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March 23, 2006

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Supervision sets young people’s safety

John Matthews (CFIOSH), who worked for many years in the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) before retiring in 2004, says that safety and health practitioners need to make the issue of supervision better understood in the workplace if the safety of young people is to improve.

Organisations making arrangements for work experience at an employer’s premises must satisfy themselves about the provision for supervision. The danger is that both parties might use the term supervision in a generic sense; so any agreement reached is likely to be confusing and based on substantially different understandings of the term.

If the supervisor is the last safeguard standing between the young person and an accident, can we continue to be ambiguous about supervision?

>What is supervision there for?

The answer rather depends on who you ask; there are separate and distinct elements of supervision, especially when you introduce young people into the workforce. Supervision can centre on:

* The ‘work or task’ — it may be customer focused, or have productivity, quality standards or waste reduction at its heart. This kind of supervision might pay little heed to safety and health concerns.

* The individual worker, due to their age or inexperience — this is a requirement brought about by specific pieces of legislation, which permits young persons and children under the minimum school leaving age to undertake certain work.

* The workforce complying with the requirements of section 2(c) of HSWA — ensuring that the employer’s messages and rules on health and safety are put into practice in the workplace.

* The individual young person, as a means of supporting them through a learning experience, ensuring that they are able to learn in a safe, healthy and supportive environment.

The fourth bullet point suggests an expectation that supervision will somehow contain an element of pastoral care for the school child or young person. To extend supervision in this way takes it outside the accepted role in business and raises further questions about what is seen as competent supervision.

A supervision standard?

It is clear that a standard needs to be produced which clearly reflects the job of a supervisor. This is a really big challenge, given that it would need to apply in environments at low-risk work places like corner shops, to higher-risk work in heavy engineering firms or construction.

Alongside an ability to explain the task and develop skills in the young person, supervisors also need to be able to foresee risks and have the ability and authority to intervene in the face of danger. A supervisor must also act as a good role model to young people, if health and safety messages are to be accepted.

Factors which touch on supervision

We need to consider the rather casual way in which some workers are given the task of supervising. They often have little choice over the matter and have little understanding of their legal obligations in taking on the role. Such a task is undertaken in addition to their normal work, without recognition of the unproductive time associated with supervision.

The planned expansion of vocational education is likely to mean that school children and young people will be on employers’ premises for extended periods of time. Government continues to place large numbers of young people in employers’ workplaces so the question of supervision, including an element of pastoral care, becomes a critical point. Perhaps the question should be: who pays for appropriate training of the supervisors? After all, work placements are immensely valuable to school leavers, and to the future prosperity of our economy. To prevent young people from having the opportunity to learn about the workplace safely would be a real shame.

There is an urgent need for a clearer understanding of what supervision is required, but any emerging supervision standards should be sector led, and not a model imposed by administrators. IOSH members should be actively involved in discussing this at local and national levels.

The Robens report commented on supervision: “We are not at all satisfied that this key role in safety is sufficiently recognised throughout industry generally, or that enough is done to equip supervisors for it.” These words reflect a bygone world of foremen, charge hands and other people who had a recognised supervision function.

It’s very uncomfortable for anyone who has an interest in health and safety, that after all this time, the nettle has still not been grasped on this vitally important matter.

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