Class acts

How can practitioners enthuse school students and young people about safety and health?

Image credit: © iStock/Yayasya

The “bonkers conkers” story – arguably the most pervasive and, for the status of OSH practitioners, damaging safety myth in the UK – originated in a school playground. The legend that a head teacher insisted children wear safety goggles when playing the autumnal game had little grounding in reality. But it drew attention to a more important question about how we manage students’ earliest experiences of safety and health management.

For the OSH profession, stimulating a positive interest in protection at school is critical if it is to attract the brightest and best young people. More widely, if pupils start learning about risk as part of their wider education and see good OSH management in their schools, it is more likely to become an integral part of their future working lives.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), together with the PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) Association, has developed ten principles (see box p 31) for effective safety education, which endorse a “whole school” approach (see box p 32). This advocates combining risk education with practical OSH management for pupils and staff. It also emphasises pupil involvement and participation, such as in assessing risks and proposing solutions, and giving them ownership over safety rules. 

Count to ten

RoSPA and the PSHE Association have developed ten principles for effective safety education:

  • encourage the adoption of, or reinforce, a whole-school approach within the wider community (see “In the round” box below)
  • use active approaches (in which learners seek out information themselves or develop new skills) to teaching and learning
  • involve young people in decisions about keeping themselves safe – activities could include identifying hazards, participating in risk assessment and being part of actions to manage risk
  • assess learning needs – identify factors suggesting children of a particular age or group are at risk and develop strategies to address their needs
  • teach safety as part of a comprehensive personal, social and health curriculum
  • use realistic and relevant settings and resources – real-life data and examples help to engage young people and challenge misconceptions
  • work in partnership – develop links with agencies such as police, fire and rescue, local authorities and educational charities
  • address known risk and protective factors for the individual, school, peer group, family and community
  • address psychosocial aspects of safety such as confidence, resilience and self-esteem
  • adopt positive approaches that model and reward safe behaviour within a safe, supportive environment.

Source: RoSPA 

“It’s really important to engage students early on,” says Katie Bennett, lead consultant in the health, safety and wellbeing team at Brighton and Hove City Council. “This shouldn’t be a case of, ‘Now kids, let’s do an hour on health and safety’ though,” she adds. “It needs to be ingrained in what we do in terms of preparing them for the world of work. They all use computers now, for example, but how much time is spent on good DSE [display screen equipment] practice? Yet, if we get this right at this point, early on, setting up a workstation properly will be ‘just something they do’ in later life.”

Facts and figures

Research from the European safety agency EU-OSHA shows safety and health education is most effective when it is active, with students performing risk assessments in the field rather than attending lectures. RoSPA’s ten principles further expand on the need to engage pupils “actively”, such as by helping them seek information themselves, encouraging problem-solving exercises with partners or groups, and by rewarding safe behaviour and linking OSH directly to their interests and needs.

“You need to do things that are active and different,” says Louise Hosking, director at Hosking Associates and IOSH vice-president. She is working with Queen Elizabeth’s Girls’ School in Barnet, north London to help further develop its safety culture and engage pupils. In the design and technology department, for example, they are planning a project on dust. “As safety practitioners, we know the hazards,” she says. “But we need to get pupils thinking about and appreciating this, perhaps by getting the girls to carry out air monitoring themselves.”

Assistant head teacher Kenneth Laing adds: “We wouldn’t say, ‘So now we’re going to do some work on health and safety’, because if you say those words, that’s it, even with teenagers. Perhaps they pick up on this from the media or parents. But generally they love finding out interesting facts and figures. When I started talking to the girls about dust, they didn’t know how it could catch on fire or how small the particles can be. If you can capture their interest, it can also help deliver the curriculum.”

Make it ‘dangerous’

“Fun and health and safety don’t traditionally go together,” says Paul King, a health and safety lecturer at Exeter College’s faculty of construction and member of IOSH’s education committee. “But there’s no reason why it’s a subject that couldn’t be fun.”

Classroom competitions are a simple way to stimulate interest. “You could have photographs dotted around showing certain hazards and get kids to spot them in teams and then see who can come up with the best idea to deal with them,” he suggests. This is creative as well as competitive, and if pupils identify their own controls rather than have to be told what to do, that increases their buy-in.

A similar approach is to stage “dangerous” scenarios, King adds. “Set up a room, cordon it off and put liquid on the floor. Position a pair of damaged steps somewhere or add a cable hanging out of a wall that could be live or dead. Learners look at the environment and work together to pick out what they think is dangerous. It helps get through to them that risks are going to be there but what’s important is how you manage them to get the end result you want; so you aren’t stopped from doing something.”

Bennett, who has delivered presentations to students in schools preparing for work experience, says: “There are of course certain messages to get across, such as personal responsibility. But this has to be done so that they don’t immediately switch off.”

Men in hard hats are difficult to relate to, especially in a girls’ school

She also stresses the fun aspect: “I try to get in early with jokes about health and safety before they do, which disarms them almost immediately and challenges their preconceptions.”

She advocates using plenty of photographs and other images and minimising any reference to legislation. “Don’t go into technical detail or jargon if it’s not relevant to them as there is a risk it will disengage them, as it often can in adult training too,” she says. If she is covering personal protective equipment (PPE), she takes in a bag of devices and clothing. “I hand it around so they can get a feel for it. This also works well in injecting humour; they can try on a face mask and joke about it, or one pupil could don the whole lot.”

