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 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.
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 and set out what the education regulator Ofsted’s inspectors would be looking for during their visits.
But 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 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 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 lithe student’s duties fall within normal business practice. But they must notify their insurer lithe student wilt 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”.
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.
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 tack 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 property supervised by a competent person, and the risks are reduced to the lowest level, so far as is reasonably practicable.
Despite this, 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.
However, the biggest concerns are people being over-cautious. 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.
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.