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6 school hazards that fly under the radar

6 school hazards that fly under the radar | Medical Tracker

Schools are places of learning and adventure for pupils, but they should also be safe environments where students feel protected and secure. This is why schools take health and safety extremely seriously.

In this post, we take an in-depth look at six types of hazards that all too often fly under the radar when it comes to managing risks in educational settings. We also offer information and advice to help you minimise these dangers and protect your pupils.


What is a hazard in health and safety?

Under UK law, schools have a series of responsibilities they must meet in terms of health and safety. This includes introducing management systems and practices that allow you to deal with dangers in a sensible, responsible and proportionate way. Risk assessments are an essential part of this process. They involve identifying the hazards facing students and members of staff, understanding how people may be harmed by these hazards and implementing measures to control the associated risks.

Although people often use the terms hazard and risk interchangeably, in fact, they mean slightly different things - and it helps to have a clear understanding of both concepts when you are taking steps to reduce dangers in your school.

  • Hazard - In short, a hazard is something that has the potential to lead to harm.
  • Risk - A risk, on the other hand, is the likelihood of a hazard actually causing this harm.

For example, a sharp blade poses a hazard, but it represents a far greater risk when used without appropriate care as opposed to when it's safely contained or used in line with safety recommendations.


What are some hazards in UK schools that are commonly forgotten about?

A comprehensive risk assessment must include all relevant hazards. So, what are some of the hazards in UK schools that don’t always receive the attention they deserve?


Sharing of materials

sharing of materials risk

It’s natural for students to share materials among themselves. From items of stationery to classroom equipment and clothing, objects are often passed between pupils. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with this in principle, but such sharing can pose a risk when it comes to transmitting pathogens. In turn, this can lead to outbreaks of illnesses in schools, ranging from cold and flu viruses to the norovirus and chicken pox.

While there is no way to eliminate the spread of certain illnesses in school settings, there are steps you can take to minimise transmission. The basic principle promoted by Public Health England on this issue is that children who are ill with an infectious disease should stay away from school and only return when the risk of infection has passed. The same principle applies to teachers and other school staff.

Many local authorities offer specific guidelines to schools for dealing with infectious illnesses, so make sure you refer to these for more detailed information. Your school should make these recommendations clear to students, as well as parents and carers.

In addition, your school should put in place thorough hygiene measures. This includes regularly cleaning classrooms, toilets and other areas, and disinfecting school supplies such as stationery and other equipment. Pupils should be instructed to wash their hands regularly and thoroughly too.

Head lice are another hazard that schools need to be aware of. These tiny insects that feed through the scalps of their hosts can easily be passed from child to child through the sharing of hats, hairbrushes and so on, as well as by direct contact between students. To help prevent outbreaks, pupils should be discouraged from sharing items like brushes and headwear.

Parents and carers should also be advised to regularly check for evidence of head lice and nits (the white egg sacks that are left after lice have hatched), and to take steps to treat the problem if they see it. School nurses can play an important role in providing advice on this topic.


Indoor and outdoor play

Indoor and outdoor play risks

Unstructured indoor and outdoor play during break times is so important for children’s mental wellbeing, imaginative play, social development and much more. This type of play may involve using play structures and sports equipment, including running around, building dens and so on. Given the physical nature of play, there will always be an element of risk involved. So, as well as thinking long and hard about managing dangers during lessons, schools must pay sufficient attention to the risks associated with break times.

Fortunately, there are effective steps that all education providers can take to help reduce the dangers of indoor and outdoor play. Firstly, schools need to understand the risks that students face, and these are not always obvious. For example, because children can be highly imaginative, they don’t always use play items for their intended purposes.

The only way to keep track of how pupils are interacting with equipment and the school environment in general is to supervise them closely. This way, any potential dangers, near misses and accidents can be recorded accurately. If staff members spot a potential hazard, your school can take action to remove it. In certain circumstances, you might be able to discourage pupils from putting themselves at risk from the misuse of equipment by putting on special assemblies or talks during lessons that outline the dangers.

It’s important to be aware that sometimes students might use play equipment in unexpected ways (such as swinging upside down on an object that isn’t meant for that purpose) because they are trying to meet their sensory needs. Staff can monitor this type of behaviour and assess whether it’s necessary to update the equipment available to ensure that students have access to appropriate and safe facilities.

