Q&As

The Present and Future of Work Health and Safety for Schools

Monday September 12, 2016

Alan Girle is a Partner at HWL Ebsworth Lawyers in the Workplace Relations and Safety Group and is a senior work health and safety (WHS) regulatory law adviser.

He has been named in Best Lawyers® as one of Australia's best lawyers in the field of Occupational Health & Safety Law, and has been listed by Doyle's Guide to the Australian Legal Profession as a leading Workplace Health and Safety Lawyer 2016 - Brisbane.

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He recently joined Jacqui Pacey of Legalwise Seminars to discuss the present and future of WHS issues for schools. You can find the full transcript of the Q&A below.

Interested in School Law? Check out our upcoming conferences and past recordings here

What are some of the legal challenges facing schools today?

The role and responsibilities of schools and their staff are increasingly complex. It's a real challenge for schools to manage the myriad risks which can arise from the conduct of students, their parents/carers, staff, or other members of the school community, and risks in the physical environment as well as the ever expanding online environment.

Particularly where there is a risk of serious harm or a serious injury occurs, schools can find themselves subject to scrutiny in relation to the adequacy of their WH&S management. I strongly recommend seeking professional advice and assistance in those circumstances.

What is the most frequent WHS issue at schools?

Student and staff injuries on school grounds are still a common occurrence, despite increased vigilance and significant effort from schools to improve their practices and procedures in this area. Its essential to ensure that all staff are well trained in procedures for identifying hazards, assessing risks and putting in place control measures. Schools should also have in place an appropriate incident response plan.'

What is your first piece of advice for a school faced with a serious injury or fatality?

I would strongly recommend that schools take steps to establish legal professional privilege in those situations. This should be done immediately via a telephone call to your lawyer, who can then advise you on simple steps to protect confidentiality in circumstances where a claim is anticipated. If you subsequently discover that the matter doesn't require further advice or legal representation, often no legal costs will be incurred.

What are some of the big trends and developments you see ahead in the education area?

Schools increasingly find themselves dealing with instances of anti-social behaviour by students, parents and other members of the school community, which in some cases may even constitute illegal or criminal behaviour. This necessitates an appropriate response, particularly in light of a school's statutory and common law obligations to provide a safe environment and respond appropriately to risks.

Bullying claims are also on the rise, and schools have significant exposure in respect of potential claims by both staff and students. We'll be keeping a close eye on developments in this area; I'm thinking, for example, of a $600,000 damages claim filed by a former student of a private school in Brisbane earlier this year, with the outcome yet to be determined.

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