This joint unions advice is for staff working in school and colleges who are medically vulnerable or otherwise at higher risk from Covid-19, or who live with or care for such people.
This NEU guidance highlights the health and safety issues which relate to the safe preparation of food in schools. It covers a range of issues which need to be addressed when carrying out risk assessments and writing safety policies for food preparation areas.
The legal framework
There are many laws and regulations concerning the preparation and serving of foods. The Food Safety Act 1990, and subsequent regulations, covers all the operations involved in selling, possessing for sale, delivering, preparing, labelling, storing, importing and exporting food. Under this Act, it is an offence to sell any food which fails to meet safety requirements. Enforcement officers, e.g. environmental health officers, have powers to inspect premises, check hygiene practices and the quality of food offered, detain or seize suspect food and ask a justice of the peace (JP) to condemn it. If food is found to be suspect, they can issue various forms of improvement or enforcement notices/orders, and offenders can be prosecuted and awarded penalties by the courts which include both fines and custodial sentences. Compensation may also be payable to injured parties.
The main offences are:
- selling, or possessing for sale, food which does not comply with food safety requirements
- rendering food injurious to health
- selling, to the purchaser's prejudice, food which is not of the nature or substance or quality demanded
- falsely or misleadingly describing or presenting food.
School kitchens are clearly covered by this legislation. However, the Act does not cover food prepared in the home for domestic purposes, and it is generally accepted that school food technology rooms producing food for personal or home consumption are similarly exempt.
It should be noted, however, that the definition of ‘selling’ food under the Act includes the supply of food provided it is in the course of a business, whether for profit or not, for example:
- food given as prizes in competitions
- food regularly made and sold for fundraising
- food prepared for school events, even where it is given and not sold
- any sort of ‘enterprise’ activities
- food prepared for school visits, residential activities etc
- production of tuck shop food
- storage/sale of food ingredients for classroom use.
Activities covered by the Food Safety Act would also be required to comply with specific food regulations, such as the Food Hygiene (Amendment) Regulations 1990, the Food Labelling (Amendment) Regulations 1990 and the Food Premises (Registration) Regulations 1991.
Other relevant legislation
The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 impose general duties on employers to ensure the health and safety of employees and others. In addition, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 give rise to specific requirements in relation to standards for hygiene and cleanliness in areas where food is prepared and eaten.
Employers must also comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations. This means that they must carry out an assessment of all substances hazardous to health, then remove them or provide appropriate control measures so that they do not pose a risk. In the context of food safety, bacterial and/or viral agents could certainly be considered as ‘substances hazardous to health’. Further examples would include: detergents, disinfectants, cleaning materials, chemicals used in food tests, yeasts and yoghurt bacteria.
Furthermore, the Provision and Use of Equipment Regulations 1992 place a duty on employers to ensure that work equipment is appropriate for its intended use, safe, and adequately maintained. A number of items of equipment used in school kitchen areas or food technology rooms pose potential risks to users, who should have received appropriate information and training at the outset. Pressure cookers are subject to specific regulations, namely the Pressure Systems and Transportable Gas Containers Regulations 1988, which contain requirements on inspection, servicing and maintenance.
Under the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998, gas appliances should be properly installed by someone registered with the Gas Safe Register. They should also be fully serviced by a Gas Safe registered engineer, and should be sited where there is adequate ventilation. It is unlawful to use any gas appliance which is known, or suspected, to be unsafe.
Further regulations which have a bearing on food preparation in schools are:
- The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 – these require employers to notify the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) immediately in the event of an accident resulting in death, major injury or injury causing absence from work for more than seven days
- The Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 – these involve the safe installation and maintenance of electrical equipment to prevent risk of electric shock, burn or fire/explosion from electricity. Note: in addition to the provisions of these regulations, microwave ovens should be tested every six months for microwave radiation leakage and other hazards
- The Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981, which place a duty on employers to provide adequate first aid arrangements in the workplace
- The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 – these cover all manual handling operations which may cause injury in the workplace, and how to address such risks through risk assessments and suitable control measures
- The Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977, which provide for the appointment and functions of safety representatives from recognised trade unions, setting out the employer’s obligations to them, and the circumstances in which safety committees must be established
Food hygiene is an important aspect of the control of communicable diseases, and as such affects everyone in the school community.
