Health and safety: teaching law, educating for prevention

Author:Carrie de Silva
Position:Rural Land Management, Harper Adams University College, Newport, UK

Purpose – Teaching health and safety law to non-lawyers can involve an unreceptive audience. The author works with prospective rural practice surveyors involved with the two highest risk working environments in the UK: construction and agriculture. Unlike construction, the agricultural industry has failed to reduce annual fatalities in the past quarter century and continues to account for... (see full summary)

1 Introduction – home institution, courses and study

This paper is based on the author's teaching experience on law modules to students of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) accredited rural land/estate management undergraduate and post-graduate courses at Harper Adams University College in rural Shropshire. The institution is located between Birmingham and the Welsh border and was, until 1995, known as the Agricultural College. It was founded in 1901 on the legacy left by Thomas Harper Adams in 1892 ( Williams, 2000 ). The College has a working mixed1 farm of nearly 1,000 acres together with 175 acres of woodland.

It is worthy of note, that the degree course in question has a vocational focus and the vast majority of students (normally well over 90 percent) go into course relevant graduate jobs each year, i.e. as trainee chartered surveyors in rural practice, with the most of the remaining students going into agricultural consultancy, non-rural surveying, farming and just one or two a year going into completely unrelated jobs.

The objective of this study is to reflect on the issues raised by teaching law to non-law students, particularly in the key area of health and safety law, using evidence of student attitudes, understanding and achievement to inform the development of effective pedagogic materials and techniques.

2 The imperative of understanding health and safety law and practice

Health and safety is a subject which should be covered at various points in a land based curriculum, most certainly not just becoming a “tick box” exercise, a symptom of poor practice in the sphere of health and safety which is all too prevalent2. In the undergraduate course it is currently introduced in the first year as one lecture in an introductory law module, supported by a tutorial session and on-line quiz, in the second year in a number of pre-placement briefings and exercises (all students do a mandatory sandwich year) and in the final year in a professional practice module. It is also addressed in a range of practical situations in modules involving, for example, construction, agricultural machinery, livestock and site visits to farms, woodlands and estates.

As an adjunct to the in-house delivery, the Health and Safety Executive, Agriculture Sector, work closely with the institution and give an annual talk and video showing pictures of shocking injuries and even fatalities and some harrowing footage of close relatives of victims discussing the personal and practical cost of serious injury and death, often in the context of a family business. These materials are not replicable and are an invaluable aid to embedding the message of safe working practices and management.

The subject is particularly relevant in the sector involved as in agriculture and related industries (such as forestry) there were 42 fatal injuries in 2010/2011 with a corresponding rate of 8.0 deaths per 100,000 workers, compared to an overall rate across all workers of 0.6 per 100,000. In construction there were 50 fatal injuries, with a rate of 2.4 deaths per 100,000 workers ( Health and Safety Executive, 2011 ). Comparing the figures of 1987/1988 where the rate of deaths per 100,000 was 10.2 in agriculture and 10.7 in construction, although there is improvement, clearly in over 20 years agriculture and the land based sector has not made the strides of other hazardous occupations. This picture is replicated in other western countries3.

An understanding of the need for and content of health and safety teaching has evolved with reference to various sources. Several members of staff are practicing rural chartered surveyors, examiners for the RICS and other relevant bodies such as the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers (CAAV) and the Institute of Chartered Foresters (ICF) and are thus well placed to know what students require in their future working lives, as is vital on vocational courses. Regular liaison, in course development, with practitioners highlights health and safety as being of major importance and a level of competence is mandatory in qualifying as a chartered surveyor ( RICS, 2006 ). The number of workplace fatalities and serious injuries in the past year in rural practice4, with (from industry discussion) an increasing concern in livestock markets, has highlighted the need for an understanding of the legal framework and compliance, for legal and financial reasons and, of course, to protect the health, safety, welfare and possibly, life, of employees and others. As well as the importance of understanding the issues as individual workers, the students will often have responsibility for other staff, premises and contractors at an early stage in their careers.

In developing effective teaching methods and materials, the long term goal is to try impact behaviour ( Gielen and Sleet, 2003 ) in the land based sector. Whether the most effective means of imparting the health and safety message is through ever more straightening legislation and sentencing ( Zimring and Hawkins, 1971 ; Hawkins, 2002 ), through general industry publicity such as the press ( Ozegovic and Voaklander, 2011 ), through behaviour-based management ( Stranks, 2009 ) or through formal, classroom education ( Germeni et al., 2009, 2010 ) such as is under consideration in this paper, is a matter for further research.

This, then, directs thinking very clearly to the purpose of teaching non-law students – not to get students to “think like a lawyer” ( Mertz, 2007 ), but rather to impart practical information directly relevant to their working lives ( Morris, 2010 ). The health and safety curriculum clearly illustrates the interaction of primary law – the legislative framework and a body of cases – with reference of how to comply with that law in terms of practical workplace behaviour, from carrying out risk assessments to the practical matters such as lone workers leaving contact details, location and expected time of return, not carrying out certain animal handling operations unaided, leaving tractors in a safe position, and so forth – good practice as well as an understanding of legal liability.

This emphasis on skills ( Cox, 1992 ) and context ( Saunders and Clarke, 1997 ) rather than purely “knowledge” ( Harris, 1992 ) is, of course, a feature of the law, as well as non-law, curriculum, discussed for decades and encouraged nearly a quarter of a century ago by The Marre Committee Report (1988) . It enables a greater interaction between law and non-law pedagogic literature and lecturers with an inter-disciplinary relevance that was, perhaps, not always the case. The need for context is, then, embedded in course objectives ( Woodcock, 1989 ) with the imperative of carefully considering how the law will impact the working life envisaged by most of the students ( Endeshaw, 2002 ).

Having established that health and safety law needs to be taught for substantive content, to comply with professional and practical needs and, of course, to develop transferable skills beyond the acquisition of core knowledge – what problems have been encountered in attempting to cover this area with non-law students

3 Teaching law to non-lawyers

When teaching law, that there is a difference in learning styles and receptiveness between law students and non-law students has long been acknowledged by researchers ( Twining, 1967 ; Richardson et al., 2009 ). The teaching of law to non-lawyers can involve an unreceptive audience, particularly when the subject is health and safety, based on student perceptions of relevance ( Dobson and Marsh, 2008 ), accessibility and pedagogic issues surrounding delivery.

As prospective rural practice chartered surveyors the students can find “black letter” law dry and demanding see Hutchinson (2005) , for a useful comparative discussion of the legal content of construction and surveying courses across seven institutions). This paper explores the use of court cases to engage student interest, enhance legal skills and underpin wider legal studies and, importantly, to influence behaviour for those with future responsibilities in these areas. The paper also includes responses to preliminary research ascertaining student understanding of the area before and after teaching.

3. 1 Academic range

The course in question involves a wide academic range of students due to the specific professional focus of the course and the limited number of institutions offering a rural practice specialism5. For most UK university courses it would be unusual to have a course with an entry requirement of 280 UCAS points (in 2011/2012) to have applicants with three, or even four A grade A2s. Students also come in with “A level equivalent” qualifications such as BTEC National Diplomas in vocational subjects such as Agriculture or Countryside Management. This...

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