Some activities, especially those happening away from school, may involve higher levels of risk. If these are annual or infrequent activities, a review of an existing risk assessment may be enough. But if it is a new activity, a specific assessment of significant risks must be carried out.

Real World Example

In 2016 a school was fined in total £27,000 for safety failings after a seven-year-old had to be given CPR during a summer camp swimming lesson. HSE investigators found the lifeguards were not effectively managed and monitored to ensure they were constantly vigilant. It was also discovered two of them did not hold a current lifeguard qualification.

Playgrounds and Outdoor Areas

Systems must be in place to minimise the risk of injury from playground and sporting equipment, and the surrounding physical environment. For example:

  • the design and construction of recreation areas must meet recommended standards
  • equipment must be installed and maintained in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions and guidelines
  • the safety aspects of all playground and sporting equipment must be regularly checked
  • safety rules must be established and monitored to reinforce safe play and acceptable use of equipment

Real World Example

In 2007 a head teacher at a private school was fined in total £20,000 after a three-year old died in a playground fall. The court said the head:

  • wrongly allowed pre-school children access to a flight of steps from which the child jumped
  • failed to do enough to make the steps safe

The steps were gated after the incident.

School Health & Safety

Slips, Trips and Falls

Movement around the classroom is a common cause of injury. Schools should therefore check whether, for example:

  • internal flooring is in a good condition
  • there any changes in floor level or type of flooring that need to be highlighted
  • gangways between desks are kept clear
  • trailing electrical leads/cables are prevented wherever possible
  • lighting is bright enough to allow safe access and exit
  • procedures are in place to deal with spillages.

Real World Example

Falls are also a pitfall. In 2016 a school was fined in total £40,000 for breaking the Work at Height Regulations 2005 after a maintenance worker fell while repairing a roof. HSE investigators found there was no protection to prevent falls, no supervisory arrangements and that the work was unsafely carried out.

Schools investigated by HSE over a three year period

Furniture and Fixtures

Schools are hazardous environments. You therefore need to check whether, for example:

  • furniture is in good repair and suitable for the user’s size.
  • permanent fixtures such as cupboards, display boards, shelving are in good condition and securely fastened.
  • portable equipment is stable.
  • window restrictors are in good working order.
  • hot radiator surfaces etc are protected where necessary to prevent the risk of burns to vulnerable young people.

In 2017 a primary school’s board of governors were fined £5,000 (including costs) after a four-year-old pupil trapped her fingers in the hinges of a toilet door. HSE investigators found the door finger guard was missing and that there was no system in place for checking and monitoring doors. The door was also too heavy for young children to open. The risk should have been identified.


Schools built before 2000 may have asbestos containing materials (ACMs) present.

If your school contains asbestos, have details of the location and its condition in the classroom been provided and explained? Have staff been given guidance on securing pieces of work to walls/ceilings that may contain asbestos?

Is refurbishment or maintenance activity to be undertaken?

Real World Example

In 2016 a school was fined including costs £46,000 after poorly-planned and managed refurbishment and maintenance activities exposed staff and others to asbestos.


Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, schools must undertake general fire precautions. This usually requires installing and maintaining fire alarms and emergency lighting. A fire safety risk assessment for premises must be completed and kept under review. Also, the head teacher and governing body must make sure fire evacuation drills are regularly carried out. Ellis Whittam’s Health & Safety consultants will draft a bespoke Fire Risk Assessment for you.

Real World Example

In 2009 primary school governors were ordered to pay £8,000 after failing to take general fire precautions, appoint fire wardens and adequately implement the findings of a fire risk assessment.

Regulatory Enforcement

The HSE may take enforcement action or prosecute if it finds your Health & Safety arrangements are inadequate.

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Schools supported by Ellis Whittam

How We Can Help

Ellis Whittam take the complexity of Health & Safety and make it simple.

With an expert Health & Safety consultant from Ellis Whittam, you’ll get specific support to keep your school compliant and your pupils safe.

We help hundreds of schools and education providers understand and keep on top of their multiple Health & Safety duties.

Contact us to learn about our fixed fee, unlimited support service.


Let's start talking on 0345 226 8393 or complete the form below.

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