A common science experiment gone wrong at a Northern Sydney school is a stark reminder for education providers to ensure that curriculum activities are supported by comprehensive policies and procedures to identify, manage and control risk
Combining baking soda, sugar mixture and an accelerant to create a 'sugar snake' is a great way to demonstrate chemical reactions to students. However, after a Northern Sydney school elected to conduct this experiment outside in windy conditions, eleven Grade 5 students and the supervising teacher reported to hospital with sustained burns to their chests, faces and legs.
SafeWork NSW were notified and will carry out an investigation in cooperation with the NSW education department and the NSW Police.
While the school's emergency incident response must be commended, education providers should take this opportunity to review their preventative and control procedures to avoid future tragedies.
What are schools' work health and safety duties?
Schools owe a primary duty of care to ensure the health and safety of staff and students as far as reasonably practicable. Similarly, staff are required to take reasonable care to ensure that their acts or omissions do not affect the health and safety of other persons, and to co-operate with any reasonable policy or procedure of the school.
Curriculum activities, such as science experiments, often involve the use of equipment and facilities that are not regularly used by students in their day-to-day activities. To account for this irregularity, heightened risk identification and task-specific management strategies are required to manage workplace health and safety.
It is critical that schools have comprehensive policies and procedures in place to discharge their duties and to provide appropriate guidance to their staff to ensure they do the same.
Standardised risk controls can support a consistent approach to safety across all activities that the school provides and ease the burden on individual staff to get it right. This is appropriate in many situations. For example, excursions will often have the same transport considerations - this may include servicing records and safety of vehicles, use of seatbelts, and driver qualifications.
However, standardised risk controls do not eliminate the need to undertake individual risk assessments each time a curriculum activity is performed.
How SafeWork Australia's Code of Practice on managing work health and safety risks may apply to schools
SafeWork Australia's How to manage work health and safety risks Code of Practice identifies that risk assessments should be carried out when:
- there is uncertainty about how a hazard may result in injury or illness;
- the work activity involves a number of different hazards and there is a lack of understanding about how the hazards may interact with each other to produce new or greater risks; and
- changes at the workplace occur that may impact on the effectiveness of control measures.
When conducting curriculum activities, all three of these points may apply. Schools may consider:
- any changes to students and/or staff in attendance and relevant competency of supervisors;
- whether attendees have any different physical or mental health conditions to be considered; and
- changes to the relevant 'workplace' that may impact conditions (eg, sun, wind).
There will almost always be more than one risk to be considered. At an organisational level, schools must have effective policies and conduct training surrounding areas such as:
- activity risk management;
- chemical handling;
- incident management and response;
- First Aid; and
- student mental health and wellbeing (where an incident may necessitate counselling or support services).
Though teachers or other staff should conduct risk assessments each time a curriculum activity is performed, ultimate responsibility for ensuring these practices are undertaken will be placed on the school.
Taking the time to develop, review, and train staff on these issues eases the burden on staff and supports them to identify all relevant hazards and implement safe controls prior to exposing students to unwanted risks.
5 steps for schools to consider in carrying out a risk assessment
When identifying risks, schools should consider the physical environment, any equipment or facilities used, the activity itself and design, experience or competency of participants, and overall management of the activity.
Policies and procedures should identify minimum safety standards; if these minimum standards are not met, the activity should be prohibited from occurring. Manageable risks may be identified and include recommendations on how the activity can be modified through the hierarchy of controls to ensure the activity meets or exceeds the minimum safety standard.
A risk matrix can be used to identify the risk level of foreseeable hazards and better understand the likelihood an incident will occur. It is important at this stage to consider the potential consequences, such as injury, that may follow from the completion of an activity. This may include considering the actual location an activity is to be performed, the students who are participating (age, experience), and any other unique considerations, such as health conditions, supervision, or previous incidents that have occurred.
The risk level of any given activity is equal to the highest level of risk for any identified hazard.
After risk is identified, schools must identify all appropriate control measures that will be implemented during the activity to reduce the chance of that risk occurring.
We have assessed some common hazards below. For any given hazard, the appropriate risk level will turn on the nature and context of the activity.
It is important to record the risk assessment process and make a note of how the activity went after it is finished. This will assist in any future preparations for activities and help demonstrate that the school took all reasonable steps to eliminate or control risks should an incident occur.
Each time the school engages in or conducts an activity, risk assessments and relevant policies and procedures should be reviewed to ensure that processes are still effective and meet any new regulatory or social standards.
The above article was written by Greg McCann , Jay Keenan and Finian Whish from Colin Biggers & Paisley Lawyers and has been republished with permission.