What is work experience? An increasing number of young people are doing work placements as part of work experience programs, Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses or structured workplace learning programs. A work experience program provides a formal arrangement whereby students, while enrolled at school, participate in activities at a workplace. Generally speaking, students should be at least 14 years of age to participate in work experience. Work experience must be unpaid, can be up to a maximum of 30 days per year, and should not disadvantage students in relation to their education at school. Students do not necessarily need to have any industry-specific skills and are generally expected to perform basic tasks.
Work experience can play a key role in promoting students’ personal and professional development, enhancing their maturity and enriching their understanding of the relevant industry and the workplace. It also can assist students to choose suitable subject choices for Year 11 or Year 12 as they begin to investigate post-school career pathways.
The School’s Role in Protecting Work Experience Students
Even though there are strict laws covering health and safety in the workplace, young and inexperienced workers make up a large proportion of people killed or injured at work. This is due to factors including being unfamiliar with the work environment and being more susceptible to specific hazards. In 2016, a work experience student suffered thermal burns to his eyes from welding after his employer failed to properly induct and supervise him. The company was convicted for failing to comply with their health and safety duty and was fined $240,000.
Just as horrifically, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard several accounts, during its Private Sessions, of child sexual abuse occurring during work experience placements.
While employers have a legal duty to identify hazards and eliminate or minimise the risk of harm in the workspace, schools have a key role to play in mitigating risks at the onset of work experience programs. Schools and teachers have a non-delegable duty of care to take reasonable steps to protect students from any harm that may be reasonably foreseen. Teachers and the school may be aware of risks relating to individual students of which the host employer may not be aware: students may have behavioural issues, health issues, or particular vulnerabilities which the school will be aware of which may affect the level of risk the student will experience in a workplace.
All of these issues require teachers and principals to have a comprehensive plan to identify and assess risk and establish control measures in relation to each employer placement, as well as in relation to each student, to reduce the risk of harm.
Risk Assessment by the School
It should also be kept in mind that the hazards in a workplace may not only be physical; work experience in a veterinary practice, for example, may expose a student to traumatic events including seeing horrific injuries and death. Alternatively, what may appear to be a robust work environment to an adult may be perceived as bullying or harassment to an inexperienced student.
The school is best placed to assess the ability and the maturity level of the student in relation to the tasks that they will be undertaking or potentially exposed to, as well as the nature of the specific workplace. The risks must be balanced against the likely educational outcomes or benefits for the student. If the school determines that the level of risk cannot be justified, then the student must not be placed with that particular host workplace. Failing to properly identify and implement strategies to lessen these risks can take away from what is supposed to be a rewarding and enriching experience for students, and can result in physical and psychological harm to the student, reputational damage to the school, and possible litigation.
What School Needs to do to Protect Work Experience Students
There are certain steps that schools can take to play their part in protecting students who wish to participate in work experience. Schools should appoint staff members as work experience co-ordinators who will take charge of the work experience program. They will be expected to have in-depth knowledge of the work experience process and be a first point of contact for students and employers.
Matching Students to Placements
Work experience co-ordinators need to bear in mind that most work experience students are still developing physically, cognitively and emotionally. Students may not be able to perform certain tasks that would otherwise seem standard. They should also remember that students are generally less experienced than other workers and not always aware of workplace risks. It is also important to note that students may not have the confidence to ask questions and may neglect their own safety in the hope of impressing others.
While on a work placement and away from the support and reporting systems provided by their school, students may feel isolated, be vulnerable to exploitation and/or unsure of who to contact if issues arise. Finally, consideration must be given to the needs and abilities of students with disabilities, any behavioural issues or cultural issues. Planning for work experience for higher risk students or for higher risk work experience placements may benefit from discussion with a school counsellor or the student’s parents or carers.
Assessing the Employer
In assessing whether a workplace is suitable for a work experience student, where available, work experience co-ordinators should review the records of previous student work experience placements, to ascertain if the workplace has a known safe working environment. However, in most circumstances they should liaise with the employer and determine:
- whether the industry and the business or workplace aligns with the school ethos
- whether the workplace has adequate WHS/OHS policies in place relating to first aid, emergency planning and personal protective equipment
- what types of child protection and health and safety risks exist in the workplace and how these risks are, or will be, managed
- whether appropriate induction and training will be provided to the student
- whether there are enough staff to ensure that work experience students are always supervised, including who will be responsible for monitoring and supervising the student and how this will be done
- whether the employer is capable of looking after the student’s welfare and educational requirements in terms of attitude and time
- whether the employer can manage any special needs that the student may have
- whether the employer has adequate insurance policies or arrangements.
