Health & Safety Matters - Equalities Act, Stress, Fire Sprinklers, Air Pollution
Covered by the Act?
Last month we were privileged to have Colleen Johnson as a guest speaker at our general meeting. You will have seen the article on the meeting in last month's City Teacher. This article expands on the information in that article.
The Equalities Act of 2010 combined a number of previous pieces of legislation. One of these was the old Disabilities Discrimination Act which protected people with various disabilities from being unfairly treated at work. Unfortunately the term 'disabled' is often viewed as pejorative, and the perceived stigma discourages people from identifying themselves as disabled. In reality it would be far better if we considered people as having different but equally important abilities in the same way we consider people of different race or sexual orientation to be different but equal.
The Act defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. You may be born with a disability, become disabled as a result of an accident or simply acquire a disability as you get older.
'substantial' means neither minor nor trivial.
'long term' means that the effect of the impairment has lasted or is likely to last for at least 12 months; or is likely to last for the rest of the life of the person affected; or has not lasted 12 months, but is likely to recur.
'normal day to day activities' may include walking, climbing stairs, washing, shopping or any activity (both mental and physical) which most people engage in regularly if not daily.
Clearly this covers far more things than are normally thought of as disabilities. A person who is (or has previously been) suffering from cancer is automatically covered, as is someone who is HIV+ or has multiple sclerosis. Being registered as partially sighted or blind also qualifies. Other conditions are not specifically covered but should fall under the scope of the act if they fit the definition. These would include hearing loss, epilepsy, asthma, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, myalgic encephalitis (ME), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia, depression, motor neurone disease, muscular dystrophy, and forms of dementia, autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), dyslexia and dyspraxia, mental health conditions with symptoms such as anxiety, low mood, panic attacks, phobias, eating disorders, bipolar affective disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, personality disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia.
This list is not exclusive! Some of these conditions may not affect a person's ability to work, but where they do the employer is expected to make reasonable adjustments to help them cope. It's up to an individual as to whether or not they choose to disclose a disability to their employer, but if they don't the employer can't be expected to make adjustments. We would urge anyone who identifies themselves as disabled to tell their school and the union.
There is an NUT/NEU disabled group on Facebook and an annual Disabled Teachers' Conference every October that we would encourage as many people as possible to attend. We are also developing a Disabled Teachers' group in the Midlands region. For more information contact Colleen Johnson at colleenjohnson1961gmail.com
Compensation Claims for Stress
I attended a Midlands TUC H&S Forum recently, at which the main speaker was a representative from Thompsons Solicitors, about pursuing personal injury claims for mental health problems following Work Related Stress. The following is a summary of the most important points:
• There is no specific law to protect workers from stress, although employers do have a duty to manage and minimise stress wherever possible.
• Claims are made for personal injury or possibly under the Protection from Harassment Act.
• WRS is not an injury. You have to claim for the injury caused by WRS i.e. a psychiatric disorder.
• It's very difficult to make a successful claim.
• Personal injury claims have to be made within 3 years of the cause of the injury.
• You must be able to show that the injury was caused by the actions of the employer and that it was foreseeable.
The point about the employer being able to foresee the injury is important. Most successful claims have been made when an employee has been ill with WRS and, after returning to work, the employer has continued with the same actions that they knew had caused the illness, making the employee ill again. Clearly if you are suffering from WRS your employer needs to be told. If you are off sick with WRS it is essential that your doctor puts this on your sick note.
Many people are reluctant to admit to suffering from stress or mental illness because they feel they will be judged as weak in some way, but very many people are affected by these terrible illnesses and society needs to understand that it is nothing to be ashamed of.
Prevention is clearly better than cure which is why schools have a duty to manage stress among their staff. It's also common sense for them to maintain a healthy effective workforce.
This is why it's essential that they carry out some form of stress audit on a regular basis. I have now received 56 responses, including 5 nil returns, to my request to schools for information about their stress management. The results of the stress surveys go from dismal to brilliant, but more significantly very few are providing any evidence that they actually do anything to reduce stress.
Missing the Point
There is a recent trend for employers to try to avoid their duty to manage and reduce stress by encouraging their staff to increase their resilience. This approach often includes the introduction of initiatives aiming to improve employee 'wellbeing'. Examples include massages, yoga classes, basket, weaving and mindfulness. While initiatives such as these may be well received by employees and have their place in maintaining good mental health, it is important that they are not used as substitutes for employers meeting their legal responsibilities for protecting workers against work related stress. It's also difficult to see how a teacher is supposed to fit in these activities, considering their workload, unless of course they are prepared to allow part of directed time for them!
Schools must manage stress amongst their employees by the normal process or stress surveys, risk assessments and action plans. It's also important for them to consult with the NEU/NUT representatives in the school on things like school calendars and directed time budgets.
Fire Sprinkler Systems
At the last SSCC we were told that LCC had decided that they would only fit sprinkler systems in schools when it became mandatory. However, we were then told that the decision was still under review. Since then we have tabled documents in support of sprinklers and await further developments.
Air Pollution in Schools
The NEU in conjunction with the British Lung Foundation has produced guidance on how to tackle the effects of air pollution in and around schools. This can be found on the NEU website at neu.org.uk. Client Earth has also produced an interactive map called Poisoned Playgrounds that shows which schools are within 150 metres of a road exceeding the legal limit for air pollution (at clientearth.com). As far as I can see there aren't any maintained schools in Leicester that come into that category, apart from the Al-Ihsaan Community College.