Responding to the RAAC concrete crisis | Safety measures for schools and other sectors
Written on 1 September 2023
More than 100 schools in England have been ordered to close buildings following the discovery of crumbling aerated concrete known as RAAC.
The general secretary of school leaders union NAHT has called the news “shocking, but not hugely surprising”, blaming “more than a decade of wilful under-investment” in schools.
New guidance issued on Thursday has instructed schools to shut buildings and rooms that contain RAAC unless they have safety measures in place. With just days until the new school term starts, many have been forced to scramble to make alternative arrangements in time for opening.
The government has said it will cover the cost of “remedial action” following the change in safety guidance, including covering the costs of setting up temporary classrooms.
But it’s not just schools that are on the brink of collapse. Issues with RAAC concrete have also been identified in several hospitals across England. In total, the government says 24 NHS buildings contain RAAC planks, with seven requiring urgent rebuilding work.
Moreover, Matt Byatt, the president of the Institution of Structural Engineers, has said RAAC could be present in other types of workplaces, including office blocks, sports facilities, high street stores and hospitality buildings. “We only know where it is when it has been found. But until someone is looking for it, they wouldn’t know it’s there”, he said.
So what is RAAC, and what are employers required to do in order manage the risks?
What is RAAC?
Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) is a construction material known for its lightweight, porous structure. It’s created by blending cement, sand, aluminum powder and water into a slurry, aerating it with gas, and curing it in an autoclave. The result is strong, lightweight concrete blocks or panels.
RAAC was widely used as a construction material between the 1950s and mid-1990s for its insulation properties, fire resistance, and environmental benefits due to its reduced weight and energy-efficient production process.
Unfortunately, because of its lightweight composition, RAAC can lose structural integrity over time. Moisture infiltration, long-term exposure to the elements, and insufficient maintenance can exacerbate these vulnerabilities, further jeopardising the safety on buildings that still contain this material – and it’s suspected there are many.
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What are the dangers?
Of the 100 schools forced to close due to RAAC concerns, 50 are said to be at risk of sudden collapse due to dangerous concrete. Naturally, this could have devastating consequences if action isn’t taken to make buildings safe.
Nick Wilson, Health & Safety Director at WorkNest, said: “The risks associated with RAAC are not new revelations. The Department for Education (DfE) has been looking into RAAC as a potential issue since late 2018, after a roof containing this material suddenly collapsed at a primary school in Kent. Fortunately, the incident occurred at a weekend, sparing any casualties, but it could have been a lot worse.”
Following the incident, guidance was issued to schools in 2021 and 2022 about how to manage RAAC. Despite this, a recent watchdog report published in July 2023 further highlighted the declining condition of school buildings in England, revealing that an estimated 700,000 children are being taught in unsafe or ageing school buildings, and more than a third of all school buildings in England have passed their estimated initial design life.
Speaking on its decision to shut schools, Schools Minister Nick Gibb said that “other evidence” had emerged over summer “that RAAC that had been regarded as safe actually failed”. As such, the government “took swift action to change the guidance and to change our approach”.
Is RAAC an issue in other sectors?
As the headlines are beginning to show, the issues surrounding RAAC are not confined to schools.
Nick Wilson says: “We have hospitals and social housing buildings with RAAC and they will be next. If such buildings are required to close until made safe, you would expect similar support to be extended to them as for schools.”
He adds: “Other privately-owned buildings and workplaces could also have RAAC present, in which case they have a duty to arrange an inspection to mitigate risk. However, unfortunately for these sorts of premises, they will not have the support of government structural engineers and inspectors, which makes things difficult as RAAC is not easily identifiable, according to some.
With this in mind, Nick advises that if employers aren’t sure whether RAAC is present in their workplace, then the building should be assessed and appraised by an engineer to understand what, if any, risk there is and if any immediate temporary remedial work is required.
From a legal perspective, Nick explains: “All employers, regardless of sector, have a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees, as well as anyone else who may be affected by their activities. This of course includes maintaining buildings in a safe condition and managing the risks of RAAC.”
We suspect our workplace has RAAC. What should we do?
Given the headlines, a proactive approach is required to deal with any concerns related to RAAC within your structures. Nick Wilson advises that building owners and managers responsible for building safety take the following steps now:
Establish whether RAAC is present in your premises
It’s important to note that not all buildings built between the 1950s to mid-90s will contain RAAC, so the first step is to confirm whether yours does. This is a job for an experienced estate manager, maintenance manager, or building owner.
RAAC can be tricky to identify, as RAAC panels are typically hidden behind finishes such as suspended ceilings or plasterboard. Schools can refer to this guide produced by the Department for Education to help identify if their buildings have RAAC.
If you are unsure, enlist support from a professionally registered structural engineer or surveyor (they don’t need to be an expert in RAAC to identify if the building has RAAC present).
Undertake a building assessment to understand the risk
Upon confirming the presence of RAAC in your building, you will need to have a competent individual undertake comprehensive assessment. This will evaluate potential risks and determine whether immediate temporary corrective measures are necessary.
These assessments should be carried out by qualified structural engineers, particularly those who hold IStructE Chartered and Associate-Member qualifications. You can find a list of experienced professionals with proficiency in RAAC over on the Institution for Structural Engineers website.
Identify solutions and take appropriate action
Following a detailed site inspection, skilled structural engineers will carefully review all the information gathered and suggest the necessary repairs or improvements.
Nick Wilson explains: “It’s important to note that employers should consider the concept of “reasonable practicability” in health and safety law when implementing these solutions. This means weighing up factors such as time and cost against the degree of risk. Employers aren’t necessarily obligated to implement every recommendation if it’s not reasonably practicable to do so, but only when safety steps are out of all proportion to the risk can they be ruled out. If in doubt, seek advice.”
WorkNest clients are advised to appraise their buildings for the presence of RAAC, and if identified, have it assessed by an engineer as instructed above. If you have any queries regarding the best course of action, please contact your Health & Safety Consultant for support.