An all-party MP group on occupational health recently reported there is an asbestos “time-bomb in our schools.

Huge numbers of schools built in the three post-World War II decades are nearing their useful life-end. Asbestos was extensively used to fireproof and insulate buildings in this period. Almost all of the 14,000 schools built between 1945 and 1975 contain asbestos along with most refurbished in that time. More than 75% of schools contain asbestos.

Statistics show growing numbers of mesothelioma deaths with some 2,500 again projected this year. Mesothelioma is a fatal lung cancer almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure. In 1980-85, 15 school teachers died from mesothelioma. By 2012, that yearly average had increased from 3 to 22. The Department for Education reported last year that “teaching professionals,” including teaching assistants, nursery nurses and school secretaries accounted for 224 of the mesothelioma deaths between 2003 and 2012. The figures did not include maintenance staff. Indeed, not only teachers are affected. The DfE’s report recognised that as children have longer to live, they are at greater risk of developing mesothelioma. More law suits are involving people claiming exposure to asbestos as pupils.

Increasingly tired premises and widespread use of asbestos pose a huge challenge to the local authorities, governors and trustees responsible for school maintenance and repair. By law they have a specific “duty to manage asbestos” when maintaining or repairing buildings, under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. However, it seems many do not understand their role and responsibility in managing the fast ticking asbestos “time-bomb.”

Lack of Strategy

A 2010 study by the Asbestos Testing and Consultants Association, involving 12 schools, found not one fully complied with Health and Safety Executive guidance and only four adequately managed asbestos. A 2011 HSE initiative randomly looking at asbestos management in 164 schools outside local authority control found similar shortcomings. Twenty-eight were so far below acceptable standards that inspectors served 41 improvement notices.

Unfortunately, there are few studies and the full extent of the problem has yet to be revealed. Asbestos in schools campaigner, Michael Lees, believes even the DfE does not know how big the problem is as it has not asked. The department recently carried out an audit of the condition of school property but, as Lees says, “specifically excluded one of the most expensive items to maintain, refurbish or demolish a school – asbestos.”

Teaching unions have long criticised the lack of strategies dealing with asbestos in schools. Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, says the NUT has for many years found school asbestos management systems fall far short of expectations.

This begs the question as to whether your school is meeting the legal requirements and asbestos challenge…

Has a survey for asbestos material been carried out? Was it undertaken by an accredited organisation? Is it compliant with guidance or regulations? Has the survey been used to develop a site-specific written asbestos management plan? Have you appointed someone in charge of managing asbestos and what asbestos training do they have?  Have you implemented a suitable risk management system?

Contact Ellis Whittam to learn how we might help your school manage to defuse its asbestos “time-bomb!”

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