Achieving Chemical Safety in NZ Secondary Schools 

A submission on the Tomorrow’s Schools Review Report: “Our Schooling Futures: Stronger together – Whiria Ngā Kura Tūatinitini” from Ian de Stigter, Science Technician at Mt Albert Grammar School. 


The Tomorrow’s Schools Review, though largely focused on governance style as it may determine educational equity, also gives an opportunity to examine and address another issue which arisen – through continued use of a deficient funding formula. 

The majority of State and Integrated secondary schools have not in recent years met their legal obligations for hazardous substance management. This is attributed in large part to increased unfunded obligations of schools for chemical safety, during a time when operational costs generally were increasing faster than school operational grants. While schools have made efforts to deal with chemical safety, staff involved have generally received little or no pay or allotted time. The Ministry of Education has essentially ignored the requirements, and ERO has avoided compliance audits. 


The independent taskforce has in its report “Our Schooling Futures” noted deficiencies in schools resourcing, and in processes for schools review, which over the last 30 years with the Tomorrow’s Schools model have led to difficulties in our schools. My submission, which relates to the review report sections Issue 7: Resourcing, and Issue 8: Central Education Agencies, deals with chemical hazard management in secondary schools. A proposed future organisational model for schools must ensure improved assurance of chemical safety. 

Much of the information for this hazard management critique comes from a report by Kiernan and de Stigter (2015) which is publicly available on the website of STANZ, the professional body for school science technicians. This report includes hazardous substance management data provided by science technicians in a majority of our secondary schools, including Laboratory Manager (LM) appointments and achievements. 

A later survey report; de Stigter and Kiernan (2017), mainly focused on the school science technician workforce, also provided an update on the LM situation. 

Chemical Safety Requirements 

When Tomorrow’s Schools reforms were introduced in 1989, chemical safety in schools was subject to regular inspection by local body Dangerous Goods Inspectors, as determined by the 1974 Dangerous Goods Act (and 1978 Amendments). 

This legislation was superseded by the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996, and the 2001 HSNO Regulations (including the Hazardous Substances (Exempt Laboratories) Regulations 2001, which allowed teaching and research labs some concessions, subject to adopting Codes of Practice). Following the passing of the HSNO Act and Regulations, however, there was a phase-in period until July 2006, during which schools continued to have visits from local council Dangerous Goods Inspectors. 

The significant change for schools came in January 2007, when the Code of Practice for School Exempt Laboratories came into effect – providing a practical means of meeting school obligations under the Act and Regulations. While following the COP requirements was not mandatory, it was recognised (as stated in the COP introduction) that schools were otherwise “unlikely to have the resources to independently comply with the provisions of the Act and Regulations”. 

A key element in this COP was the BOT appointment of a suitably qualified LM who would organise and ensure that other system components were in place. It was expected that this COP would be supported by the Ministry of Education requiring schools to adopt it, and requiring ERO, as part of their regular school reviews, to take up the chemical hazard audits relinquished by local council inspectors. (System review is discussed in the next section.) 

In 2015, the Health and Safety at Work Act was passed, and included chemical safety under its jurisdiction. The schools COP continued to be accepted temporarily to meet chemical safety requirements, until the Health and Safety at Work (Hazardous Substances) Regulations 2017 were developed and promulgated, and some sort of replacement guidelines established for schools. It was intended to then revoke the COP, but in the absence of alternative guides, STANZ lobbied Worksafe and the MOE, with the result that the COP was allowed to remain in use until it is reworked. At February 2019, such replacement guidance and compliance documents for the Regulations are still being developed by Worksafe and the Ministry of Education. So the 2007 COP (together with the Ministry of Education’s guidance document for the COP) remains in use as the only sources of guidance for compliance. 

Since these regulations took effect in December 2017, the most important change for schools is that the Regulations now make the appointment of a LM obligatory, and a number of important elements of the chemical safety system similarly so. Furthermore, the regulations introduce penalties for recklessly neglecting such requirements: “Officer” (Principal) personal liabilities of up to $20 000 for each such non-compliance, and a corresponding organisational liability of $100 000 for each. In the event of a serious harm accident, failure to appoint the LM required to organise a school’s hazardous substance management could now be seen as a very serious safety breach, with a significant penalty. 

