Practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (Sch Sci 42)


1.  HSE supports completely the importance of school science, and of the educational and personal development benefits that science field trips provide for pupils. HSE further recognises and supports the economic necessity of properly preparing Great Britain's future workforce, and the role that science and technology (S&T) should play in GB's future. HSE itself employs a considerable number of scientists and technologists, and our policy positions are underpinned by an S&T evidence base.

2.  Unfortunately, some schools and teachers have seen health and safety law as a barrier that discourages them from organising practical science activities and providing pupils with the opportunity to take part; or that health and safety law requires them to apply overly bureaucratic controls that prevent teachers running dynamic science lessons. We believe this perception results from a basic misunderstanding of the expectations placed upon schools and teachers under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, coupled with related concerns about insurance requirements and fears of teachers being sued if a child is injured. HSE's interest is in criminal action (prosecutions). HSE does not investigate or take action in relation to civil claims. This submission therefore tackles the issue and impact of criminal liability and not civil liability.

3.  HSE believes there is no reason why health and safety should stop schools carrying out science experiments or field trips. On the contrary, we see the proper integration of health and safety considerations into the overall delivery of the curriculum as being both natural and good teaching practice. It helps children appreciate hazards and risks, and learn how to manage them - all that is required in most cases are a few sensible precautions. Active and experiential learning is widely recognised as one of the best ways for people to learn so it is important that it is not curtailed unnecessarily. HSE has worked with educational science bodies over many years to establish and publicise what those precautions should be and to ensure they are sensible, practical and proportionate. HSE continues to work closely with those organisations.


4.  The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) aims to secure the health, safety and welfare of people at work and the protection of people other than those at work from risks arising to their health and safety out of work activities. HSWA applies throughout England, Scotland and Wales. While responsibility for education is devolved, enforcement of HSWA is a reserved matter. Enforcement bodies drawing on HSWA may work across borders, as do many schools and organisations that run school field trips.

5.  HSWA places duties on those who are best placed to control risks. It is simply constructed, with duties on:

—  employers in respect of the health, safety and welfare of their employees (HSWA s2) and in respect of the health and safety of other persons who are not their employees but who could be affected by the work activity eg pupils (HSWA s3);

—  on the self-employed for their own health and safety and the health and safety of other persons who may be affected by the conduct of the self-employed person's undertaking (HSWA s3);

—  on persons in control of premises (HSWA s4);

—  on manufacturers, suppliers etc of articles and substances for use at work (HSWA s6); and

—  on employees in respect of their own health and safety and the health and safety of others their conduct at work could affect (HSWA s7).

6.  The most relevant element of HSWA to the health and safety of pupils is Section 3. This places general duties on employers and self-employed to persons other than their employees. Section 3(1) states "it shall be the duty of every employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety". The primary responsibility for pupil safety under this section sits with the employer of the staff in the school (see para 15).

7.  HSWA also recognises that a failure to control risks may be due to the actions or omissions of another individual. For example, individual employees have duties under HSWA s7 to take reasonable care while at work for their health and safety, the health and safety of others who could be affected by their acts or omissions and, as regards any duty or requirement imposed on their employer or any other person, to co-operate with their employer/the other person so far as is necessary to enable the duty or requirement to be performed or complied with.

8.  HSWA is supplemented by specific regulations designed to target risks in a sector eg construction, or across several sectors eg radiation.

9.  Additionally, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 make the general requirements of HSWA more explicit. For example, the Regulations require employers to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees and other persons affected by the conduct of the undertaking (this includes pupils in schools). Having done a risk assessment the employer should identify the steps needed to comply with health and safety law.

10.  The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 deal with the use of substances hazardous to health, which could include substances used in a science laboratory. For example, these Regulations require employers to ensure that the exposure of their employees to substances hazardous to health is either prevented or, where this is not reasonably practicable, adequately controlled (regulation 7). Employers are, so far as is reasonably practicable, under a like duty in respect of any other person, whether at work or not, who may be affected by the work carried out by the employer (regulation 3(1)).

11.  The legislation is generally goal setting—leaving the employer to determine how best to manage the risks that are created. In schools, guidance setting out good practice is provided by HSE, Local Authorities and other sector organisations. This advice on compliance provides an important steer on sensible solutions. The aim is that the organisation will determine proportionate and sensible ways to control the risks that deal with its own needs and circumstances. In this way the legislation does not stifle innovation or impose burdensome controls. It leaves the organisation choices about how to manage their own risks.


