My State:
September 23, 2016
School leaders share valuable safety lessons

When you think of hazardous work, thoughts turn to manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and construction. Jokes about paper cuts notwithstanding, the typical school seems relatively free of risk compared to these environments, right? Maybe not.

This Compliance Report examines hazards and solutions in educational workplaces. Read about a digital training system that’s getting high marks from school districts. And get details about a bold new initiative to improve safety on college campuses across the country.

Risk 101

What risks threaten employee well-being and spike workers’ comp and medical costs? The following job hazards in educational settings were identified by California’s School Action for Safety and Health Program (

  • Slips and falls. Culprits include slippery surfaces; standing on a chair or desk instead of a ladder; and indoor and outdoor slips, trips, and falls.
  • Ergonomic hazards. Sprains, strains, and other injuries are a possibility when personnel lift heavy objects, remain on their feet for long periods, and move students with physical disabilities.
  • Infectious diseases. Science teachers, lab employees, nurses, food service workers, and preschool teachers who help in the bathroom are among those potentially exposed to disease-causing viruses and bacteria.
  • Violence and aggressive student behavior. About three-quarters of public schools experience one or more violent incidents each year. Teachers and staff have relatively high rates of workplace assault. Special education staff members may be at risk of aggressive student behaviors like biting and hitting. 
  • Stress. Overcrowded classrooms, disruptive students, work pressure, angry parents, and budget cuts can all contribute to stress.
  • Poor indoor air quality. Educators and other employees spend long hours indoors. The lack of fresh air, poor ventilation, and the presence of mold and bacteria can all contribute to poor air quality. Temporary buildings made with pressed wood may release formaldehyde.
  • Chemical exposure. Cleaning products, pesticides, and asbestos in older buildings can be harmful.

Digital risk management

Tom Strasburger notes a growing awareness of the risks in school settings and, importantly, the cost of inaction. Strasburger is vice president of PublicSchoolWORKS (PSW), a provider of online safety and regulatory compliance programs for K–12 schools. The system is built around automated, Web-based software tools that send out reminders, track required training, and deliver the training modules.

“We offer a risk management solution to school safety issues,” Strasburger explains. “We’re implementing programs and using automation to help districts not only sustain compliance, but to build sustainable programs.” One of the challenges with schools is that they are driven toward compliance rather than toward safety, an essential distinction for Strasburger.
Safety is not just about meeting regulatory requirements, he says, but also about infusing safety into a school’s culture by delivering training that’s timely and specific to the needs and risks. Beyond recording an injury sustained by a teacher who slipped in an icy parking lot, the focus must be on steps to reduce the chance that something similar will happen again.

PSW offers a customizable risk management system that informs personnel by e-mail when they are due to take a particular training course and delivers it to them in a digital format. School employees and students use it to report an injury or unsafe conditions. The reports trigger immediate notification of individuals authorized to take action. In the past, incident reporting was manual and, as a result, slow.

It’s working in Wayzata

The program was introduced in the Wayzata, Minnesota, public schools in 2015. The district has about 11,000 students and 1,500 employees. Jim Westrum, a certified school risk manager, is executive director of Finance and Business for the district.

Most school districts direct limited resources to the classroom to the extent possible, says Westrum. “Our core function is student achievement and educating students in the community. What typically happens is that because risk management is not part of our core mission, it is sometimes not given the attention it should. No school district intends to overlook risks, but until they have a defining incident it may not be a top priority.” [Nice pull quote if you’re looking for one.]

To understand the need for risk management in schools, Westrum says you must think beyond the classroom. For example, the Wayzata district runs the largest food service operation and has the largest transportation fleet in the county.

PSW has proven successful in meeting the need for risk management, he says. One factor in that success is that all students and personnel have a digital device and an e-mail address. “The system does all the recordkeeping and notifications and calculates all required training. People take the training online and there is a testing process to validate that they did it.” Westrum likes the system’s built-in accountability. If, after a second notice, an employee does not complete the training, a supervisor receives an e-mail.

