HSE to investigate 676 schools over asbestos concerns

Nearly 700 schools have been referred to the HSE after failing to satisfy the Department for Education (DfE) that they were managing asbestos in line with legal requirements.

Last year, the government launched its asbestos management assurance process to take a deeper look into how schools are managing asbestos risk. It invited school leaders and responsible bodies to submit an assurance declaration about compliance with asbestos regulations.

Alarmingly, of the 2,952 school bodies that responded to the survey, 2,570 (87%) reported having asbestos in at least one of their buildings. According to campaigners, this puts over 7 million pupils at risk.

Those schools who failed to provide evidence that they were compliant will now be investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to assess the threat to pupils and staff.

Background

According to the Local Government Association, disputes over asbestos removal are preventing work from being carried out on school buildings that are in desperate need of attention.

While funding is available through the government’s Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP), even if applications are successful, local authorities are expected to make a significant contribution towards the costs of any such building projects, including the cost of asbestos removal.

Fraught discussions over who should foot the bill has led to a situation where building work is often delayed, and pupils and teachers continue to be at risk.

However, while trade unions are putting pressure on the government to remove asbestos from schools, leading cancer expert Professor Julian Peto believes that this may actually result in more deaths, as it would lead to the release of more deadly fibres.

A dormant danger

Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause a number of serious diseases, including mesothelioma (a type of cancer that is most commonly caused by asbestos fibres becoming lodged in the lining of the lungs) and asbestosis (serious lung scarring that can cause shortness of breath and can, in severe cases, be fatal).

These diseases have long latency periods, meaning they take a long time to develop, usually between 20 and 50 years after a person is first exposed to asbestos. Adding to concerns, research has also shown that exposure to asbestos is more dangerous the younger a person is; a five-year-old child is five times more likely to contract mesothelioma than an adult exposed to asbestos in their 30s.

As such, the true extent of the damage caused by asbestos in schools may not be apparent for many years, raising real concern over children’s future health.

To make matters worse, materials containing asbestos become more dangerous as they deteriorate or get damaged. According to the NEU, 60% of school buildings are more than 40 years old, leading to increased danger for staff and pupils.

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Deaths from mesothelioma in 2017

The HSE’s latest report on work-related fatalities has revealed that there were 2,523 deaths from mesothelioma in 2017. Rates have nearly doubled since 1995, with reports suggesting that the death toll from asbestos exposure in Britain has reached “crisis level”.

Kept in the dark

It is estimated that around 90% of school buildings in England contain asbestos, often around pipes and boilers, and in wall and ceiling tiles.

According to the HSE, asbestos only poses a risk if disturbed or damaged. Indeed, some types of asbestos, if enclosed and well managed, do not pose a serious risk. However, a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) suggests that materials such as asbestos lagging, sprayed asbestos and asbestos insulating board – all of which can release dangerous fibres – are present in schools.

Compounding the issue is the fact that staff are often unaware which areas of the school building contain asbestos. In fact, a 2017 survey of National Education Union (NEU) members revealed that:

  • Just 46% of respondents had been told that their school contained asbestos;
  • Of those, half had not been made aware of the location of the asbestos; and
  • Nearly 75% of those who had been told where it was located said the asbestos was in accessible locations, such as floors, ceilings, and window frames.

Lucie Stephens, whose mother Sue died of mesothelioma in 2016 after having worked as a primary school teacher for 30 years, has warned that this lack of awareness puts teachers and pupils at risk of exposure. She said: “What really bothered Mum was that because she didn’t know there was asbestos there, she wasn’t able to protect herself, but she also wasn’t able to protect the children she was teaching. So she unwittingly exposed her children to asbestos as well and they will be in their 40s now.”

"2 million asbestos fibres can fit on a pin head but mesothelioma can develop from ingesting only one or two fibres. There are no safe levels of exposure to asbestos."

Lucie Stephens, Campaigner

Where do we go from here?

Stephens and the joint union asbestos committee are now advocating for greater transparency around asbestos risk.

A petition has been launched demanding that the government require schools to produce an annual report detailing the type and condition of any asbestos on their premises, and to share this information with all parents and staff. This practice, they say, has been in place in the USA for the last 30 years. In addition, it urges the government to follow through with the recommendation made by MPs in 2012 to pursue a phased removal of all asbestos from schools by 2028.

“All of these deaths are completely preventable”, says Stephens. “We’ve known the dangers since the 1960s with legislation controlling its use since the mid-1980s. 2 million asbestos fibres can fit on a pin head but mesothelioma can develop from ingesting only one or two fibres. There are no safe levels of exposure to asbestos.”

Troublingly, experts predict that the number of school-related deaths in the UK will only continue to rise. As it stands, more than 200 teachers have died in the past 10 years from the effects of being exposed to asbestos. For each teacher fatality, it is estimated the nine ex-pupils will also die from asbestos-related diseases. Unless urgent action is taken, the vast majority Britain’s schools will continue to pose a real risk to health for the foreseeable future.

Top tips for schools when managing asbestos

There are a number of steps schools can take to safeguard against asbestos risk:

  • For buildings built pre-2000, make sure you have an up-to-date asbestos management survey, asbestos register and management plan. These documents should be reviewed/updated annually.
  • Carry out asbestos monitoring annually, or as directed by your survey/management plan.
  • Put in place a Refurbishment & Demolition (R&D) survey prior to any building upgrades.
  • Ensure asbestos is removed safely as advised by your asbestos survey.
  • Where required, label asbestos as advised by your asbestos survey.
  • Inform contractors who are working in the school of the location of asbestos.
  • Put emergency procedures in place for the eventuality that asbestos-containing material (ACM) is (or is thought to be) disturbed.
  • Appoint a designated person to manage asbestos within the school.
  • Provide training (such as an asbestos awareness course) for those responsible for asbestos management within the school, such as the headteacher, school business manager, facilities manager/caretaker/maintenance staff, etc. This may need to be widened for Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs).
  • Inform and instruct employees who are likely to disturb asbestos, such as caretakers, teachers, cleaners, etc., of its location.
  • Have information in place for emergency services as to the location of asbestos.

Need support?

If you’re looking for professional support to help reduce the risk of asbestos in your workplace, Ellis Whittam can provide an asbestos survey tailored to your building and assist in the formation of a subsequent management plan. We also offer an Asbestos Awareness e-Learning course, which will equip staff with the knowledge and skills they need to recognise different types of asbestos, understand control measures and appreciate the associated risks.

For more information, call 0345 226 8393.