12.  Health and safety legislation applies to all sectors and phases of the education system, whether schools are state controlled or part of the independent sector. It is relevant to all the school activities and impacts on staff, pupils and visitors.

13.  The employer of the staff at the school has the primary responsibility in ensuring the health and safety of employees and pupils who may be affected by the school activities. The employer varies with the type of school—and can be a Local Authority, a Board of Governors or a Proprietor. While this overall responsibility lies with the employer, head teachers and the school management team have considerable influence in the day-to-day running of schools. The local managers take on an important leadership role for management of all the issues within the school including the management of risks. Taken together these arrangements set out a framework that teachers work within when teaching lessons and leading field trips.

14.  In the vast majority of case the headteacher in an individual school is not the employer of the staff, but as the senior local manager will have wide-ranging responsibilities. A school leader's responsibilities for health and safety in the broadest sense of the phrase exceed those requirements set out in HSWA. For example in England the National Standards for Head teachers, the OFSTED inspection framework, and requirements for safeguarding and protection of children all include minimum standards for a range of health and safety or risk management issues.

15.  Under Civil Law schools and their leaders also owe a duty of care to their pupils. The law of negligence is based on a significant body of case law that has developed over many years. Schools are expected to take all reasonable care—and in effect act in a way that a reasonable parent would act. Civil Law is often cited as one the primary barriers to a range of opportunities for children as teachers and schools fear civil action. HSE does not investigate civil claims.

16.  Most schools have good health and safety management arrangements in place which complement the wider actions in schools to promote the well-being of pupils and staff. The approach to managing risks in schools are well established and reflect sound management practices common across many other public and private sector organisations. HSE expects schools to have:

—  clear objectives, policies and procedures integrated into the school's wider management systems;

—  clearly understood responsibilities—for Local Authorities, head teachers, teachers, Governors and other staff;

—  access to competent advice to ensure the focus is on real risks, and to avoid applying bureaucratic approaches to risk management; and

—  arrangements for involving the workforce in health and safety.


17.  Good health and safety arrangements will help schools to provide children with a range of valuable learning experiences. It is important that schools aim to manage risk responsibly and sensibly—not trying to eliminate it altogether. Sensible health and safety means that children are exposed to well managed risks, which helps them learn important life skills, including how to manage risks for themselves. Sometimes things may go wrong—particularly where children are involved in more complex S&T experiments or field trips as part of more advanced courses eg in the sixth form. HSE has only ever expected schools and teachers to adopt sensible, obvious and widely understood precautions, such as wearing protective eyewear when conducting chemical experiments.

18.  Teachers need to make judgements about how their science lessons are delivered—including making choices between pupils taking part in practical experiments or whether demonstrations by the teacher are more appropriate. These professional judgements do not need to be made in isolation by individual teachers—they can form part of the school or department's policy. However, such approaches do need to adapt to circumstances. A group of pupils with a history of discipline issues may not be the ideal candidates for higher risk experiments where discipline is important. Alternatively, demonstrating low risk experiments to the same group may not be appropriate when a hands-on experiment would better engage their interest. Such judgements are taken on a day-by-day basis by teachers on many issues and this sensible decision-making should also be applied to risk management. For example, HSE is more concerned with situations where judgments are not applied or applied recklessly—not when a decision simply proved to be a mistake.

19.  Within some Local Authorities and/or schools there is a tendency for managers, school leaders or teachers to implement bureaucratic procedures. The employer may impose some of these systems on schools. In other cases, schools may slavishly follow a model risk assessment, giving no thought to whether that assessment applies to the local circumstances. Sometimes this leads to risks not being managed—but in many cases these approaches will lead to schools going beyond what is sensible to manage relatively low risk situations.

20.  A small number of schools and teachers do not treat health and safety in a proportionate manner. Essential health and safety controls may be disregarded or dismissed as bureaucracy—a typical symptom of this in science laboratories is the retention of out-of-date or banned substances or poor storage of flammables. Accidents during science in schools are rare, but typically occur when there is no consideration of the real risk and a diversion from long established safe practice followed by most other schools. These are issues that can be managed by strong school and departmental leadership that encourages and supports innovation and tackles bad practice in equal measure.

