If you’ve experienced an injury at school or a similar educational environment, you may have certain questions in mind regarding your school or employer’s responsibilities and whether you are eligible to make a claim * against them. On this page you will find some general guidance relating to typical injuries sustained in an education setting.
Instigating a claim for negligence
The first thing to be said is that accidents at work involving teachers employed in an educational environment are not really any different to a work accident in any other setting.
The Education Acts are primarily concerned with the provision of education and aren’t intended to give any specific statutory rights for teachers in the context of workplace accidents.
While there is a much higher onus on a student who gets injured to show that there was negligence or breach of duty, with a teacher, they enjoy the same standard of care as any employee in the workplace. The legal principles involved include the general common law of negligence and health and safety legislation.
High Risk Areas
In the case of high risk areas, considerations will include whether or not there were appropriate safety mechanism in place, whether or not the machinery should have had safety bars on it and that kind of thing. Obvious examples would include:
- Woodwork, metalwork, construction or engineering studies, where power tools, saws, drills, lathes etc. may be used, suitable safety equipment should be provided along with the necessary resources to ensure proper supervision of students while equipment is being used.
- Science laboratories where dangerous, hazardous, flammable or explosive materials or equipment are handled on a regular basis.
- Domestic science where boiling water, hot oil, hot pans and naked flames are being used in a classroom setting.
- Trip hazards created by obstacles left in inappropriate locations by unsupervised students or due to overcrowding etc., e.g. schools bags, instruments or equipment left lying around in a busy school corridor or assembly hall.
For instance, a metalwork teacher being required to operate inherently dangerous machinery while simultaneously being required to oversee a classroom full of children would be faced with a completely unreasonable task when expected to do both at the same time. Children, through no malice, are likely to be curious, even in the absence of entirely foreseeable horseplay, and may overstep safety lines and cause distraction and accidents leading to serious injury. Even if it would have been reasonable for the teacher to be expected to use the machine in question with appropriate safety equipment and systems, the fact that she was supposed to do so simultaneously with the supervision of children in the classroom would create a completely unsafe system of work that would be likely to result in her employer being found liable for any injury suffered as a result.
In assessing liability for trips and falls in a classroom setting you would need to consider whether a risk assessment had been carried out to assess the likelihood of students leaving trip hazards lying about, whether students were provided with clear guidance and instruction on the appropriate location to store their books and equipment, and that a proper safe system of management of bags and books was put in place pursuant to that risk assessment so that there weren’t obstacles and traps in the way of the teacher when he or she was walking through the classroom.
In the context of assaults by students on teachers one would have to consider whether such an event was foreseeable by the school management. For instance, if a student with special needs who had a propensity for violent outbursts was not provided with appropriate special needs assistance and assaulted a teacher as a result, that may well have been entirely foreseeable and would give rise to liability for the school management. On the other hand, if you have a situation where a student with no known history of this type of behaviour suddenly lashes out and strikes his teacher causing injuries, whether or not the school would be liable would be questionable. While obviously there would be great sympathy for anyone assaulted in the work environment, in order for there to be legal liability for an accident in the workplace there would have to have been reasonable foreseeability.
Similarly, in the context of horseplay and unruly behaviour by students you would have to look at whether or not there was a culture or a pattern of such behaviour that the school management would be deemed to have been on notice of and should have actually stamped out. The question of staffing levels would also need to be considered, whether or not there were enough people supervising that number of students.
Even where a student has no known tendency towards violence, meaning that the attack is completely “out of the blue”, if a teacher has been forced to oversee more children than is reasonable due to a lack of resources, there would certainly be a strong argument that the incident could have been avoided if the teacher was not placed in this hazardous and entirely unfair situation.
It should be borne in mind that teachers are not the only employees working in an educational setting, the same principles would apply to maintenance staff, administration and office staff, cleaning and janitorial staff.
Of course bullying in a school context is not always confined to students. Teaching or other staff may be subjected to workplace bullying, either in the classroom or in the staff room. For example, if an individual has too many students in a classroom and they’re getting poked fun at or bullied by the pupils and cannot keep control of them as a consequence, if the management does not intervene there may well be a very strong argument for saying that it was an unsafe system in place at work and that management should have intervened by either reprimanding the students and properly disciplining them, breaking up any groups of students who are particularly problematic when setting close to one another, or reducing class sizes, etc.
Prejudice to Employment and Advancement Prospects
It is also critically important to be clear that a decision to pursue a claim for personal injury arising from an incident in the workplace should never be allowed to prejudice the claimant’s employment prospects. If management were to discriminate against an employee for having taken a claim and deciding on advancement or allocation of permanent positions etc. on the basis that that individual had simply exercised their lawful entitlement to be compensated for an accident at work which has caused them injury, this would be completely unlawful from an employment law perspective.
If somebody has a situation where there are ongoing difficulties in a workplace setting it would be wise for them to bring it to the attention of their union and to have any ongoing instances documented, particularly if you have a situation where it is being claimed that one is being unduly stressed in the classroom or some similar scenario where ongoing behaviour or treatment is affecting them. Having a paper trail in such circumstances would be important.
A teacher can not be prejudiced one way or another in the context of bringing a claim for an accident at work on the basis of whether or not they had consulted or involved their union. However, if they were experiencing an ongoing problem and were able to show that they had brought it to the attention of their employer, the involvement of a union representative may be helpful in documenting and proving the fact that this was done and was not responded to, either adequately or at all.
About McCarthy + Co
With more than 30 years of experience in dealing with personal injury claims *, McCarthy + Co. has expertise in a wide variety of fields including workplace accidents in an education setting. We are a family-run business, who pride ourselves on offering honest, impartial and helpful advice.
Our offices are based in Dublin and Cork but we have worked with clients throughout Ireland in locations ranging from Galway to Waterford. If you have experienced an injury at school or in another educational setting, you can count on us for legal advice, guidance and assistance to pursue your claim *.
If you are an education services worker, or you have been affected by the actions of a worker, get in contact with our personal injury solicitors today to make a start on your claim * or gather more information. Call us on 1800 390 555 and an experienced member of staff will discuss your situation and potential next steps. You can also email on firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get back to you as soon as we can.
*In contentious business, a solicitor may not calculate fees or other charges as a percentage or proportion of any award or settlement.