Review of school chemical safety 

In 2007, the review of chemical safety in schools was believed to have become one of ERO’s responsibilities, and ERO was expected to ensure the COP requirements were followed. However, the Ministry of Education has impeded rather than facilitated this. 

The Ministry directed schools to adopt their Health and Safety Code of Practice (now replaced by a collection of safety resources); a Code of Conduct for appropriate use of the internet; a Code for Ethical Conduct in the use of animals (these last 2 seem to have now disappeared). They also directed schools to adopt a COP for Pastoral Care of International Students – this was replaced in July 2016 by the Education (Pastoral Care of Students) COP. But the Ministry has never directed schools to adopt the schools chemical hazard management COP. In February 2019 the Ministry website still says of this; “you do not have to follow the Code.” This stance has enabled the Ministry of Education to ignore the required LM positions, along with the need to resource them, and to neglect any requirement for audit of its implementation through compliance checks. The Ministry of Education and ERO are turning a blind eye to control of hazardous substances. 

A June 2008 survey of 82 secondary schools by Sheryl Fitzsimons (of Nelson College for Girls) found 14 schools reported recent ERO reviews. At these 14 schools, the review made no mention of the COP, and reviewers showed very little interest in anything at all to do with chemical safety. 

In January 2009, it was raised with ERO as an issue that in the ERO board guidelines for the Board Assurance Statement, the only comment about the COP was that “Science teachers should become familiar with” it. In response to the criticism, the February 2009 revision of the board guidelines introduced for the first time a reference to the COP as one means of complying with the hazardous substances regulations applying to schools. The accompanying checklist, provided for completion before an ERO review asked, “Since the last ERO review, has the board reviewed health and safety policies and/or procedures in the school linked to” (Q13:) “The Code of Practice for School Exempt Laboratories approved by the Environmental Risk Management Authority, about the use of hazardous substances for the teaching of science and technology?” 

ERO’s acting National Manager Reporting Services, Makere Smith, then declared: “ERO is confident that the changes it has made to the Guidelines for Board Assurance Statement and Self-Audit Checklists (BAS) – Feb 2009 document, which includes references for accessing the Code of Practice, provides school boards with sufficient information to take all reasonable steps to ensure that chemical hazards in school laboratories do not harm anyone.” 

In the July 2015 revision of the guidelines, the Hazardous Substances (Exempt Laboratories) Regulations 2001 was still referred to, with the COP being one means of complying with the regulations. 

In a footnote were given (as Makere Smith noted in 2009) links to access the COP on both the ERMANZ website and the NZASE website. Both of these links had in July 2015 ceased to work – ERO should have been aware that EPA took over the functions of ERMANZ in July 2011, and although there was a transitional link from the old ERMANZ website, in July 2015 that no longer functioned. ERO should also have checked the out-dated COP link on the NZASE website. 

However, in July 2015, the ERO checklist no longer asked whether HSNO policies had been reviewed, but only if they existed: 

“Does the board have health and safety policies, and procedures/guidelines/practices linked to: ….13 The Code of Practice for Exempt Laboratories approved by the Environment Risk Management Authority, about the use of hazardous substances for the teaching of science and technology?” 

Schools would have been able to tick this box without difficulty, however vague and inconsistent their hazard management practices, and however long since they were dusted off and considered. 2015 ERO reviews of schools gave no more evidence of commitment to ensuring chemical safety compliance than were reflected in the 2008 observations of science technicians. 

In January 2019, the ERO Board Assurance Statement guidelines were improved in that they outlined the school labs code of practice, and gave a workable link to it on the Worksafe website. The checklist now described NZASE as responsible for it, rather than the renamed ERMANZ, but still asked only whether the board has policies linked to the COP. 

That continued question, again inviting a ticked box, is now understood by schools to display no interest, and provides no indication that ERO advice or review in 2019 will be in any respect influential in assisting good hazardous substance management. 