21.  Organising and running any school trip can put a lot of pressure on teachers. Sometimes there are genuine concerns about requirements and responsibilities—but most trips simply involve everyday risks. There are some unfortunate myths about individual teachers being held liable and personally sued. HSE can only comment on perceptions about criminal prosecutions as HSE does not investigate or take action on claims about civil liability. In the very small number of cases where teachers have been individually prosecuted, it has happened because they have ignored direct instructions and departed from common sense—by taking actions that a rational person would not take. HSE wants to encourage those organising trips to simplify the planning and authorisation arrangements for trips that involve everyday risks—and focus their attention on how best to manage the risks on those few school trips that have significant challenges, but which also provide pupils with the extremely valuable learning and developmental benefit.

22.  Many thousands of activities take place every year in schools and other youth organisations. Young people take part in foreign exchange visits, adventure activities, work placements and a wide range of curriculum based field activities. Most of these events take place without incident, the learning is immense and the young people are left with memories of an enjoyable experience, which means that both the enjoyment and the learning will stay with them for a long time. The problem we face is that isolated incidents get a huge amount of media coverage. The reality is that they are rare events. There is little or no coverage of the many events which take place without incident and the enormous benefit which young people derive from them.


23.  HSE has worked closely with S&T stakeholders for many years. These important sector organisations have provided guidance, risk assessments, case studies and advice to schools that aim to encourage sensible management of risks in school science. Two of the key organisations with an interest in school science are CLEAPSS (Consortium of Local Education Authorities for the Provision of Science Services) and the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre (SSERC).

24.  CLEAPSS provides support for member Local Authorities in England and Wales. CLEAPSS works in the field of school and college science, from foundation stage through to A Level or equivalent. CLEAPSS provides general support for practical work with information, advice and training about laboratory design and practice, technicians and their jobs, equipment, materials, living organisms and especially health and safety. This guidance is well recognised by practitioners in schools. Some support for technology, art and design is also provided. Guidance includes model risk assessments, a laboratory handbook, specific publications, guides and leaflets. In addition courses and workshops are run for teachers and technicians.

25.  One example where HSE worked with CLEAPSS was in the development of practical guidance for the use of ionising radiation in schools. Practical experiments greatly enhance the process of teaching the properties of radiation in schools and are important in aiding students' understanding of the subject. HSE had input into the development of a good practice guide published by CLEAPSS in 2008 that aimed to support practical work whilst enabling schools to apply sensible and proportionate precautions.

26.  A sister organisation SSERC performs a similar function in Scotland. SSERC is a registered educational charity which covers science, technology and safety in schools in Scotland. It is funded by its member organisations (including the 32 Scottish Local Authorities) and is part funded by the Scottish Government. It provides a service for Local Authorities, teachers, student teachers and technicians in Scotland and has a recognised lead role in science education, providing Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for managers, teachers and technicians. SSERC promotes and supports safe and exciting learning and teaching in science and technology.

27.  The Association for Science Education (ASE) is a UK wide charity promoting high quality science education. The ASE is the largest subject association in the UK. Members include teachers, technicians and others involved in science education. ASE plays a significant role in promoting excellence in teaching and learning of science in schools and colleges. Working closely with the science professional bodies, industry and business, the ASE provides a UK-wide network bringing together individuals and organisations to share ideas and tackle challenges in science teaching, develop resources and foster high quality Continuing Professional Development.

28.  The Education Departments across Great Britain produce guidance for Local Authorities and schools on a range of health and safety issues:

—  In England, the guidance produced to assist the planning of school trips is under review. This means that guidance for schools will be made leaner so as to enable a clearer distinction between what the law requires and what is simply good practice.

—  In Wales, the Welsh Government hosts the "Education Visits Guidance" which was devised and periodically reviewed by Local Authority Outdoor Education Advisors. Whilst minimising needless bureaucracy was always a governing principle of the Educational Visits guidance, in conjunction with offering the risk-benefit approach to learning, a review by Outdoor Education Advisors is currently being undertaken.

—  In Scotland, guidance is contained in the Scottish Government's "Health and Safety in Educational Excursions—A Good Practice Guide" published in 2004. A recent review of this guidance concluded that it was still fit for purpose. In addition, the Learning and Teaching Scotland website has web based resource material for teachers covering a variety of outdoor learning scenarios including field trips.


29.  Slips, trips and falls remain the most common cause of major injuries in every workplace. They account for around 40% of all injuries reported in schools. A total of 50 058 injuries[75] in primary and secondary schools were reported to HSE for the five year period 2005-06 to 2009-10. Approximately 30% of these involved employees; the remaining 70% involved non employees, which includes pupils.

