Words: Lucie Ponting
Illustration: Gary Neill
Work experience placements offer young people valuable insights into working life, help them decide on future careers and improve their understanding of risk. But in its drive to widen access to placements, in 2012 the UK coalition government identified health and safety arrangements as a significant “red tape” barrier. Judith Hackitt, then Health and Safety Executive (HSE) chair, stated that requirements were “too often seen as over-bureaucratic and burdensome” and vowed to “stop over-interpretation of the law”.
In 2013, the UK coalition government wrote to organisations confirming that the insurance industry would treat work experience students as employees for employers’ liability cover. In addition, “simply giving work experience opportunities to students” would not affect employers’ liability compulsory insurance (ELCI) premiums. Placements were to conform to the requirements of the Education Act 1996.
The Association of British Insurers’ website states that employers with ELCI cover do not need to buy additional cover if the student’s duties fall within normal business practice. But they must notify their insurer if the student will be working outside normal business activities. The industry’s commitment applies to any kind of student placement, including apprenticeships, extended work experience and long-term work experience. But for placements longer than two weeks, employers will “probably be required to provide more detailed information to their insurer”.
In response, the HSE updated its guidance, making it clear that employers should simply use existing arrangements for assessing and managing risks to young workers (those under 18) and urging them to avoid repeating risk assessments for new students with no specific needs (bit.ly/2aM8xC7). Employers need to review their risk assessments only if they don’t currently employ a young person, have not reviewed the assessment a few years, or are taking on a student for the first time or one with particular requirements.
For work experience organisers – including schools and colleges – the HSE stresses that managing the risks rests with the employer, and organisers’ checks must be proportionate to the work environment. It also advises organisers not to repeat the process for a new student or visit unnecessarily where an employer is known to them, has a good track record and if the student’s needs are no different from previous placements. Organisers should “not seek additional paperwork for assurance purposes”, or try to “second guess” the employer’s risk assessment or controls, the guidance states.
To complement the HSE’s revisions, the government also further clarified the insurance industry’s position on liability insurance (see the fully covered box) and set out what the education regulator Ofsted’s inspectors would be looking for during their visits (see Ofsted inspection box below).
The HSE does not at any point say ‘thou shalt not visit low-risk placements’
“When the guidance changed in 2013, it was very welcome,” says Tudor Williams, who sits on IOSH’s education committee and is co-director of DTD Training, which focuses on work-based learning. “A lot of the information on the HSE website was out of date and needed changing, but any perception that the changes would suddenly fuel far more people going into placements was not justified and has not played out; our evidence doesn’t point to that.”
He says the HSE’s attempts to clarify requirements have not removed confusion in the education sector and continued inconsistencies in approach, which are complicated by a plethora of guidance from other organisations such as funding bodies.
This view is largely backed by a 2015 report from the HSE’s research arm, the Health and Safety Laboratory, which included interviews with education providers, employers and insurers. The researchers found a lack of awareness of the revisions, as well as confusion over respective responsibilities and a tendency to duplicate effort. Employers struggled to name specific health and safety guidance, mainly because they had developed their own policies over many years incorporating various sources.
The UK’s education inspectorate Ofsted has produced a note on the extent to which its inspectors check safety and health, including documentation for learners on work placements. In the context of work experience responsibilities, this guidance states that inspectors “will have regard to new guidance  from the HSE about the relative responsibilities of the training provider and the employer which emphasises the following:
the employer has primary responsibility for the health and safety of the learner and should be managing any risks
the training provider should take reasonable steps to satisfy itself that the employer is managing the risks
the training provider should keep checks in proportion to the level of risk, which will vary in relation to the type of working environment involved
the provider should avoid seeking paperwork for assurance purposes, using an exchange of emails or correspondence to provide an audit trail if this is needed
the provider should not try to second guess the employer’s risk assessment by undertaking their own”.
The interviewees further suggested that, though placement organisers appreciate it is the employer’s duty to complete risk assessments, they feel employers’ understanding of their responsibilities varies. Organisers therefore regard part of their role as advising employers about young people’s safety and health.
In principle, Paul Davies, formerly a work experience co-ordinator at Highland Council in Scotland, supports what he calls the HSE’s efforts to “open things up”, but sees limited success: “When I’ve spoken to businesses, they are confused, and lack of communication is the problem. They’re fearful and unsure as to what sort of environment they can put a young person in, and instead of following the guidance and saying ‘yes, we might be able to put them here but we don’t want them to do A, B or C,’ they just say ‘we can’t do it at all because of the rules and regulations’.”
Employers’ caution is understandable in the face of conflicting advice, especially those in more hazardous occupations. The occasional stories of prosecutions for failure to protect work experience secondees stick in the mind. One such, dating from 2013, is that of vehicle repairer Motorhouse 2000 involving a 16-year-old who sustained facial scarring and damaged vision after he was splashed with chemicals while filling a wheel stripping tank. He had no face or eye protection.
Williams says some placement organisers have made changes in response to the HSE’s guidance, but they have not always been entirely welcome and inconsistencies in the sector continue. He has encountered local authorities that now stipulate, mainly for financial reasons, no visits to low-risk placements. “They think by tying in with HSE guidance, they are justified in that, but the HSE does not at any point say ‘thou shalt not visit low-risk placements’.”
The biggest concerns are workload and people being over-cautious
The Association of Colleges has also modified its approach to members, Williams says, adopting a different approach and format for lower-risk placements than for medium and high-risk ones. He stresses, however, that as a safety professional he does not advise people not to visit placements. “We will say there are different ways to obtain information on a placement, but simply categorising certain environments as low risk is never an easy concept.
