Unison claims employee health and welfare increasingly at risk as resources are squeezed
THE health and safety of higher education employees is a low priority in universities, Britain's biggest union has claimed.
Unison, which represents 50,000 university employees, says that financial pressures affecting higher education have led to a downgrading of health and safety relative to the position it occupies in many other industries.
Hope Daley, Unison's health and safety officer, said: "There is a lot of fobbing-off by senior managers."
Universities present staff and students with some of the most hazardous workplace environments anywhere.
Medical, chemistry, biology, physics and engineering laboratories and workshops are crammed with potentially lethal radioactive materials, pathogens and equipment such as high-powered lasers. The sheer number of people involved in the day-to-day operation of a university only serves to multiply the risk. A lack of resources, compared with industry, also increases risks.
But David Harrison, health and safety director at Birmingham University and chairman of the University Safety Association, said that the hazards belie a relatively safe reality, although he agrees that health and safety provision could be better.
Mr Harrison is careful to draw a distinction between hazard and risk.
The former relates to the potential danger and the latter to the probability that an accident will happen.
"What is important to note is that while universities are potentially hazardous places they are not necessarily risky places to work," he said. "Health and safety is not a low priority in universities ,but I agree that the resources institutions allocate to health and safety is very variable. Patchiness in this area covers the whole range of institutions, pre- and post-92."
Mr Harrison said that institutions trying to meet requirements in the 1997 Fire Precautions Act face bills running into millions of pounds. The act is focusing attention on safety provisions in halls of residence, perhaps entailing significant building work.
Ancient universities, enjoying the prestige of listed buildings, can face additional problems. Strict controls applied to listed buildings mean that health and safety officers can find it difficult to secure planning approval for the installation of new fire exits and other improvements.
University buildings can be hazardous in their own right. Many, if not most, are riddled with asbestos. London University's Imperial College has already agreed to pay Pounds 150,000 in an out-of-court settlement to the widow of a former lecturer who died of mesothelioma, linked to asbestos.
The college denies liability.
Imperial's safety director Ian Gillett said: "The only way we are going to find all the asbestos is to pull whole buildings down. We are managing the asbestos. We are being sensible. If a project is going on that means we can get rid of it, we do."
The college has developed a computer database containing all known asbestos locations. Stickers on a number of walls, ceilings and other items warn of an asbestos hazard. Drilling and other building work, which could scatter dust from otherwise stable asbestos material, is strictly controlled.
The national Health and Safety Executive is well aware of the hazards lurking in universities but Unison claims that under-resourcing means that inspectors tend to visit institutions only when a serious accident has occurred.
An HSE spokeswoman said that routine inspections are carried out, although there is no fixed frequency for these. She admitted that routine inspections are sometimes "put to one side" if the "limited number" of HSE inspectors available are dealing with serious accidents.
Safety inspections or audits will also take place if there have been complaints from employees or where there is a record of a number of similar incidents at a particular institution. The HSE points out that employers remain responsible for health and safety.
An HSE guidebook aimed specifically at higher and further education institutions is to be published later this year. It will focus on those areas covered by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations 1994.
Ms Daley said that it should not be forgotten that one of the biggest health and safety issues is bullying and stress. For manual staff this is linked to increased contracting-out of services.
She said: "There are fewer staff and workloads are higher. There is pressure not to complain about anything. People want to keep their heads down so they can keep their jobs."
REPORTABLE INJURIES 1997
(Reportable to the Health and Safety Executive, generally requiring more than three days off work) * 5.3 per 1,000 members of staff
(Reportable within the institution, but not to the HSE)
* 60.6 per 1,000 members of staff Source - University Safety Association