Staff and pupils in a classroom at Craigie High School

Watch your back

The power of creative learning to achieve a safer and healthier world of work

The coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the world of work has been vast. It acted as a real game changer for the occupational safety and health (OSH) profession as a whole and helped to demonstrate what the profession can really deliver to support people to work, remain in work and return to work.

One place this impact was felt, in particular when it comes to equipping staff with the tools and knowledge they need to possess to adapt as the working world around them evolves, was at Craigie High School in Dundee, Scotland.

Here, we look at the story behind the Watch Your Back project. Judith Robertson carried this out in partnership with the the Learning Occupational Health by Experiencing Risks (LOcHER) initiative, along with her ESA3 team and pupils at Craigie High, which caters to children with special educational needs. Creative learning played a big role in promoting a safer and healthier world of work for all.  

The full story

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) showed a downward trend before the coronavirus pandemic, but the trend reversed when employees shifted to working from home. In fact, MSDs now make up the second-largest portion of work-related ill health in Great Britain, with 477,000 workers suffering from MSDs in 2021/2022. Of these, 139,000 are suffering from a new disorder that began within the 12-month period.

With numbers on the rise, the lack of face-to-face training opportunities over the course of the pandemic played a role in the increase in self-reported MSDs. And that’s where Judith Robertson and Craigie High School’s story begins. Having been made aware of this context as an issue by retired health and safety officer Andrew Cathro, who’s also a member of the LOcHER initiative, and understanding the importance of a safe and healthy working environment for Craigie High’s teachers when carrying out various daily tasks, they set about coming up with an original way of highlighting the risks of MSDs so they could be mitigated by the school’s staff. 

Watch your back for good

As Craigie High’s Enhanced Support Area Teacher, Judith worked directly with her ESA3 team and pupil group, catering to children with special educational needs. The project's main goal was to encourage a creative and innovative approach to teaching safer and healthier practices when it came to a range of daily activities across the school for the teachers and broader staff, especially in relation to mitigating the increased risks of MSDs in a post-pandemic era. The pupils started by distributing questionnaires to all teachers and school staff, asking them about back pain, any work-related musculoskeletal problems, perceptions of lifting heavy goods correctly and any broader requirements for staff development in this area.

From the responses, the pupils developed the training, which they brought to life by reimagining the lyrics to Take That’s I Want You Back song, which they retitled Watch Your Back. The rewritten lyrics focused on teaching staff the safest and healthiest approaches to everyday tasks, from setting up computers to lifting heavy objects correctly. 

The next step was to bring their training to life. So the pupils asked teachers and volunteers to participate in a film that visually demonstrated the training concepts in the rewritten lyrics, to clearly identify risks to upper limbs, neck and back when daily tasks are performed without the appropriate training. Watch Your Back was the film created by these pupils, all of whom experience a range of profound and complex needs, including learning and communication difficulties. It also featured Makaton signing throughout for accessibility and as a communication aid.

And the film has been quite the hit, with Judith commenting: “The staff have been blown away by the interest in the film and responses to the film – it really serves as a reminder to us all that what we do is relevant and immensely important towards the development of the young people in our care. It has been so rewarding to have young adults with additional needs represented on a national forum.”

The power of creative learning

The results and impact since the release of Watch Your Back in August 2022 have been nothing short of significant. Not only are the teachers now working in a healthier and safer environment having taken on board the training and understood the risks in a memorable way, but the positive impact on the pupils has been totally invaluable. Their complex needs had the potential to pose challenges throughout the creative, production and filming process, but Judith’s and her team’s expertise and trust from the pupils helped to overcome and mitigate those from the outset. That meant that wearing their high-vis vests and playing their role in the film was nothing but a hugely positive and enjoyable experience that’s boosted their life skills, in particular team building, self-awareness, confidence and listening skills. 

Judith added that “the project provided a brilliant platform for the pupils to think about general health and safety issues". "The pupils gained a tremendous amount of confidence from interacting with staff in the school to initiate the project. They loved designing and making props for the film and practising their signing individually and as a group. Shouting ‘STOP’ at staff was a real hit, as was seeing themselves performing on film. The pupils gained an SQA award for their efforts, which was great. They are all really proud of what they have achieved. The training needs identified in our initial questionnaire has now informed the staff training programme moving forward within Craigie High School." The project has been rightfully recognised on multiple occasions as a result of its impact. Its innovative approach made it the winner of The Development Through Education Award at the Safety Groups UK 2022 Awards, which are open to any organisation and industry in Great Britain and Ireland, along with the group receiving the Scottish Chamber of Safety Silver Punch Bowl. Meanwhile, Dundee City Council honoured the pupils and school staff with a civic reception, pictured above, which was attended by friends and family along with a number of safety representatives. 

Craigie High School’s story and the Watch Your Back project is an incredible example of the remarkable impact creative learning approaches can have, in particular among a group of pupils whose special educational needs are so varied and complex.

By involving pupils with learning and communication difficulties, and through their involvement celebrating diversity, equality and inclusion, the project showed how everyone can be part of an inspiring story and contribute to health and safety awareness in the workplace.

The project's success also demonstrated how innovative approaches to learning and teaching can be used to address work-related health problems. Andrew’s and Judith's approach to encouraging schools and colleges to be more creative in teaching health and safety should inspire others irrespective of background or industry to do the same. By engaging pupils and staff in creative learning approaches, the Craigie High team have shown how it’s possible to reduce work-related ill health such as the incidence of work-related MSDs, and promote a safer and healthier working environment for all. 

IOSH Champions - inspirational stories

To mark the launch of its new five-year strategy, Activate 2028, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), is celebrating outstanding individual achievement in defending and delivering the right of every worker to a safe and healthy place of work.

As part of this initiative, we’ve created a new honour – the award of IOSH Champion. This honour will be awarded whenever and wherever we feel individual excellence in health and safety practice deserves to be recognised. So watch this space for a continuing supply of inspirational OSH stories.

Read more stories from our IOSH Champions