Anecdotal evidence from school science technicians of ERO reviews has established that chemical safety review continues to be omitted, as it has been ever since council Dangerous Goods inspections ceased. ERO remains satisfied with schools ticking the box to say they have some kind of chemical safety policy, and have not looked further. 

When the Tomorrow’s Schools Review Report (TSRR) says ERO does not have the right drivers and approaches to improve the system”, it is difficult to disagree, but ERO has also been poorly directed. Other relevant comments recorded in the TSRR were: 

“Currently, there is a perception that ERO relies too heavily on the documentation schools are required to provide.“ 

“ERO is inadequately resourced for the number and scope of reviews that it is expected to undertake.” 

School funding and its allocation 

The TSRR speaks of funding deficiencies: 

“The overall amount of resourcing for schools in Aotearoa New Zealand is not sufficient.” 

The costs schools need to meet have risen in recent years: During our consultation we heard from many principals/tumuaki that their funding from the government is inadequate and has not kept pace with rising costs.” 

“Costs have risen in recent times for a number of reasons, including new legislative requirements…” 

“In terms of the overall funding provided to schools, there is a shortfall…” 

In our 2015 study of school hazchem management, the funding shortage was noted as the major constraint on school safety organisation. A number of reports had spelt out the dearth of operational funding, starting with a 10year review from NZCER (1999). 

In 2003-4 NZEI had a working party concerned with Support Staff Pay Funding from the operations grant (NZEI (2004)) which had become a thorny issue. More recently, a PPTA conference paper (PPTA (2012)) referred to a number of studies of the inadequacy of operational funding (from a PPTA conference paper in 2003, followed by NZCER in 2005, Education Review Office in 2006 and 2007, Ministry of Education in 2006 and 2007, Waikato Institute of Technology in 2007, University of Canterbury in 2011.) In 2003, PPTA delegates had wondered whether Tomorrow’s Schools was intended to have the observed effect of cutting public funding for education. In 2012, PPTA recorded that any changes since 2003 were not for the better. 

So, in 2018, when people consulted in the Tomorrow’s Schools Review spoke of a funding gap, they were not just expressing their opinions; they were observing something well- documented by many studies over 19 years. The conclusions of these studies were similar to the thesis of the TSRR: school operations have become more complex with new demands (such as LM appointments), and schools have not been paid the real costs of the requirements. 

In this context, and in the continuing absence of any interest from the Ministry of Education or ERO in chemical hazard management, school managers and boards have felt obliged to prioritise spending of scarce operational funds (as well as allocating management units and allowances) to other school needs. The 2015 study collected some data indicating the consequential effects on school chemical hazard management. 

Organising for Chemical Hazard Management 

Since 2007, secondary schools have had the Code of Practice to detail how they should look after hazardous substances. Despite the minimal interest of the Ministry of Education and ERO, schools nevertheless had clear legal responsibilities under the 1996 Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, and the 2001 Regulations. Following the COP was the only practical way that schools could discharge those responsibilities. The most basic step in those responsibilities was to appoint a Laboratory Manager – someone to detail and implement hazardous substance policy with suitable procedures. 

From 2007, schools recognised the LM appointment was necessary to enable them to meet their obligations, though legal compulsion to appoint the LM has come only with the 2017 Regulations. However, throughout the period, the details around LM appointments indicate much about the status of school chemical safety. 

In 2008, 56% of the 82 schools surveyed had appointed LMs. In 2015, 75% of the 177 schools surveyed had LMs. In 2017, 72% of 235 schools surveyed had LMs. A persistently large group of schools have yet to be persuaded to appoint a LM. 

However, appointing a LM did not solve all safety problems. In 2015, achievements across 12 elements of chemical safety were compared for schools with and without LMs. (The elements were: hazard labelling of chemicals, safety data sheet availability, eye protection, chemical inventory, suitable chemical storage, separation of incompatibles, secure storage, fume extraction, waste disposal, induction training, Safe Methods of Use, Chemical Emergency Procedures.) 