“What we’re seeing,” he suggests, “is that people are interpreting the guidance differently” and that reflects a wider inconsistency in approach. He does not see this necessarily as a failure of the HSE guidance but believes it lies more in the resource and other pressures in the education and work-based learning sector, which has undergone – and is still undergoing – huge changes in policy and funding. In the face of so much upheaval, resources and competence are ongoing challenges.
“The HSE guidance isn’t that complex,” says Williams. “But it’s often not the first port of call for those tasked with organising placements.” If safety and health is not their core role they are more likely to look elsewhere for advice, to funding bodies, education sector organisations, or to depend on existing internal procedures and guidance. “The competent person [in safety terms] is not necessarily the responsible person making the decisions, so there’s an information gap.” Williams adds that many people visiting placements have limited OSH qualifications and can lack competence. “It’s hugely worrying and, with budget cuts, training is one of the things that tends to go,” he says.
Davies has experienced the pressures first hand in Scotland, where there is a renewed focus on work placements as part of the Scottish government’s “Developing the Young Workforce” (DYW) initiative.
Young workers and the law
In the UK, a young person is anyone under 18 and a child is anyone who has yet to reach the minimum school leaving age (MSLA). Pupils reach the MSLA in the school year in which they turn 16.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, an employer must ensure that young people are not exposed to risk due to lack of experience, being unaware of existing or potential risks and/or lack of maturity. Employers need to consider whether the work:
is beyond their physical or psychological capacity
involves harmful exposure to substances that are toxic, can cause cancer, can damage or harm an unborn child, or can chronically affect human health in any other way, including harmful exposure to radiation
involves risk of accidents that cannot reasonably be recognised or avoided by young people due to their insufficient attention to safety or lack of experience or training
has a risk to health from extreme cold, heat, noise or vibration.
A child must never carry out such work involving these risks, whether they are permanently employed or on work experience. But a young person, who is not a child, can carry out duties involving these risks if the work is necessary for their training, they are properly supervised by a competent person, and the risks are reduced to the lowest level, so far as is reasonably practicable.
“Budget cuts mean authorities have less capacity to deliver on that initiative,” Davies says, “and the only way they can meet demand is perhaps to take less time on things than they might otherwise do. With staff cuts, it can come down to just one person covering a very large area.” There have also been moves to downgrade professional skill status in some posts. This is an obvious problem, he argues, and could lead to more cautious placement policies, which is counter to the government’s aims to make work experience more stimulating and technically-based.
Davies is also concerned about ongoing inconsistencies between local authorities. A neighbouring council, for example, prohibited placements in fisheries because it decided the residual risk made it unsuitable for young people.
“In Highlands, we took a more flexible view,” he says. “We looked at each sector or business and the young person and, if there were specific needs, could these be met?”
According to Williams, a key factor fuelling inconsistency across the UK is that contractual guidance from funding bodies differs. “When anyone contracts with a funding body, whether it’s the Skills Funding Agency in England, Skills Development Scotland or the Welsh government, there are always clauses within the contract stating obligations,” he explains. “But the guidance on these varies widely.” The Skills Funding Agency’s health and safety contractual requirement, Clause 8, which covers learner health, safety and welfare, is just a few pages. In contrast, in Wales there is a 34-page health and safety code of practice, which can result in a complex set of paperwork for vetting and monitoring.
“There’s no consistency and yet a lot of providers now cross geographical borders,” says Williams.
Will to succeed
Though Davies is positive about the future, he believes there needs to be greater support for placement coordinators and more consistency among councils and other learning providers, while still leaving room for local differences. “Young people need quality experiences to make the right career choices,” he says. “We want them doing things, not just watching. But it is quite challenging for the people making those decisions, especially if they might not have the technical competence. We need to look more closely at how the system supports them to make decisions, and quickly.”
As part of the DYW initiative in Scotland, placement co-ordinators are already coming together. “What it’s trying to do – quite rightly – is to implement a standard so all those managing placements come from a common starting point,” says Davies. He also wants more mechanisms for sharing best practice and knowledge, particularly in more unusual sectors or occupations.
In the Highlands, for example, aquaculture is a key sector. He suggests mentoring support or workshops involving businesses and employers as well, perhaps through IOSH or other bodies such as the BSC or RoSPA.
“We need to share first-class experiences across a range of sectors that show what we can achieve,” he says.
From the employer’s perspective, Neil Budworth, former IOSH president and now health, safety and risk manager at Loughborough University, reinforces the view that flexibility and competence are critical, arguing that many of the “so-called barriers” have been in people’s minds: “The worries have been around liabilities and insurance, but if you are managing things properly and safely these are not an issue. It’s about having the will to do it, being flexible and thinking laterally about the kind of work a young person can do and can observe.”
Budworth believes the guidance is plentiful. “Part of the problem is just that people are very busy, so even a small hurdle can seem insurmountable,” he says. “The biggest concerns are workload and people being over-cautious; if you want to do it, you just do it. Go through the guidance, taking into account there are some things – such as age limits on certain types of machinery – that restrict what young people can do, and make it work.”
He points to an example of a placement at AMEC Clean Energy Europe, where he was previously vice-president for OSH environment and quality. A young person did work experience in the nuclear labs – going into workshops, working with the safety team there to give him an understanding of safety and large-scale engineering.
“It took a bit of effort but it really had an impact on that individual in terms of him looking at a career in science and engineering,” says Budworth. “It’s about the attitude you take into it and our attitude was we’re going to do it; let’s figure out how. There were things he couldn’t do and he was clearly supervised very intensively, but you have to make it happen.”