Inadequate awareness of good hygiene practice in the preparation of food can lead to the spread of a number of diseases, predominantly the various types of food poisoning. Diseases such as salmonella, E coli, campylobacter and dysentery can be extremely unpleasant, producing symptoms ranging from headaches and stomach cramps through to fever, diarrhoea and vomiting. In some cases infectious agents can remain in the body for several weeks after the symptoms have disappeared, posing a continuing risk of spreading the infection further unless scrupulous hygiene standards are maintained.
Food poisoning occurs when food contaminated with sufficiently high numbers of bacteria, viruses, other organisms or chemicals is consumed. Most food poisoning is caused by bacterial contamination. The bacteria can come from a variety of sources, including people, raw food and pests such as flies, rats, mice and cockroaches. Food poisoning bacteria can also be found in dirt and dust.
The main causes of food poisoning are:
- lack of hygiene in the storage, preparation or handling of food
- poor personal hygiene/food handlers carrying infections
- preparing food in advance and then keeping it at room temperature. If food is cooked on the premises, it should be cooled at room temperature for no more than 90 minutes and then chilled below 8ºC
- under-cooking or not reheating food to high enough temperatures
- cross-contamination from raw food to cooked food
- failure to keep hot food above 63ºC, allowing the multiplication of any bacteria not destroyed in the cooking process
- storing high-risk ready meals in fridges above 8ºC.
Food poisoning is a notifiable disease under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. It is the responsibility of the doctor who makes the diagnosis of any notifiable infectious disease to notify the ‘proper office’ in their authority. The proper office is likely to be either the local consultant in communicable disease control (CCDC) or a senior environmental health officer. Where an outbreak of food poisoning affects a school community, the head teacher should therefore seek appropriate advice.
More information on notifiable diseases is available on the Public Health England.
Settings in which food is prepared and served within schools
Food is prepared and/or served in a range of contexts within schools, including:
- teaching areas, e.g. food technology classrooms
- snack bars and tuck shop
- areas where packed lunches are consumed by pupils or staff
- staff rooms
- food prepared outside school but eaten on school premises
- school visits and field trips.
Teaching activities involving food
The following notes apply to any school setting in which pupils/teachers are engaged in a food-related activity.
Areas of a school where food is prepared, such as food technology classrooms, pose a range of specific safety hazards in addition to those connected with food safety and hygiene. For example, electrical appliances can cause electric shock or fire, trailing cables can create a tripping hazard, gas can cause an explosion and contact with knives can cause injuries. For a detailed checklist of safety measures which should be in place in any food preparation area, see Appendix 1.
Health and safety policies
Anyone involved in the delivery of such lessons should ensure that they consult and adhere to their employer’s health and safety policy, which they are legally required to have. They should additionally refer to any specific safety policies applying to the department or subject area, which will further develop and interpret the whole school policy. A copy of this policy should be given to all staff working in this area, whether their employment is on a permanent or temporary basis
Safety policies will be based around risk assessments of the particular hazards relating to an area and its associated activities. A risk assessment is simply a careful examination of hazards likely to exist, an assessment of whether the particular hazard is likely to harm anyone and what precautions need to be taken. Employers have specific legal duties to carry out risk assessments for all areas of workplace health and safety, and to appoint a ‘competent’ person or persons to carry them out.
Further information on risk assessments in general can be found in the NEU health and safety briefing Risk Assessments. The checklist in the appendix to this document is a useful starting point for devising a risk assessment for food technology areas.
Health and safety responsibilities in school
The employer has the over-arching responsibility for maintaining a safe and healthy workplace, and is also vicariously responsible for the acts or omissions of its employees. But teachers also owe a duty of care to each other and to pupils. Under section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, employees are under a statutory duty to "take reasonable care for the health and safety of himself and of other persons who may be affected by his acts or omissions at work" and to co-operate with the employer to enable its duties to be complied with.
If a teacher does not take reasonable care in a food technology lesson or does not, for example, follow employer guidelines applicable to such activities, and as a result a pupil or another becomes ill, the employer would be liable for any damage. Although it would be very unusual for any individual teacher to be sued, the teacher may well be found blameworthy for breaching their duty.