Work experience co-ordinators should also establish an open line of communication between themselves, the student and the employer. This is critical to ensure that a student who is legitimately uncomfortable with some element of the placement will be confident in contacting the co-ordinator.
As a matter of best practice, work experience co-ordinators should try to ensure that each workplace is visited at least once before the placement of a student to ensure that the workplace meets the requirements of the school and again at least once per week during the actual placement.
Other visits may have to be made where an issue has been raised by either the employer or the student. The placement should end immediately if the situation cannot be resolved for the benefit of the student.
Providing Sufficient WHS/OHS and Child Protection Education
It is highly beneficial for schools to educate students in relation to WHS/OHS before they enter a new workplace. Further, it is essential that students understand their right to be and feel safe, identifying inappropriate behaviour and how and to whom reports can be made if issues arise.
Schools are increasingly incorporating work-related and child protection learning into their curriculums. Schools may develop a whole school approach, whereby WHS/OHS and child protection education can be reflected in the school’s curriculum, structures, policies and procedures. This could involve identifying the teaching of WHS/OHS and child protection as a key part of the mainstream curriculum. Schools may also use a range of student-centred, interactive and innovative learning strategies to promote the learning of WHS/OHS and child protection.
There are specific measures that work experience co-ordinators must follow for work experience students. If that is the case, the work experience coordinator should verify that the organisation complies with this requirement.
Work experience co-ordinators should also be aware of the specific requirements for selected industries in which students wish to undertake work experience. The following are examples of industries where additional steps are to be undertaken by schools:
- liquor licensed premises – the principal of a school must apply to gain approval for students to be present on licensed premises when they are under 18 years of age even if they are not themselves engaging in alcohol-related work. Work experience co-ordinators should confirm that this process has been carried out properly.
- construction industry – work experience co-ordinators should ensure that the workplaces reflect the national approach to construction induction training endorsed by the industry Australia wide.
- aged care industry – work experience co-ordinators should be aware of the requirements for students to have a police clearance at certain ages when carrying out work experience in an aged care facility.
- child-related employment – work experience co-ordinators should be aware of any Working with Children Check (or equivalent) requirements that may apply to students who carry out work experience in child-related sectors, such as child care providers and children’s entertainment providers. While some jurisdictions exempt children and young people from the need to have a Working with Children Check (or equivalent), others do not. In some jurisdictions, whether or not a student requires a Working with Children Check could depend on the age of the student or on the type of work placement.
Work Experience Policy
Schools should ensure that they develop and implement a Work Experience Policy that outlines their explicit requirements for the work experience coordinator, students, parents and the employers of the students on their placements. Some government education departments, such as this example from the Northern Territory, produce work experience policies and guidelines that may provide a base model for schools who are seeking to develop their own.
Ultimately, work experience can be a highly enriching experience for students. Schools, as educational institutions, play a role in ensuring that students can obtain the benefits from work experience without being unreasonably exposed to the risks that can come with being in a workplace, while also ensuring that they fulfil their duty of care.
Schools can help do this by identifying any risks related to individual students, properly assessing host employers, providing sufficient WHS/OHS and child safety education to children before they commence work experience, and following any specific measures required for young students and students in different industries.
About the Authors
Deborah de Fina
Deborah recently completed five years working with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse where she assisted the Royal Commission to establish the Private Session process and subsequently managed its legal aspects. Prior to working with the Royal Commission, Deborah had her own successful consulting practice where she specialised in the statutory child protection system, legal issues facing children and vulnerable people, and legal aid. She also spent more than nine years at Legal Aid NSW, as a child protection solicitor, Senior Solicitor and then Solicitor in Charge, Child Protection. Deborah holds a Juris Doctorate from the Columbia University School of Law, a Master of International Affairs from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and a Diploma in Law from Sydney University.
Svetlana is a Senior Consultant at CompliSpace. She has over 20 years of experience in strategic and operational human resource management, occupational health and safety, and design and implementation of policies and change management programs.
She has held national people management responsibility positions in the public and private sectors, and is now the content specialist at CompliSpace for harmonised WHS (and OHS/OSH in the other two states), HR, Privacy and general compliance matters for Not-for-profits.
She holds a LLB , Masters in Management (MBA), Master of Arts in Journalism, and a Certificate in Governance for Not-for-profits.
Parisa Haider is a Legal Research Assistant at CompliSpace. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Business (Economics) at the University of Technology, Sydney.