Schools, Principals, and Health and Safety

Recent media reports have highlighted the fears of school principals of being held personally liable for playground injuries under the new Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.

Some of the statements being made around the new workplace health and safety law, and how it applies to schools, are in our view just plain wrong. Some of these misconceptions are being made based on misinformation, and sometimes simply to create a good news headline.

Put your home in a trust?

Do school principals need to put their homes into trusts to avoid losing them if they are held personally liable for playground injuries? Probably not. I can’t comment on how every individual should structure their assets. But I struggle to see how, under the new law, school principals could be held personally liable over playground injuries for sums large enough to justify shifting their homes into trusts. School playgrounds are quite different to an underground mine. Therefore the likelihood of a principal being prosecuted to the full extent of the law is extremely low.

School principals personally liable for H&S breaches?

Can school principals be held personally liable for health and safety breaches under the new law? Yes. But this is no different to the current law. In terms of health and safety laws teachers are employees the same as all other workers. Whether you are a principal or a teacher aide, everybody has a duty to ensure the health and safety of people entering a school. This duty has applied for over 20 years, and will apply under the new law.

Principals as ‘Senior Managers’

What the new law does is clarify what extra duties principals will have as senior managers. If there is a breach of these duties principals could be liable. But teaching is not a high risk sector like mining or forestry. What principals need to do is to ensure that there are appropriate processes in place for their workplace, and that those processes are actually being used. Almost all principals have been doing this successfully for many years.

Why do schools come under the new workplace health and safety law?

All workplaces come under the law, and schools are workplaces that employee thousands of people. Like a director or senior manager of any other workplace, principals have a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of their employees and others that come into the workplace (primarily being students).

Just like farm workers or miners, if you are employed as a teacher you have the same expectation that you will work in a safe place, so far as is reasonably practicable. Obviously a manager of an underground mine will follow quite different health and safety processes compared to a school principal. The key point being, playgrounds and school camps present risks, but these risks are not hard to manage. Schools have been doing a good job in this area for a long time and there has not been a spate of fines. The new law simply clarifies what the expectations are for health and safety; therefore we don’t think it should change how good schools currently operate.

What about Boards of Trustees?

Boards of Trustees are expected to perform their health and safety duties like other officers. But note, trustees are exempt from prosecution for serious breaches. Otherwise, no one would volunteer to do this job.

Our advice to schools is to heed the advice being given by the Ministry of Education and WorkSafe in their workshops and guides. We’ve seen that advice, and it is sound. It’s also free, making it a lot cheaper than the advice being offered by some private consultants.