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Employer Engagement and Vetting – changes for better or worse!

Just 14 years ago an unprecedented number of learners lost their lives in workplaces whilst on a work placement or benefiting from funded training whilst employed status. Schools, colleges and independent providers were, as a result of the LSC’s new approach, offered a braces and belt approach to the ‘lessons learned’ from those accidents and entered a new era of arrangements and requirements targeted at employer health and safety vetting and monitoring processes.

As well intentioned as this was, and effective through its approach to reducing workplace deaths, it started a process whereby providers took their eye off the ball with regard to what their role responsibility was and still is –

To match and prepare learners for the work placement, and for work activities without the emphasis that this is dependent on a health and safety check in isolation.
To check and understand what learning will take place in the workplace.
To evaluate as a result of the previous point the hazards and risks that may arise from those activities, in particular prohibitions if necessary.
To identify the provision of competent supervision for the learner as well as suitable cover.
To identify that the employer recognises its responsibility to manage the health and safety of the learner.
To note the presence of sufficient and suitable insurance cover.
To note that the employer recognises and will provide induction and training to the learner commensurate with the requirements of the work activities and associated hazards and risks.
To monitor the progress of the learner in the workplace and that the planned learning activities continue to happen in a safe environment.
To ensure learners understand their responsibilities to co-operate and communicate as appropriate regarding their safe working arrangements.
Whilst many providers today would not argue against these statements, delivery of this model has become confused. In a changing context, with an emphasis on increasing both the quantity and quality of vocational work placements, this over-bureaucratic approach, with detail-laden checks driven through the initial HASPs, may be counter-productive. These checks take little account of the learning activity as they are, with little exception, a check purely on the employer and their health and safety provision, not on the learner or learner activity. Providers need to ensure a tangible relationship between the learner, the employer and themselves to ensure effective matching and securing beneficial work experience (s). The current system delivers little more than a one-off process check.

Further issues with the system as it was introduced and still to a large part exists are:

A well-intentioned but potentially misleading attempt by providers to ‘advise’ employers on their responsibilities.
Ignorance by the provider of their responsibilities, their duty of care, and the competence of their staff (to undertake checks of any sort)
Providers vetting staff adopting a ‘doctor’s receptionist approach’, diagnosing the employer’s ‘condition’, accepting or rejecting based on insufficient detail.
A risk that, by examining employer’s duties’ in detail, they acquire ‘guilty knowledge’ and/or extend their own civil law ‘duty of care’ inappropriately.
14 years ago, the LSC developed an approach that had a dramatic effect in improving learner safety. It was backed up by a desire to develop a competence level to underpin the process, as providers, TECs and LSCs themselves undertook training to vocational standards. This did not last however, and many employers today face providers’ staff armed with a script (the HASP form) asking questions they do not understand and which are in some cases out of date, interpreting the answers through a finger in the air system (met, not met, part met as an example), then offering advice and guidance based around a prescriptive action plan.

The changes 14 years ago went a long way to reducing learner deaths. The recent changes instigated by DfE and HSE following the Wolf Report and in the light of the Government’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’ have set out expectations for a new, lighter-touch framework without explicitly requiring providers to ditch existing paperwork systems. This has arguably left the system somewhat confused.

The lack of competence, a fit-for-purpose system and a lack of management and leadership weakens the provider and leaves them vulnerable to claims against them. No insurer would see this as satisfactory if required to defend their client’s practices.

The system of 14 years ago had its faults, and was only as effective as the people who operated and managed it. In whatever guise it remains, it will not protect learners as the support and direction at all levels falls off. Learners have died and will continue to do so, and the systems and procedures governing their safety will be examined.

The challenge for the SFA now, along with HSE and DfE, is to decide whether to continue to allow the system to die a painful death, or to take a degree of responsibility on board and cure it or put it to sleep forever.

Tudor R Williams CMIOSH; Dip RSA

November 2014.

DTD Training is grateful to Jeremy Bevan, Policy Advisor, Vulnerable n Team from the HSE for his input and review of this document and for its consideration to the wider discussion of guidance to, and the approach needed by all concerned with the safety and well being of the learner in the workplace.


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