There are also certain basic principles that your school can stick to in order to reduce play hazards. For example, you can:

  • Ensure outdoor play areas are located away from car parks or areas where traffic enters or leaves your school.
  • Avoid positioning play zones in areas prone to poor drainage.
  • Avoid providing play equipment that is very high off the ground and ensure all climbing frames or similar equipment are installed on appropriate cushioning surfaces to reduce the likelihood of serious injury in the event of a fall.
  • Regularly inspect climbing equipment and other play items for signs of damage and fatigue.
  • Ensure play area surfaces are even, non-slippery and free from hazardous items including broken glass.


Harmful chemicals

Risks of harmful chemicals

Harmful chemicals can obviously pose a danger to school students and staff, and awareness of this issue tends to be high when it comes to substances kept in environments such as school science labs. However, there are other potentially harmful chemicals in many areas throughout the school setting that often get less attention.

For example, certain whiteboard cleaning fluids can be highly flammable or cause irritation if they come into contact with the skin or eyes. A number of other commercial cleaning projects can pose similar dangers. Meanwhile, greases or oils that may be used in metal working classes can pose a slip hazard if they are not handled correctly.

There are strict health and safety laws governing the storage and use of harmful chemicals, and it is vital your school follows these requirements. For example, these substances should not be accessible to children. The Health and Safety Executive offers detailed information on this topic.

If your school experiences repeated accidents or near misses with harmful chemicals, digital first aid reports and injury data can help you spot any patterns and take appropriate actions to prevent these problems in the future.


Uniforms and PE kits

Risks of uniform and PE kits

The clothes students wear should help to reduce the risk of injuries or illnesses, but poorly chosen uniforms or PE kits can have the opposite effect. For example, uniforms that are not adapted to changes in temperatures can leave pupils at a higher risk of overheating in summer or becoming too cold in winter. The same applies to PE kits. Schools that are flexible to meet sensory needs and are aware of temperature changes may have several clothing options. For example, rather than insisting on PE shorts, jogging bottoms or leggings may be allowed.

Your footwear policy should also promote safety. Shoes should provide suitable grip, flexibility, torsion and so on for the activities that pupils will be engaged in. To help parents and carers choose appropriate shoes, you could provide information leaflets detailing what features they should look for.


Non-food allergies

Non-food allergy risks

Food allergies are very much in the health and safety spotlight these days, but non-food allergies often get less attention. Here are just some of the allergens that can affect children:

  • Certain medicines
  • Insect stings (such as wasp and bee stings)
  • Animal fur (for example, from dogs and cats)
  • Grass and tree pollen (causing hay fever)
  • Dust mites
  • Latex

Where appropriate, these non-food allergens should feature in risk assessments. There may be a number of steps you can take to help minimise the dangers they pose to students. For example, in the case of latex allergies, you could provide non-latex gloves for science experiments and make sure there are non-latex plasters and bandages in your first aid kits. Meanwhile, if your school uses therapy pets, even if they have non-shedding hair, make sure you carry out suitable risk assessments and share these with parents and carers.

Teachers and other school staff should also be aware of the signs of allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis. These can include:

  • Sneezing and a runny nose
  • Coughing, breathlessness and wheezing
  • Swollen eyes, mouth, throat or lips
  • Itchy skin or a raised rash
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Pain around the forehead, cheeks or eyes
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Pale, grey or blue lips


Food allergies and intolerances

food allergies risks

As we mentioned in the previous section, food allergies tend to be high on schools’ agendas when it comes to managing health and safety risks. However, there may be certain blind spots that mean children are still at risk. For example, if students share food among themselves at lunch or snack time, the risk of exposure to allergens increases.

Children may not know what to look for in ingredient lists, and some food may be homemade or not provided in the original wrapping, meaning there is no information available about the ingredients. This can result in a range of dangerous situations, such as pupils with Coeliac Disease unknowingly being given something with gluten or wheat in it.

The foods that most commonly cause allergic reactions include:

  • Wheat
  • Eggs
  • Cows' milk
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts (such as walnuts, almonds and cashews)
  • Shellfish

Figures cited by education information provider EdExec suggest that food allergies affect one or two children in every class of 30, so this is an issue that schools simply can’t afford to neglect.

As well as making sure any food served in schools is labelled correctly and prepared carefully to avoid contamination, schools should take steps to educate students about the risks of allergens and how to protect themselves from allergic reactions - including taking precautions when it comes to food sharing. You can get more information in this allergy guidance for schools resource provided by the Department for Education.

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