• First Class Safety

    17 August at 17:57 from atlas

    It's nine o'clock on a chilly June morning at Rotorua Lakes High School.

    The classroom where Pro+Med (NZ) Ltd's instructor, Mark Taylor director of Safety Matters  is about to begin a training course on managing hazards at work has a definite Monday morning atmosphere, with a dozen-and-a-half? 16- and 17-year-olds chatting in a desultory way and looking as though they'd rather be somewhere else.

    When Taylor steps to the front and invites each cluster to choose a team name, the deliberations are slow, with one group finally asking Taylor to do it for them. He opts for the Pros - short for Procrastinators - and the day is under way.

    According to the screen at the front of the room, over the next two days  these young people will be working towards Unit Standards 497, 17593, 17602 and 19522 - qualifications that includes a level 3 standard, and a challenge for students who, for the  most part, are only in Year 12.

    Why do they need this learning? Taylor puts up a graph showing workplace injury rates by age, with a blunt explanation: "You guys are the most at risk. You probably came here today for credits, but I came here to impart some knowledge so you don't get hurt at work."

    He's been teaching OHS in schools for five years now and, after working with some 10,000 students in 140 schools, knows his audience well. The promise of competitive, interactive games - with a chocolate bar for the winning team - gets everyone fired up and focused.

    Teams that only minutes ago struggled to choose their names are now vying to answer questions, and displaying a surprisingly keen interest in the subject matter.

    Taylor, who co-developed and is an instructor for Timaru-based private training establishment Pro+Med (NZ) Ltd, has a background in construction industry health and safety.

    In 2009, with his role as Safety Manager on the Tauranga harbour bridge project winding up, his employer wanted him back in Auckland. He was reluctant to go and was looking to find work in the area when by chance he found out that a local school was looking for a generic course to prepare pupils for work placements, he drafted up a standard course, sent out a flyer, and within a few weeks had six months work.

    He attributes his subsequent success in this role to his use of an incremental learning model.

    "It's about balancing a need for compliance with a desire to foster curiosity through creative, progressive learning.

    "Fun is the best way to learn, so all our courses are centred around the students having fun, while at the same time being challenged to solve problems as a group, and to justify their answers using the incremental knowledge gained throughout the day."

    Assessments are interspersed across the programme, so students process information soon after it is received.

    They get one chance to correct any wrong answers, but those who get more than two things wrong on their second attempt will lose credits. The pass rate is high, however, with the majority of pupils achieving all 15 credits.

    Most of the students here today are in the Gateway programme, a vocational training scheme funded by the Tertiary Education Commission, which provides practical work experience and job skills for secondary pupils planning to enter the trades.  At Lakes High, however, anyone from the senior school can attend Pro+Med's course, provided it does not interfere with core subject assessments.

    As a result courses are usually over-subscribed, says Gateway coordinator Tups Wright. She would like to see all the school's 700 pupils do the training, both for their own sake and that of their future employers.

    "It should be compulsory for all students," she says. "I do at least 100 work placements for Gateway pupils every year, and businesses are delighted if the students have gone through this course because, with an awareness of health and safety, they're more valuable to have on board. 

    "It's good for their own safety too - sometimes teenagers aren't as safe as they could be, so if we can teach them to stop and think for half a second before they do something we'll have got it right."

    The demands of other course work make it very difficult  for students from the more academic streams to attend Pro+Med's courses, but Wright is proud of the fact that two former students, now beginning medical degrees at Otago University, attended the training last year.  

    Principal Bruce Walker agrees that the course offers something for everyone, and hopes to bring Taylor back during school holidays next year, to solve the classroom clashes that currently exclude high-achieving students.

    "This course gives skills that they will use for the rest of their lives," Walker says. "Most of the kids here have part time jobs so they need this training now, but the skills are also transferrable for life, regardless of what jobs or industries they go into.

    "It's not just for employees either. These skills are just as useful to those who graduate and go into businesses as managers."

    This year, for the first time, the school specifically invited Year 11 students to participate in the course, to give them an understanding of OHS at an early stage.

    "With Year 11s you're generally looking at level 1 credits, so it was almost punching above their weight, but we got a very good pass rate," Wright says.

    What does Taylor do to get such good buy-in from a demographic for whom "safety" can often be regarded as a dirty word? The day starts with a video which graphically re-enacts a series of horrific workplace accidents involving teenage workers.

    "We've had a few people faint watching this video over five years," he warns. "If you don't like blood and gore, look away."

    The blood may be fake, but the teenagers, talking from their wheelchairs or hospital beds, are real enough, and Taylor capitalises on the shock factor by telling his audience that they, as New Zealanders, are several times more likely to be injured on the job than their counterparts in other parts of the developed world.

    "Our accident records are pretty poor, but we're trying to uplift safety in New Zealand, and one way we can do it through you guys speaking up."

    It sounds like a bold claim, but Taylor has the evidence to show the courses do make a difference.

    "The anecdotal feedback is great. We've had a student who formed a safety rep roster for spotting hazards at school, others who have refused to use unguarded machinery in their jobs, and even one who saved a life using basic first aid skills from one of Pro+Med's courses."

    With 15 credits to be covered in two days, Taylor makes sure every second counts. Between games - which introduce core OHS skills, like hazard identification, risk assessment and devising optimal, and often creative, hazard controls - he offers a wealth of practical advice. It's the law in a nutshell, but coached in doable terms - make sure the gear you're using has a safety standard mark, look for better ways to do things that will avoid hazards,  remember that bad decisions can have really bad consequences, so think before you act.

    He explains the obligations their bosses have to keep them safe, but reminds them that they too have responsibilities."Follow the procedures you've been given - as long as you feel they're right. If you think you can improve them, speak up. And notify hazards - if you walk by a hazard and someone else has an accident you could be vicariously liable."

    The right to refuse unsafe work is a big one, and Taylor talks the class through some scenarios to show them how it can be done. "How are you going to approach your bosses? You don't want to alienate them, so start off nicely. 'Please can you help me...'

    "If that doesn't work go to step two and be a bit more forceful. The law gives you this right, and the law is powerful."

    By the morning tea break, with the teams almost level pegging on the scoreboard, and work underway on the first set of assessments, how are students feeling about what, for most of them, has been their first formal introduction to OHS?

    There's general agreement that it's all been pretty good so far, and they've learnt things they didn't previously know.

    Shellees (16), who has a one-day a week placement in a childcare centre, has had OHS training before, at McDonalds, but says today's course has given her new insights.

    "I knew before that I could say no [to unsafe work], but didn't feel comfortable to do it. I'm more confident about it now."

    Jordan (16) has had a bit of on-the-job OHS instruction during his placement in the school's engineering shop, but he's happy to be picking up some more cohesive knowledge.

    "It's good to know all this stuff. Health and safety is important because getting hurt sucks."

    The programme for the rest of the course is jam-packed. Students will conduct a hazard inspection in the school workshop, put together a hazard register based on their own job placements, take part in a fire drill, discuss incident investigations, prepare job safety analyses, again using their personal work experience, and, finally, compose and video a safety song or rap for a nationwide competition.

    It sounds like a nice way to wind up the course, but whatever the outcome of the contest, you get the feeling that what these young people are learning today will, in time to come, make them all winners.

    JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM - Safeguard Magazine