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March 6, 2017

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National Apprenticeship Week – Karen McDonnell looks at 21st Century apprentices


This week is National Apprenticeship Week. Here Dr Karen McDonnell, Immediate Past President at IOSH looks at 21st Century apprentices.

As a mum of a 21-year-old who has successfully completed a four year joinery apprenticeship, I thought I knew what an apprentice was: 24 or under, male and working in the construction, engineering or manufacturing sectors.

Not so. During 2016, RoSPA’s National Occupational Safety and Health Committee instigated an inquiry into health and safety arrangements for apprentices. Whilst the increase in the number of opportunities to become an apprentice is welcome, with numbers set to more than triple by 2020. NOSHC considered that this increase could present challenges and no doubt opportunities for risk management and education. We wanted to know what was working well, where the gaps were and what more could be done to improve the health and safety related component of apprenticeships.


21st Century apprentices: Over 25, female and working in the service sector!


Apprenticeships are paid jobs that incorporate both on and off the job training, with the achievement of a nationally recognised qualification on completion. As outlined in the report, before 2004/05 apprenticeships were not available for people over the age of 24. However in each of the past five years the 25+ age group has had the largest number of apprentice starts.

During 2014/15 almost three quarters of all apprentice starts were in three sectors – business, administration and law, health public services and care, or retail and commercial enterprise. 53 per cent of these starts were by women and 47 per cent by men.

A contrasting picture to what was anticipated, this opens up opportunities to connect with people and organisations in a different array of sectors than expected. Taking this into account, our recommendations are applicable across the apprenticeship ‘industry’.


We recognised that effort should be targeted at high risk sectors however there is a real need to provide guidance for organisations offering apprenticeships outwith these sectors.

We need age appropriate health and safety information, as current HSE guidance mainly covers young people and those on work experience rather than apprentices specifically.

We need clear practical advice, written in plain English, on the types and levels of checks that should be carried out by organisations when placing apprentices.

We need to equip young workers with the necessary ‘soft skills’ to assist them to engage around health safety and other topics in the workplace. This needs to start early!

With a steady increase in the number of people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities starting apprenticeships, perhaps we also need to consider targeted and specific health and safety guidance.

With more individuals and organisations having the opportunity to take on apprentices, we need to ask what checks and balances are in place to determine their competency.

The emphasis to date has been on keeping apprentices safe, the conversation about occupational health being muted in comparison. There is an opportunity to engage more broadly about hazard, risk and control as well as the essentials of safe and healthy working, not least as a foundation for further health and safety training if and when they move on to more senior roles.

Given that the number of apprentices is set to triple by 2020 there is a need to ensure that the process involved in bringing an apprentice on board is easy to engage with. Organisations that might not be as adept in health and safety management might shy away from the perceived sea of paperwork and not, as a consequence, gain the benefits that an apprentice can bring to an organisation, as evidenced by those contributing to our inquiry.

Unsurprisingly there is a need to improve signposting to existing advice and to use technology and media to highlight the availability of this information to the apprentices and their employer.

We all benefit from understanding ‘where we fit’ within the health and safety community this report identifies a range of ways we can better connect to apprentices, help them understand occupational health and safety related issues, and where and when to seek assistance.

To link to HSE’s #HelpingGBworkwell, RoSPA is working with organisations who participated in the initial inquiry to articulate how they work with their apprentices and young workers, how they ensure safety and health related messages are communicated and how apprentices and young workers in general are integrated into their workforces.

Watch this space…

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