Keeping pupils and staff safe during the school construction process

Keeping pupils and staff safe during the school construction process

by Rob Gordon, Director, Curo Construction

The refurbishment and renovation of a school is preferably done during the school holidays. It limits the impact on day-to-day school operations and supports continuity. However, there are occasions when construction work must be completed during term times. This can bring with it a number of health and safety challenges. Hundreds of students and staff moving around a school whilst contractors are on site can cause hazards, not least during a global pandemic when social distancing measures are enforced.

Prior to the refurbishment of any school, it’s important to determine where responsibilities lie. Any school undergoing construction work will need to meet the requirements of Section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This stipulates that they must keep others, who are not in their employment but who may be affected by their undertaking, safe.

As the work is commissioned by the school, this accountability cannot be delegated to anyone else. It is therefore essential for the school to be able to demonstrate it has done all that is reasonably practicable to fulfil this legal requirement. As the enforcing authority, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) may visit a site where there has been a significant failure, which may lead to prosecution.

Construction works at schools vary from extensions, refurbishments and complete renovations. It is vital that any contractor works closely with headteachers, bursars or other department heads to ensure pupils and school staff aren’t inconvenienced or put in danger. Their safety is paramount. The potential risks include pupils gaining access to construction or maintenance areas, items beings dropped from height, or danger from tripping over rubble, tools or equipment.

Case study: Channing Junior School

We have a long standing relationship with Channing School, Highgate Hill, London. Following the completion of its new state-of-the-art sixth form and sports hall, and then its performing arts building, we were tasked to further upgrade its expanding campus. The expansion would provide the Junior School with new facilities including subterranean changing rooms and shower areas (phase 1), dining hall and kitchen (phase 2), and classrooms and external play areas with integrated landscaping (phase 3). We reduced the ground level by approximately 1.4 metres to create new modern dining facilities, which are situated partly underground. Directly above this on the roof, a glass balustrade features a flat playing surface area for the pupils where various sports and activities can be played.

The school remained live throughout the project so we had to set up extensive separation and management structures to fully manage the segregation of the children which enabled them to safely access all areas of the school. The interior fit-out was also installed to meet the functionality of each area giving careful consideration to the specification of materials which would help meet acoustic and fire requirements.

The construction of each phase came with its own distinct challenges. With deep excavation needed for the subterranean changing rooms, both temporary and permanent support was required to ensure a safe connection into the existing building and to allow for the construction of new classrooms beneath the current school structure.

Faced with a higher-raised pavilion area which was adjacent to the main building, we also excavated underneath the entire structure to increase vital teaching space from four tired classrooms into eight brand new learning facilities along with office space and general amenities. This also wasn’t without challenges. When we began excavating underneath the Victorian School building and removing walls from the inside, we quickly found that the entire elevation of the side of the building was timber and, in some areas, straw, simply because it was so old. This meant our engineers had to remove the entire front facade as part of phase three.

This enabled us to excavate into the back of the building. However, because two heavy duty flanks were supporting the now removed walls, the construction team had to create complex heavy structural engineering facade retention schemes on both sides to hold up both walls. Because space was so tight, we had to commence works starting from the top down because the team simply did not have the space to manoeuvre from the bottom up. This all began at the height of Covid-19 in March 2020 which meant many challenges were faced head-on, such as staff shortages across the supply chain due to national and regional lockdowns.

As 2020 drew to an end, so did our third and final phase at Channing School. It is testament to the entire supply chain, who all undertook the extensive works in under ten months and during unprecedented circumstances, that the children have now completely moved in and are enjoying the new facilities.

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