Average achievements for these 12 system elements were: 

For schools with a LM 74.5% 

For schools with no LM 68.2% 

The achievements deserve comment. Firstly, the fact that achievements without a LM are as substantial as they are, must be attributed to the sterling efforts of teachers (who, for example, ensure consistent use of eye protection) and science technicians (who have looked after the hazardous substances, and have done much to ensure safety system elements are present). 

Secondly, the difference in safety achievements from having a LM must be regarded as disappointing. The reasons can be found in the data related to those appointments. Significant limitations of those appointments can be seen from the LM compensation and time allocation. 

Teacher Lab Manager Rewards

Payment TypeTeacher LM Numbers% of Teacher LMS
Don’t know21/10919%

With the majority of the teacher LMs getting no reward for the role, and others not much, it can be seen how nominal the appointments can be. (A majority of technician LMs have also been unpaid.) 

Teacher Lab Manager assigned time 

Time ProvidedTeacher LM Numbers% of Teacher LM
1 paid non-contact/week11/10910%
2 paid non-contact/week2/1092%
3 paid non-contact/week1/1091%
No form class1/1091%
Don’t know13/10912%

So the overwhelming majority of school LMs are nominal appointments. Many of the incumbents have had their arms twisted to take on the role; almost all are given little or nothing in compensation, and in the midst of other important and onerous responsibilities, have been given no time to discharge this one. Some are told the responsibility goes with their position – they have to do it for nothing. Others may not be the most suited to the role (e.g. are not chemical specialists) but have been prepared to do it for little or nothing. 

Despite the duress they have been placed under, science teachers and technicians (some recognised as LMs, and some not) have responded with goodwill, and done much in difficult circumstances to provide and maintain suitable facilities and practices to prevent harm. While the efforts of some individual schools may shine, if NZ schools generally can be said to have a system for hazardous substance management, it is one largely dependent on involuntary servitude. We rightly have laws against such practices. 

How can we do better? 

Arranging better hazardous substance management is conceptually not very challenging, since the current practice leaves so much to be desired. The TSRR proposals split Health and Safety consideration between the Board – which makes recommendations to the Principal; and the Hub – which would carry legal responsibility, and final approval for the way each local school organises safety. 

Whether the TSRR recommendations proceed or not, it is clear that those with legal responsibility for chemical safety must have funds which can be directed as needed to obtain compliance. Schools (or Hubs) need the money to hire LMs, and to provide the LMs with PD specifically related to this specialist role. The LMs need time to institute a safe system and fully document it so that it is easily operated and reviewed. It would also be useful if the schools (or hubs) had funded access to independent chemical safety system advice (and possibly the opportunity for system review, at their option). 

Whether or not ERO is abolished (as the TSRR proposes) I doubt whether it or similar should have a future in hazardous substance management system audits which, when required, could be better carried out by a specialist in the field. 

The TSRR refers on p91 to roles for paraprofessionals, and to career pathways and support for them. Our 2015 report deals with opportunities for school science technicians to step up to LM responsibilities; compares safety achievements of technicians with those of teachers; and gives information on hazard management study suitable to enable the transition to LM. If schools or Hubs are funded in the future to ensure there are appropriate LMs in schools, we should expect an increasing proportion of those to be science technicians. Whatever the future structures, provision should be made, as far as possible, to free teachers from this chemical safety administration burden – so they can better focus on student learning. 

Ian de Stigter 25th March 2019 


de Stigter, Ian and Kiernan, Michelle (2017) “Managing School Science Resources”. // ResourcesFinal.pdf

Kiernan, Michelle and de Stigter, Ian (2015) “Reason and Practicability”. //

NZCER (1999). Wylie, C. “Ten years on: how schools view educational reform”. NZCER Wellington.

NZEI (2004) Final Report of the Support Staff Funding Working Party. Report to Annual Meeting, October 2004. 

PPTA (2012) “A Level Playing Field?” The Importance of Local Funding in Financing Secondary Schools to Meet Future Needs. PPTA Annual Conference Paper, October 2012.