Another option is a “bag of surprises”: random items that represent different aspects of safety and health. Each pupil could take something from the bag and work with a partner to think about what it represents. A mobile phone might be personal safety and lone working, while a pair of high heels might be represent wearing suitable clothing for a job.

Easy pieces

OSH-career-development-schools-outreachCraig Foyle, IOSH’s immediate past president, reinforces the need to convey information in an accessible way. The institution’s Singapore branch created five two-minute safety education videos, based on the computer game Minecraft, to educate children about safety. The modules were: “Adventure Awaits” (where the students talked about the project); “Basketball Bonanza” (safety on the basketball court); “Canteen Chaos” (in the canteen); “Danger Dash” (on school staircases); and “Road Safety” (crossing the road on the way to and from school). “Delivering the messages via a platform the children understand or play in can help switch them on,” Foyle says. Online hazard-spotting games would be another option.

It is often not just the pupils who need educating. One practitioner who has been visiting schools to talk about OSH careers says teachers should be wary of treating warnings as a chore or nuisance. Jyssica Murphy, health and safety adviser at social housing group Torus says: “Teachers can sometimes take the line: ‘Well, we’ve got to get the health and safety bit out of the way’, for example when introducing science experiments. Yet it’s an integral part of what they do: keeping children safe every day. They shouldn’t be dismissive of it.”

King believes involving pupils in practical risk assessment is crucial. When new learners come into his college’s workshops, he and his colleagues show them the tools they will be using and ask them to decide where the dangers might lie. “Then they create their own posters that carry messages such as ‘wear goggles’, ‘wear gloves’, ‘keep hands behind the cutting edge’,” he says. “We stick these on the walls around the workshop and they become their own risk assessments. If they’ve identified the hazards and controls, they buy into that because it means they set the rules and boundaries themselves.”

Guessing game

The seventh principle on the RoSPA/PSHE Association list refers to partnership working, which is one way OSH practitioners or their representative bodies could become more involved in promoting risk education among young people and explaining the profession’s attractions.

“We’ve got to get out there and talk to schools and engage pupils so they realise what we do,” says Hosking. Bennett was recently asked to visit a secondary school as part of its “industry week”, which was dedicated to looking at the world of work. She participated in a question and answer session when pupils had to guess the speakers’ jobs. “A lot of the pupils had never heard of health and safety manager as a career,” she says. “They might have heard of health and safety in the context of the myths around it, but to find out it was my job was quite a surprise.”

In the round

In a whole-school approach, pupils engage in activities related to the safety and health of their school as part of their risk education. This approach:

  • combines risk education and managing safety and health in schools for pupils and staff
  • brings together risk education, health education, safety management and the healthy school concept
  • actively involves staff and pupils in school safety management
  • trains and involves teachers in OSH management in their schools, improving their understanding of OSH and developing practical skills, which improves their ability to provide risk education to pupils
  • develops students’ understanding of OSH and its importance by example
  • involves pupils in hazard spotting and proposing solutions, developing their skills and giving them ownership over school safety rules
  • integrates risk education and school safety and health throughout the school’s activities to become part of school life rather than an addition or extra.

Source: EU-OSHA

Several elements particularly sparked pupils’ interest. “Almost every group asked: ‘How much do you earn?’,” says Bennett. “They were really surprised at the salary, even at entry level; that really piqued their interest. Other things that drew them in were that it is a job where there is no typical day, where you are always learning. Also, it isn’t deskbound and you can often be out and about, anywhere from the seafront to a park.”

In her presentation that followed the Q&A, Bennett expanded on her background, including working for a London Underground maintenance contractor. “I tried to think about the things they might find really interesting,” she says. “So I talked about my early experiences, which involved being in the tunnels at night with work gang inspections and I described the disused ‘ghost’ stations.” She also talked about her work with the local authority, including incident investigation with the Health and Safety Executive, which was another element that surprised the audience.

Murphy, who has worked with Future First, a charity that connects schools with previous students to talk about their roles, also found that most pupils were surprised by her job. “A lot of the students had parents with backgrounds in construction, engineering and manufacturing, but they had not heard the health and safety element talked about much, so they asked a lot of questions,” she says. “The travel aspect was particularly interesting for them, the diversity of the role, and the opportunity to work with people in different environments.”

After the sessions, some pupils approached her to learn more. One asked how safety and health applied to hairdressing, so she talked about the risks from sharp equipment and chemicals. “Even if I planted a seed and they now consider health and safety to be an important part of the role in the sector they eventually choose, and something they need to care about, that’s fantastic,” she says.

Foyle notes that he avoids standing at the front of a class or assembly but puts himself in the middle of the pupils, to prevent the impression he is delivering a lecture.

No hard hats

Face-to-face meetings between OSH professionals and students are particularly useful in challenging stereotypes and stimulating dialogue. Laing says much of the OSH material online for schools does not resonate with pupils. “There are a lot of men in hard hats; it’s difficult to find things they can relate to, especially in a girls’ school,” he says. “So it’s helpful to have people talk about the things they do in their job rather than what the jobs are; that’s the best way to capture interest.”

He would like to see the profession work more with teachers and visit schools and vice versa, something that could benefit employers as an example of community outreach for a corporate social responsibility report.

Striking a broader note, King says that when “you educate the youngsters, they will educate the older generation”, which he hopes could eventually help to challenge some entrenched views in wider society that “health and safety is a bad thing or a hindrance”. This approach is already proven in areas such as health and environmental protection, where children frequently take home what they have learned, educate their parents and change their habits.


Lucie is a freelance writer for IOSH Magazine.

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