30.  Risk from practical science lessons and field trips can be put into context through analysis of accident reporting statistics—particularly taking into account the millions of children[76] taught science each year. In the five-year period 2005-06 to 2009-10 in the primary and secondary education sectors 478 injuries to employees and members of the public (ie pupils) were reported as occurring during science lessons. A full breakdown of the statistics and explanatory notes are provided at Appendix 1.

31.  Over the same five year period HSE has taken 29 prosecutions in the education sector—18 in the primary, secondary and vocational sectors. Of these, 16 have concluded with a conviction. One of the remaining two cases is unfinished, the other under appeal.

32.  None of these 18 prosecutions related to school science. Two related to school trips, but these were not field trips, and three related to classroom activities, but these were not science rooms or science lessons. Nevertheless, despite the small number of prosecutions that are unrelated to science there may be a ripple effect that influences the perceptions amongst schools and science teachers.


33.  HSE has promoted a very clear policy on sensible risk management. Since 2006, HSE has sought to make clear the importance of organisations recognising the balance between benefits and risk and focusing on real risks rather than trivia. In 2007 HSE established the Sign up to Sensible Risk Campaign to combat the growing number of myths that are undermining important health and safety legislation. Local Authorities were invited to publicly sign up to the campaign to encourage them to be sensible and proportionate in their decision-making, their advice giving and their own enforcement. This aimed to have an impact on guidance Local Authorities gave to schools within their control.

34.  HSE believes that risk management should be about practical steps to protect people from real harm. The aim is to achieve a balance between the unachievable aim of absolute safety and the kind of poor management or risk that damages lives and the economy. HSE has produced model risk assessments to ensure that organisations understand what sensible assessment involves.

35.  Between 2007 and 2010 HSE used a series of cartoons called Myth of the Month to challenge the urban myths so prevalent in the media and wider society relating to health and safety. These misleading stories and myths can distract people from the serious business of managing real health and safety risks. The cartoons highlighted ridiculous "elf and safety" stories that have featured in media reports, and gave details of the real purposes of health and safety management. These cartoons tackled a wide range of issues from the misuse of risk assessment to the banning of events or use of everyday equipment like stepladders.

36.  Monthly cartoons were targeted at the many myths across education including:

—  Egg boxes banned from craft lessons as they might cause salmonella—August 2007.

—  If a pupil is hurt the teacher is likely to be sued—February 2008.

—  Health and safety rules stop classroom experiments—November 2009.

37.  In 2009 HSE launched its new strategy—"The Health and Safety of Great Britain - Be part of the solution". While the overriding mission of the Strategy was to prevent death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities, it recognised particular issues that needed to be addressed:

—  The increased risk aversion in society as a whole; and

—  Health and safety increasingly being used as a convenient excuse for not doing a whole host of activities.

38.  The strategy includes a set of common goals including leadership, competence and management of major hazards. Also included is the goal to focus on the core aims of health and safety and by doing so help distinguish between real health and safety and trivial or ill-informed criticism.


39.  HSE's efforts to tackle over zealous approaches to health and safety, particularly in education, have been led by HSE's Chair, Judith Hackitt. The Chair has attended conferences, challenged stories in the media to put the record straight, supported key organisations and individuals in their promotion of school science, and proactively sought to encourage schools bringing science to life through practical experiments and field study. HSE believes all these actions are important to help encourage schools to inspire and motivate the next generation of scientists and engineers, and widen children's understanding of risk.

40.  For example, in January 2009 the HSE Chair worked with the Chief Executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers to encourage teachers to re-introduce exciting and engaging practical classroom demonstrations. This was designed to promote the IChemE's "Top 10 Flash Bang Demos". These demonstrations encourage teachers to add greater practical focus to their lessons. The chair took part in a visually exciting science experiment to enhance the message.


41.  In 2010 the Government published Common Sense Common Safety—a report of a review of the operation of health and safety laws commissioned by the Prime Minister. It makes recommendations for reducing unnecessary bureaucracy and for the proportionate application of health and safety law and identifies proposals for tackling the compensation culture. HSE is working with stakeholders to respond to the recommendations in the report in a number of key areas—including education.

42.  One specific recommendation is to simplify the guidance and procedure for risk assessment in classrooms. HSE has been working with stakeholders to produce tools to help teachers understand the risks within their classrooms—helping reduce the burden on teachers by enabling them to focus on the real risks and not divert them from their important teaching role. A risk assessment tool was trialled between November 2010 and February 2011 and, following feedback from stakeholders, will be re-launched as a simple checklist for traditional classrooms.