5 steps to a culture of safety

A new document with recommendations to improve lab safety on campuses, A Guide to Implementing a Safety Culture in Our Universities, identifies five values essential for a culture of safety.

  1. Safety is everyone’s responsibility. A safe campus environment is a right of employment for all categories of employees. A safe campus learning environment is a right of all involved in education and research.
  2. Good science is safe science. Safety is a critical component of scholarly excellence and responsible conduct of research.
  3. Safety training and safety education are essential elements of research and education. They instill a culture of safety in the next generation of researchers and future faculty, and they are important for our students’ career development and employability.
  4. An improved culture of safety is necessary to truly reduce risk throughout the academic enterprise.
  5. It is best to recognize that diverse methods and flexible approaches will be used by each institution to develop a strong culture of safety, unique to its situation.

The Wayzata schools chose a number of existing training modules and added others specific to the district. Custom additions might address topics like active shooter scenarios, bullying prevention, and crisis response. Westrum believes PSW is helping to create a culture of safety that goes beyond requirements to address safety.

Case in point: On the first day of school for teachers this year, the superintendent greeted everyone, welcomed them back, and reminded them to check their devices for safety training reminders. He also encouraged the teachers, who were busily decorating their rooms, to make sure to use stepladders rather than chairs to reach those bulletin boards and high spaces.

Safety goes to college

In early 2009, a young research associate at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) died as a result of an experiment involving a chemical known to ignite spontaneously. Several other high-profile incidents followed, which focused attention on lab safety across the country. The incidents also generated a number of reports about how to make labs less dangerous places in which to work.

The fallout from those incidents hasn’t been just talk and documents. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and several partners created a Task Force on Laboratory Safety to provide research universities with recommendation and guidance. Mark McLellan, PhD, vice president for Research at Utah State University (USU), cochaired the task force.

“One of the things that was top of mind for me was that this was not going to be just another report. We had to drive change. Many of the prior reports were excellent, but what they failed to deliver was real marching orders to universities.”

McLellan and his colleagues were also keenly aware of the fact that campuses can be very different from one another in their operating style and the types of work and risk they conduct. “I wanted the document to be highly customizable so that any one university could grab out of the tool box what they needed to work on and go from there.”

In April 2016, the task force published A Guide to Implementing a Safety Culture in Our Universities ( The guide takes a practical approach to lab safety and is structured around 20 recommendations, each fully documented and focusing on best practices. While the content is oriented to universities, you might be surprised to see how closely they align with other types of workplaces.

The 20 are edited as follows. The first two are for top leaders, such as the president or chancellor. The others are assigned to other participants in the process:

  • Review the commitment to improve the culture of safety.
  • Designate a campus lead and leadership team to begin the process.
  • Conduct campus dialogues with stakeholders to develop a shared vision of safety.
  • Develop effective safety policies, procedures, and management systems and necessary resources, as well as recognition and reward systems.
  • Clearly articulate the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders.
  • Embed safety communication in laboratories, classes, departments, and throughout the campus.
  • Work with faculty to create a trusting and safe culture.
  • Develop a risk assessment process for laboratory safety that is integral to all activities in the lab or in the field.
  • Establish a unified administrative reporting model that connects responsibility for development and implementation of academic safety policies.
  • Empower students and staff to voice safety questions and concerns.
  • Work to strengthen collegial and collaborative relationships between faculty and environment, health, and safety (EHS) staff.
  • Enhance working relationships with first responders.
  • Implement routine hazard analyses, and include them in undergraduate and graduate education, proposals, and designs for experiments.
  • Implement a process to report incidents and near misses.
  • Provide laboratory safety education and training for students, faculty, EHS staff, and department heads.
  • Ensure that undergraduate and graduate science curricula include an emphasis on safe practices.
  • Conduct self-assessment and benchmarking.
  • Develop a continuous improvement system that provides feedback, reassessment, and ongoing training and learning opportunities.
  • Develop a system of accountability.
  • Promote partnerships that allow academic researchers to learn from strong, well-developed safety cultures in industrial and government labs.