If a teacher believes a particular activity to be unsafe, the matter in the first instance should be referred to a suitable senior member of staff and, if appropriate, advice should be sought from the local authority subject adviser. Advice should also be sought from the health and safety adviser for the branch or region or the NEU Adviceline .
Under Section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 referred to above, teachers can legitimately refuse to participate in activities which risk their own health and safety and/or that of their pupils. Advice should always be sought from the NEU before doing so.
Monitoring and inspection
Teaching rooms used for food preparation activities can be monitored and inspected for health and safety standards by the local authority, the HSE, Ofsted, Estyn Education and Training Inspectorate and also by safety representatives appointed by trade unions.
Given the above, it is essential that staff delivering food technology lessons have received appropriate training in health and safety issues. Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 requires that employees receive appropriate health and safety instruction and training. Teachers who have qualified in the subject will have received some such instruction as part of their initial teacher training. Non-specialists, however, should be provided with specific health and safety training for food technology teaching – whether in a primary or secondary context.
Standards relating to teacher training in design and technology are detailed in the BS4163: 2014 and DATA Health and Safety Training Standards in Design and Technology. Both these publications are available from the Design and Technology Association (DATA) website.
The DATA standards are not statutory; however, schools should be working to the BS4163: 2014. Furthermore, it is advisable to ascertain whether there are specific policies on staff training applying to individual schools.
Where teachers have received specific design and technology training in the past, but have neither kept up to date nor taught that discipline/activity for a long time, it would be advisable for them to undertake appropriate refresher courses.
Wherever food is prepared or served, safe and adequate cleaning routines need to be established to ensure compliance with health and safety requirements. Whether these duties are carried out by pupils, teachers, caretakers, canteen workers, lunchtime supervisors or cleaning staff, it is vital that all involved are aware of these routines and that they are followed at all times.
- hands should be washed before and after cleaning routines, and consideration given to the wearing of protective gloves in certain circumstances (note that certain types of rubber gloves can cause anaphylactic shock where the user has an allergy or sensitivity)
- cross-contamination issues should be addressed, eg different cloths for different surfaces
- an appropriate slip hazard warning sign should be used when mopping floors
- tasks involving the carrying of trays, equipment, buckets etc should not incur any manual handling risks
- any corrosive or irritant cleaning substances, eg bleach, are subject to a Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) assessment and appropriate measures taken to avoid harm.
Food Safety Act 1990
Pupils are frequently involved in the production and/or serving of food for general consumption around the school, whether or not this is carried out as part of food technology lessons. Examples might include school tuck shops, business/enterprise activities involving food, or the preparation of food for school events.
In such cases, particular care should be taken to ensure compliance with the relevant legislation, in particular the Food Safety Act 1990 mentioned earlier. Teachers who oversee such activities should ensure that they have the appropriate knowledge and training to provide effective supervision and management of the pupils and activities concerned.
Other schools areas or activities involving food
Canteens, snack bars and tuck shops
Legislation specifically governing the preparation of food in catering functions such as school canteens stems from the Food Safety Act 1990. As noted earlier, this covers a wealth of issues including general food hygiene and temperature control. The HSE is responsible for enforcing these regulations in schools, except in the case of catering provision which has been contracted out to a private firm, in which case the local authority environmental health department would normally provide the enforcement.
It is important to bear in mind that, whoever is responsible for school catering, safety representatives have full authority to carry out their normal functions in these areas. This is especially noteworthy in cases where there are no employee safety representatives amongst the catering staff. NEU safety representatives should, however, act with appropriate sensitivity towards staff working in school kitchens, and should guard against causing offence by being unnecessarily intrusive. They should also remain aware of their own limitations, and in more complex cases should seek the involvement of appropriately qualified experts.
Where there are health and safety representatives drawn from the unions representing canteen staff, NEU health and safety representatives should take care that good relations are maintained at all times with such officers. Indeed, the presence of such colleagues should facilitate even greater success in bringing about a positive health and safety culture within the school as a whole.
