Adapting health and safety requirements across the school estate

24 March, 2021

When initially mapping out the design for any school, it’s vital to consider ‘the bigger picture’. No two schools are identical, and the same applies to the requirements of pupils, staff and caretakers. Associate health and safety consultant James Hymers shares his thoughts on why it’s important to adapt different health and safety requirements across schools and how this is achieved.

First and foremost, during the initial design stage, it’s important to gain a comprehensive understanding of each stakeholder’s requirements and expectations, so that the end product can be envisaged by all parties from the outset. As is expected, Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) schools, Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) schools and standard schools accommodate very different cohorts of pupils, and ultimately, we endeavour to make sure that their individual social and educational needs are considered throughout.

For example, SEND schools often benefit from being built on more level ground to avoid the unnecessary installation of ramps and lifts, as well as internal considerations, such as wider corridors and automatically opening doors – all of which must be taken into account when cogitating fire safety. Contrasting floor colours and the use of colour can be extremely helpful for the partially sighted to avoid trips and falls.

The staff are also an incredibly important part of the school and they must be given adequate welfare facilities after providing care. Large facilities and the ability to have changing and cleaning areas are often important.

It’s also important to try and make all educational facilities as engaging and stimulating as possible for example, ensuring good lighting or allowing for bigger windows to let in more natural light – and the same is, of course, true when thinking about health, safety and wellbeing.

With this in mind, one consideration that must be appraised when designing SEND is that facilities must be appropriately engaging for all students. For example, if overly stimulating, this may present an issue for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), so it’s vital that each individual’s unique requirements are met.

Traffic management must also be high on the design agenda, with many pupils requiring modified vehicles that could include ramps or minibuses from multiple pick-ups. Traffic needs to drive in and out avoiding reversing with ample space to offload passengers safely.

One distinct difference between SEND schools and standard schools, for example, is ventilation and heating or cooling requirements. It’s common that SEND schools may have higher demands on heating and cooling, as well as the provision for fresh air. This will result in more plant and equipment to locate but smart design in glazing position and building position can reduce the need for plant and equipment.

Similarly, as well as indoor facilities, outdoor spaces are vitally important to the pupils. SEND and PRU schools often both feature sensory gardens, natural walks and other interactive nature-related activities, all of which present further health and safety implications. Play areas present a great opportunity for pupils but these must be suitable and rubberised floors installed that can absorb the impact of a fall.

Another important aspect to bear in mind prior to undertaking a development is that existing schools sometimes require structural deliberation during the design and development stages when making allowances for SEND. I recall one particular project where a winch and hoist were needed in order to assist a pupil to move around a classroom. Similarly, one of the school’s disabled toilets needed to also provide a washing and changing facility, which, again, meant that adjusting the structural element of the building was imperative. Not to mention the inclusion of a hydrotherapy pool.

In terms of ensuring that schools are fit for the various different end users, it’s important to maintain stakeholder engagement throughout the entire project lifecycle to ensure that construction remains in-line with the expected design and development. Upon completion, there needs to be a clear and defined commissioning process, including training on appropriate and correct usage of the site’s specialist facilities. Often, schools tend to employ a designated local caretaker, rather than a large facilities management company, so, from a health and safety perspective, making sure that any and all personnel onsite are trained to accommodate the needs of the users and not to rely on specialist access is vital

In my opinion, the emerging role of technology is going to play an integral part in the future of health and safety in different schools. From new teaching systems and hoist systems to more compact elevators, these ever-developing facilities will no doubt allow for more efficient health and safety measures to be implemented across projects.

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