Schools need a Safety Culture

17 Oct


Thursday, 03 October 2013 | Meeta W Sengupta | in Oped

There must be sensible processes that allow people to concentrate on value-added work without having to look over the shoulder for all manners of crises

We stop noticing things that we see everyday. That can be the only explanation for the pathetic lack of safety awareness in most of our schools, both public and private. That the safety of the children of the nation is not a priority is evidenced clearly by the number of accidents that have happened in school buses, within school premises and during school timings. The worst of these were caused by mid-day meals — not just the cases of multiple deaths due to the consumption of contaminated food, but also instances of children falling into vats of hot food and dying. These are as shocking as they are unbelievable. They highlight so many things going wrong — all to do with simple safety norms. The children were jostling. True, India is a poor country, or at least a country with many poor children who are hungry at the time of the mid-day meal. But jostling is a sign that there is no discipline. Also, the positioning of the vat of food, so that it was accessible to children, and the fact that there was no lid, were all avoidable mistakes. Had any attention had been paid to safety processes, this accident would never have happened.

The callousness is there for all to see. Wires hanging where they should not be, if they are not bunched up in a dangerous cluster; Some do spark. Often, electric wires and switches are embedded in damp walls. Railings and gates, if they exist, will have bits of metal jutting out. School buses almost certainly will have dangerous pieces of metal that can cut through skin. While we may joke about how this makes children more alert to the dangers in the world, it is true that we are placing them in danger each time they use these services.

Safety consciousness can be taught. It is a skill that needs to be a habit. But years of public service advertisements have still not been able to incorporate it into our daily lives. It is time to bring it into our schools. Building safe environments needs to be part of our daily processes. This means that schools must be able to identify problems in and around their premises and at regular intervals. First, one must know what to look for — if one is used to walking over cracked pavements, one may even forget to put it in the list of things to fix. No, it is not enough that the pavement exists — it has to be made good to ensure nobody slip or hurt themselves around it. This must be followed with good processes to ensure that students are safe — in queueing up (do they do that anymore?), in climbing stairs, and even in play. This comes through training and reinforcement. And often shows in little habits, such as the habit of finishing what you started, the habit of leaving a room tidy and the habit of not damaging public property.

Safe habits and attitudes need to be inculcated in virtual spaces too. Most progressive schools have information and communication technology as part of their curriculum. With the national broadband programme in place, even remote schools in deprived areas will be connected in a few years. More children will be going online looking for information, signing up to educative websites, writing assignments collaboratively across the world and creating their digital footprint. They need to know how to keep themselves safe in this world that will be a part of their lives but largely unseen and unverified. Good safety habits will be as essential to survival, if not more than they are now.


Both in the virtual and the real world, safety is about having sensible processes that allow people to carry on with value-added work without losing time and energy in managing avoidable crises. Safety is not just for the rich and elite. Strong safety protocols is what makes them the elite, since they can concentrate on higher-order, value-added learning. Staying safe is not a large investment, but the returns, in terms of better public well-being, are huge. It is time to inculcate safety into the school curricula to grow a generation with a strong safety culture.


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