Areas in which food is consumed should be kept in a clean and hygienic state. This can pose particular problems in the case of ‘multi-use’ eating areas commonly found in schools. Many school canteens are also used as school halls, drama studios, theatre stages or as venues for holding indoor PE lessons. Such arrangements are clearly not ideal, as a number of food hygiene risks are inevitably likely to arise in these circumstances.
In the absence of alternative provision being available, any food safety risk assessment would have to pay special attention to the impact of such uses on the safe consumption of food at mealtimes. For example, it is important that sufficient time is allowed for proper cleaning routines to take place before and after food is served and eaten. Good hygiene practices should also be built into all activities conducted in the eating area, whenever they take place.
Staff rooms and other areas where staff may prepare/eat food
The Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) to the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 states that “eating facilities should be kept clean to a suitable hygiene standard”, and that “good hygiene standards should be maintained in those parts of rest facilities used for eating or preparing food and drinks”. Cooking appliances, refrigerators, drinking vessels, cutlery, crockery etc should be clean and well-maintained. Facilities for washing up should include clean sinks with hot and cold water, detergent and the means to wash and dry items thoroughly – dishwashers provide the ideal solution. Provision for hand washing/drying should be available. Surfaces used for the preparation or eating of food should be kept in a clean state. Cleaning tasks should be regularly undertaken by appropriate cleaning staff, and not by teachers.
Food prepared outside school but consumed on school premises
Food occasionally prepared outside the school by parents or others, for example for a school function, is ultimately beyond the direct control of the employer. As such, it is difficult to monitor and assess risk. The employer has a responsibility to ensure that all aspects of any catering arrangements which are provided by the school, such as storage facilities, surfaces, cutlery, crockery, washing up facilities and so on, do not pose a risk to health.
Although the regular provision of food within school, whether for sale or not, is subject to the provisions of the Food Safety Act, unless purely for personal or domestic consumption, this
should not affect food prepared by parents or pupils for school fairs or cake sales. On such occasions, it would be wise to remind those preparing food of the prevalence of allergies to certain food products and to label as necessary.
The preparation of packed lunches provided by parents for their own children is not covered by the Food Safety Act. Schools have a duty, however, to make sure such arrangements for the storage and consumption of such meals as do not pose health risks. Because the preparation of packed lunches often takes place some time before they are consumed, they should be stored in cool places. Food should not be left in school bags in warm classrooms, next to radiators, hot water pipes or a sunny windowsill, as these are the ideal environments for the proliferation of food poisoning germs.
Wherever packed lunches are eaten, it should be remembered that employers, in addition to their legal duties to employees cited earlier, have a duty under section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to ensure that non-employees are not exposed to risks to their health and safety. Pupils should therefore be able to consume packed lunches in an environment which does not pose health risks. For example:
- pupils should be adequately supervised
- tables, desks or other surfaces on which food is eaten should be clean
- pupils should be reminded about the importance of washing hands before eating and after visiting the toilet, and should have easily accessible and clean facilities available for this purpose
- pupils should not be seated on the floor to eat their lunch, as this poses unacceptable hygiene risks as well as leading to potential postural problems.
Many teachers understandably object to the use of classrooms for pupils to consume food. This practice tends to lead to unacceptable consequences such as:
- excessive litter, including unhygienic food waste
- disturbance and disruption of teaching and learning environment
- in some cases, compromised security
- unacceptable stress for teachers, who wish their classrooms to remain tidy during the lunch break in readiness for the afternoon session.
However, where the use of classrooms is unavoidable, measures should be put in place to ensure that:
- pupils are properly supervised by appropriate staff
- the classroom is left clean and tidy
- classrooms which might pose a contamination risk, eg laboratories and technology workshops, are not used
- disruption to the core purposes of the classroom is minimised.
The midday break
There is no contractual obligation on any teacher to undertake supervision during the midday break. A teacher cannot be required to undertake midday supervision and “shall be allowed a break of reasonable length either between school sessions or between the hours of 12noon and 2pm” as laid in the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document. Any teacher who volunteers to undertake midday supervision is entitled to a free school lunch as detailed in the Burgundy Book, which outlines teachers’ conditions of service. This includes situations where teachers have no facilities to consume their lunch other than the dining room with children. If they eat with pupils they cannot avoid supervision. It includes lunchtime games, clubs and societies. Teachers may leave school premises at lunchtime if they choose to do so.
