Dept of Biological Sciences | Our research | Safety Policy | Responsibilities of supervisors towards students
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Responsibilities of supervisors towards students

The College has a legal duty to provide 'such supervision as is necessary' to ensure the health and safety of both postgraduate and undergraduate students. When dealing with postgraduate students, it is important to understand that this duty cannot be discharged by relying solely upon a student's status or competence. The duty to supervise is delegated to the Head of School and thence to the member of staff directly responsible for the student (the supervisor). It will never be enough to rely upon the assumption that 'postgraduates ought to know what they are doing'. Responsible staff must be able to demonstrate that they have exercised an effective supervisory role. This role will be exercised within a context of school procedures, systems of work and monitoring arrangements. Initial training of new postgraduate students should be devoted to explaining work systems and how they are operated.

Student projects

  • These could involve work subject to specific national Regulations (eg COSHH Regulations) or not (eg field trips).

    Where student projects are concerned, effective or adequate supervision does not necessarily (or even usually) mean constant attendance. Also, where attendance is necessary, this can be carried out by the supervisor or his authorised nominee. This authorised nominee can be a suitably qualified member of academic or technical staff. There are indeed no hard and fast rules on what does constitute adequate supervision in a variety of circumstances, but there are fundamental elements upon which supervisors must satisfy themselves. It is the responsibility of the supervisor to ensure that:

    a) The project is properly assessed:

    i) for compliance with existing school procedures;

    ii) for general risks to health and safety under the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations, or other regulations such as the COSHH Regulations and the Manual Handling Regulations. These regulations require a written risk assessment unless the risks are insignificant.

    b) Any precautions which are necessary are agreed between the supervisor and student. In all but the most elementary circumstance they should be committed to writing protocol.

    c) Regular checks are carried out by the supervisor to see that the student is actually following the agreed procedures.

    d) It has been made clear to students that:

    i) alterations in method must be documented and discussed rather than casually introduced without the supervisor's knowledge.

    ii) the students also have legal responsibilities not to endanger themselves and others by their actions.

Risk assessment and levels of supervision

  • A simple scheme for assessing the appropriate level of supervision to be adopted on individual projects is given below. This illustrates supervision considerations only; a full risk assessment would address matters such as the precautions to be adopted.

    Areas of work are classified into risk categories for task supervision:

    A = Those where work may not be started without direct supervision.

    B = Those where work may not be started without the task supervisor's advice and approval.

    C = Those with risks (other than categories A & B) where extra care must be observed, but where it is considered that workers are adequately trained and competent in the procedures involved.

    D = Those where the risks are insignificant and carry no special supervision considerations.

    For all but the lowest category of work, supervisors are required to complete a risk assessment form or validate one prepared by the research worker before work commences. This form should be clearly marked A, B, C or D. Supervisors should then ensure that the research worker concerned has read and understood the contents of the form and works to its requirements.

    The use of a form does not remove the ultimate responsibility for safety from the university. It is a means by which the duties can be delegated.

    Once the assessment has been made, supervisors must then decide on the controls necessary to protect the worker and indeed anyone else who might be affected by the work activity. The controls may be one or a mixture of administrative, engineering and personal protective measures, but should fit within existing school procedures and monitoring arrangements - there should not, for instance be different supervisors applying different standards to the same type of work.

    There will be a number of situations, particularly for undergraduate work, where the projects are not individual projects and the risk assessment can be generic rather than individual. In such circumstances, evaluation of the safety of individual undergraduate experiments should be made when experiments are devised and appropriate instruction for students provided with the experimental methodology.

    Supervisors are reminded that risk assessment alone does not fulfil all of the health and safety duties laid on them. Information, instruction and training are seen as vital components as is the need to provide a safe system of work. It should also be remembered that as a project develops, the nature of the work and the experimental techniques may change. Any matter not included in the initial assessment should not be started without being assessed in the same way. As the experience and skills of the worker grows, this may also lead to a change in categorisation of the work.

    Another area which continues to cause concern is that of 'out of hours' working. Each case must be assessed on its merits and where a safe system of work can be established, authorised out-of-hours work permitted.

    Where necessary, formal arrangements must take place within the school such that a temporary, alternate supervisor is provided during absence of the regular supervisor.

    Where those being supervised show a complete disregard for matters of safety, supervisors are advised to use their disciplinary procedures to ensure that the safety of the person concerned, and anyone else who might be adversely affected, is maintained.

Summary of action required

  • a) Formal assessment schemes should have introduced on element which incorporate supervision requirements.

    b) School must adapt such categorisation of supervision controls as one illustrated in this Safety Bulletin.

    c) Once an assessment has been carried out, the necessary controls should be implemented.

    d) Supervision arrangements in each school should be reviewed as necessary, and systems to cover absences of a supervisor should be introduced immediately.

    e) Monitoring of the scheme both at school level and by the Safety Adviser should be incorporated in the inspection/audit scheme.