43.  Common Sense Common Safety also placed recommendations on other organisations. HSE has established an Education Working Group to oversee the development of responses to the education related recommendations in Common Sense Common Safety. The Working Group includes input from the Education Departments across Great Britain and other stakeholders.

44.  The responses to the education recommendations in Common Sense Common Safety across the three nations are likely to be progressed in slightly different ways. For example, in England the Department for Education (DfE) is developing a Single Consent Form to simplify the process for taking children on educational visits. DfE will support this with guidance for schools that aims to reduce the perceived bureaucracy associated with organising school trips.

45.  In Scotland, the Common Sense Common Safety recommendations are in line with much of the work that is already in hand to reduce barriers to young people accessing learning opportunities that are beneficial to them. An Outdoor Learning Safety Management working group has been appointed to report to Scottish Ministers in spring 2011. This group is addressing many of the issues covered in the report. The proposal is for a single skeletal policy on outdoor learning safety that would be used nationally by Scottish Local Authorities. The aim is to have a simplified approach to outdoor learning which will reduce bureaucracy and variation between Local Authorities. As part of this approach, the use of consent forms will be considered.

46.  Similarly, in Wales, barriers to enhance and develop learning through realistic health and safety, has been the mainstay principle of the Welsh Assembly Government in its interaction and communication with Schools. The recommendations in Common Sense Common Safety were accepted by the Minister for Education and Skills, recognising the simplification of systems, and the removal of needless bureaucracy. Work is currently ongoing in Wales, including participation in the HSE led educational working group to ensure a common theme is maintained.

47.  While it is not a recommendation in Common Sense Common Safety, HSE has offered to clarify how health and safety law applies to school trips in a High Level Statement to provide schools, Local Authorities and teachers with clear messages about sensible risk management on school trips. This will apply equally to science field trips. HSE wishes to encourage all schools and Local Authorities to remove wasteful bureaucracy imposed on those involved in visits and activities—so that the focus is on the real risks[77] and not on paperwork. The high level statement will make clear that HSE's primary interest is real risks arising from serious breaches of the law and that any HSE investigations are targeted at these issues. The statement will outline the considerations HSE takes into account in reaching decisions about prosecution following an accident, and make clear that such action is very rare. The Statement will provide a further opportunity to actively promote the existing policy lines relevant to school science field trips.


Reported injuries to employees and members of the public (1) in primary and secondary education (2) occurring during science lessons (3) 2005/06 - 2009/10p (4)
2005-062006-07 2007-082008-09 2009-10
Major injury—employee4 341 1
Over-3-day injury—employee0 3116 10
Non-fatal injury—member of public 58626699 150
Total—reported injuries62 6881106 161


(1) Injuries are reported and defined under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR).

(2) Standard Industrial Classification of Economic Activities (SIC) codes 80100 "Primary education", 80210 "General secondary education" and 80220 "Technical and vocational secondary education". The SIC system is used in UK official statistics for classifying businesses by the type of activity they are engaged in. The latest version is SIC2003.

(3) A search was conducted of the "ICC notifier comments" field in order to capture details of such incidents. The following terms were used: "science", "physics", "chemistry", "biology", "geography", "laboratory". Any interrogation of the comments provided by notifiers is by its nature an error-prone process. This is because RIDDOR notifiers have freedom to express the details they supply in the way that they feel is most appropriate. As a consequence of the flexibility allowed during notification, it is very difficult to group together specific incidents from the individual reports that are submitted, hence there is no easy way of ensuring that all records are accounted for.

(4) The annual basis is the planning year from 1 April to 31 March. Statistics for 2009-10 are provisional, denoted by "p".


RIDDOR data need to be interpreted with care because it is known that non-fatal injuries are substantially under-reported. Currently, it is estimated that just over half of all such injuries to employees are actually reported.

Health and Safety Executive

6 June 2011

75   RIDDOR data needs to be interpreted with care because it is known that non-fatal injuries are substantially under-reported. Currently, it is estimated that just over half of all such injuries to employees are actually reported. Back

76   DfE 2010 School Census-In January 2010 there were around 8.1 million pupils (headcount) in all schools in England Back

77   The Courts have made clear that when health and safety law refers to risks, it is not contemplating risks that are trivial or fanciful. It is not its purpose to impose burdens on employers that are wholly unreasonable ( R v Chargot (2009) 2 All ER 660 [27] ) Back

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Prepared 14 September 2011