Bringing the lessons home

Safety group addresses campus concerns

College and university safety professionals share best practices and resources through the Campus Safety, Health, and Environmental Management Association (CSHEMA). The association’s roots are in higher education, but it is expanding to include campus-style workplaces, including Google.

CSHEMA Executive Director Jack Voorhees says campuses provide some unique safety challenges, including the fact that many faculty members are used to doing things a particular way and may not be open to new methods. Also, every semester sees a new crop of students and assistants who need training, especially in labs and in other hands-on learning environments.

Rather than narrowly focusing on compliance, CSHEMA is encouraging members to create a positive safety climate. That means engaging employees at all levels, with an emphasis on personal responsibility.

The association offers members services that include meetings and conferences, online learning programs, networking, benchmarking, and an annual recognition program. CSHEMA has identified 18 communities of practice to reflect the diverse needs of its members. Among them are lab safety, radiation safety, facilities management, and industrial hygiene. Voorhees welcomes inquiries about the association at

McLellan’s safety duties did not end, even after the APLU guide was published. He asked the president of USU if he could embark on an initiative to improve overall safety, not just in labs but everywhere on the USU campus.

Says McLellan, “We had a 1997 safety policy that was largely out of date, tired, and not particularly effective.” As a result of court cases that arose from the UCLA incident and others, the USU initiative focused on personal accountability, which became the cornerstone of the new policy.

The policy sets the tone for a wide and deep approach to safety. It reads, in part: “The University takes safety extremely seriously and will work diligently to provide the necessary safeguards required to assure the safety and health of employees, students, and the public, as well as facilities, equipment, and other property. These programs strive to continuously reduce worker risk and improve the prevention of illnesses and injuries in all work environments including but not limited to offices, laboratories, farms and field sites, and driving for work.”  

The policy goes on to address standards, safety committees, and task-specific requirements. It also establishes the role of the university’s EHS division to monitor compliance, evaluate potential health hazards, and investigate accidents and injuries. While the focus is on a collaborative rather than top-down approach, EHS does have full authority to require a cease and desist for any activity that puts life or limb at risk.

The personal accountability theme plays out in many ways. One is a requirement that department heads enter into a discussion with faculty members regarding safety as part of their annual review. The policy also gave rise to a multilayered safety organization and committee structure. Every unit—from a large academic department to a carpentry shop—must have a safety committee or leader. That representative has a seat at the next-level committee, all the way up to the highest levels of administration. Says McLellan, “For the first time we have a regimented representative system that can carry concerns and guidance and new policies up and down.”

Initially, some faculty members questioned their role in the safety improvement initiative. But efforts by McLellan and others to explain paid off. McLellan recalls one conversation with a group of social scientists who didn’t see how safety applied to their work and teaching. “I asked them to tell me about their courses and one professor, a social worker, told me about bringing his graduate students to the county jail. I asked if he ever talked with them about how to conduct themselves at the jail, which is not necessarily a safe place, and he said, ‘Oh, yes, now I see your point.’”

McLellan developed a standard response for the doubters. “If you are responsible for an area you must do three things. First, assess and know the hazards in that area. Two, you must be responsible for training anyone who comes into that area about the hazards, and, three, you must record the training.” Individual departments are responding favorably to the new policy, and many have launched their own initiatives. An example is under way on new safety guides for researchers who take employees or students into the field.

For McLellan, the pursuit of safety has become something of a calling. He has distinguished himself nationally through his leadership on the APLU guide and on his home campus by shepherding the overhaul of the USU policy and program. The passion is personal, he explains, recalling several accidents on campuses where he’s worked over the years.

To those trying to raise the bar on safety on their campus or in their business, he counsels patience. “It’s not going to happen fast. You really have to drive that change in culture.”

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