Head teachers, deputy head teachers, assistant head teachers, advanced skills and fast track teachers are all entitled to a break of reasonable length. NEU policy is that teachers can volunteer to supervise activities and that, if they do so, they are entitled to a lunch without payment. Midday supervision can otherwise be undertaken by lunchtime supervisors.
The NEU’s view of the “break of reasonable length” is that teachers should have an entitlement of at least one hour when they cannot be required to undertake duties, attend meetings or remain on school premises. The lunch break cannot be included in the 1,265 hours of directed time.
NEU school representatives can advise members that they cannot be required to attend meetings convened by management during their lunch break. Such attendance is voluntary. They may, however, prefer to attend a meeting at lunchtime rather than at the end of the afternoon session.
School visits and field trips
The quality of any food consumed on an educational visit should form part of the risk assessment carried out for all aspects of the trip. Although food which is commercially prepared and sold, eg in restaurants, cafés, hotels, hostels, outdoor activity centres etc could reasonably be assumed to comply with the law in terms of food safety, it would nevertheless be advisable to carry out checks in advance. This is especially the case on trips abroad, where group members should be warned of the dangers of drinking tap water in certain countries. In some countries it is safer to drink bottled water, and care needs to be taken with raw vegetables, salads and unpeeled fruit, raw shellfish, under-cooked meat or fish. In such circumstances tap water should also be avoided when brushing teeth etc.
Care should also be exercised in checking that catering provisions can cope with any participants’ food allergies or special dietary requirements.
In order to simplify the process of verifying the quality and safety of food provision on a school trip, especially on foreign visits, it is advisable to use the services of a tour operator approved by the School Travel Forum (STF). Such organisations have undergone rigorous independent safety audits on all aspects of their services, including their arrangements for the provision of food and drink. The STF website can be accessed at: schooltravelforum.com
This website enables schools to verify a tour operator’s membership of the STF, and the site contains full information on the STF code practice, as well as offering a wide variety of useful information and links for party leaders. Party leaders can also make use of the STF’s email advice line on all matters relating to school journey arrangements including food safety. The Food Standards Agency website contains a search facility to check the food hygiene rating of establishments in the UK.
Where packed food is supplied by parents or school catering staff, the points mentioned earlier in relation to the storage and consumption of packed meals should be taken into account.
A number of references have been made in this briefing to the subject of food allergies. It is vital that an awareness of this issue is built into any school policy on food safety and related matters. Further advice this topic can be found in the NEU health and safety briefing Anaphylaxis in Schools – see Appendix 2.
Food quality and healthy eating
The NEU has been active in promoting a whole-school approach to encourage pupils to make healthy choices, both in terms of healthy eating and regular exercise, through all aspects of the curriculum and the life of the school. This includes campaigning to ban products that are high in fat, sugar and salt from school vending machines and to limit advertising aimed at children for such products.
Checklist for NEU safety representatives
1. Check that food safety is adequately addressed within appropriate employer safety policies and is included, where applicable, in departmental safety policies. It should be verified that such policies are consistent with NEU advice, and that they reflect good practice in the assessment and management of risks involved in the preparation and/ or serving of food in a school setting.
2. Ensure that adequate risk assessments are in place and followed for all food-related activities, and that they are kept under review.
3. When conducting safety inspections, use this NEU briefing as a benchmark against which to make judgements on the adequacy of arrangements for food safety in your school. The following list, though not exhaustive, may be of help in determining a number of key areas which should be scrutinised in any inspection of food safety.
In any school area or situation in which food is prepared or served, adequate safety arrangements should be in place with regard to the following:
- the safe storage, handling, preparation and serving of food
- food preparation/serving environment – including accommodation, fixtures/fittings, flooring, surfaces, windows, ventilation etc
- cleaning routines
- hygiene and infection control
- staff training
- equipment safety
- control of hazardous substances
- gas/electrical safety
- fire safety
- pupil supervision
- first aid
- emergency procedures.
The key points above are summarised in the following checklist, which can be applied to any food preparation areas in a school, from canteen kitchens to food technology classrooms. It forms a useful starting point for drawing up risk assessments, or for identifying hazards in a safety inspection.