Health and safety in schools

A passion to deliver an outstanding theatrical performance resulted in more than a standing ovation for one Auckland school.

In April 2016, St Kentigern’s compelling rendition of the musical Sweeny Todd went horribly wrong when two of the cast suffered serious lacerations to their throats during a dramatic shaving scene.

As a result, the school’s Trust Board had allegedly breached their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. Their crime? Failing to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their students.

The Trust Board acknowledged that they were at fault and proposed an ‘enforceable undertaking’ rather than face prosecution under the Act. The undertaking is a legally binding agreement between WorkSafe New Zealand and a duty holder (in this case the Trust Board), in which the duty holder commits to learn from the incident. Learning is demonstrated by way of training, the preparation and implementation of a new health and safety policy. The intent is to progress best practise for the benefit of those in the workplace, the wider industry or sector and/or the community.  

WorkSafe New Zealand accepted the Trust Board’s proposal citing the following reasons:

  1. Although the Trust Board failed to adequately manage the risk associated with the production, the circumstances which gave rise to the incident were clearly confined to a specific scenario
  2. The victims were supportive of the proposed enforceable undertaking
  3. The Trust Board made financial reparation to the victims
  4. The Trust Board had no previous history of non-compliance in relation to health and safety.

The enforceable undertaking was signed on 4 April 2017, thereby committing the Trust Board to:

  1. The preparation, publishing and implementation of a performing arts health and safety policy
  2. The engagement of a consultant to design a training course on health and safety in performing arts in schools and require all staff in performing arts to attend
  3. Offer the same training course to heads of performing arts across other New Zealand schools.
  4. Provide training materials online to community based amateur theatre societies.

The St Kentigern’s incident was indeed unfortunate but it was also totally unforeseen and therefore serves as a reminder to all employers to be conscious of their health and safety responsibilities, and the requirement to adequately protect their employees is timely.

While an enforceable undertaking was acceptable in St Kentigern’s case, it may not be an option in other situations where the Act has been breached and WorkSafe may consider prosecution to be more appropriate in different circumstances.