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The Times is turning into a real champion for those of us who want to change the UK’s approach to asbestos. The paper has kicked off a new – and extremely welcome – campaign to eradicate asbestos from schools [paywall], launching it with another excellent article. 

It’s fantastic to finally see the issue getting some mainstream coverage. You’ll probably remember that I’ve written before about asbestos in schools. I think it’s an issue that many of us in the industry feel increasingly strongly about.

It’s instructive to remind ourselves as to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advice to schools regarding asbestos. They must:

  • Keep an up-to-date record of the location and condition of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in the school
  • Assess the risks from any ACMs in the school
  • Make plans to manage the risks from ACMs in the school
  • Put those plans into action

In a school setting, those most at risk of disturbing ACMs are tradespeople, caretakers and others who work on the fabric of the building. The school’s plan needs to contain provisions to ensure that they have information about the location and condition of ACMs. The duty-holder should also ensure that any staff likely to disturb asbestos are suitably trained.

As I’ve pointed out before, this is essentially the same advice that applies to any other employer, and any other workplace: manage the ACMs in situ. But schools are unique.

In law, a school is a workplace, but the majority of people using them are children – sometimes as young as three. Despite the known vulnerability of children to pollutants, contaminants and other environmental hazards, when it comes to asbestos, schools are treated like any other workplace: they’re subject to workplace asbestos fibre limits, regulations and management approaches. And that’s a problem – both for our children, and the professionals who teach them.

The Times’ article brings together lots of stats that, when read together, paint a very stark picture of the current situation. Figures gathered by the National Union of Teachers’ Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) reveal that, since 1980, around 400 British school teaching professionals have died of mesothelioma, the cancer almost exclusively linked to asbestos exposure. An average of 19 school teaching professionals now die each year from mesothelioma – up from three per year in 1980.

 

Schools-Asbestos-Assure360

This is likely to be an underestimate, as occupation is not stated on the death certificate of those over 75 – which is the age group accounting for most victims of this horrible disease. To my mind, the real figure could even be double or triple this number.

Research by the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that for every teacher that succumbs to the disease, a further nine pupils  will go on to die from mesothelioma in later life. The JUAC estimates that as many as 10,000 pupils and staff have died to date due to exposure to asbestos in schools.

A unique challenge

Why is asbestos such a serious problem in schools? Aside from the particular vulnerability of pupils to the substance, the UK has a major problem with how widespread ACMs are – and also with the poor state of repair that some school buildings are in. More than this, schools are under budgetary pressure – heads are thinly spread as it is.

In 2018, the government asked schools to provide information on asbestos in their buildings, through the Asbestos Management Assurance Process. In 2019, AMAP reported that 80% of schools contained asbestos.

In addition to this, the National Audit Office has estimated that 24,000 school buildings are beyond their design life. Nearly two-thirds of these are the system-built buildings that so frequently contain asbestos. Last year the Department for Education revealed that there was a risk of the collapse of one or more blocks in some of these schools.

A recent Freedom of Information request by JUAC to 60 of these system-built schools revealed that nearly half did not have an “up to date” asbestos survey, and two-thirds had not identified where all of the asbestos was.

In an ordinary workplace, the HSE’s ‘manage in-situ’ advice can work very well. Surveyed, recorded and managed properly, ACMs should pose no risk – provided the management plan ensures that they remain undisturbed. Proper management starts with a management team that has the training and experience to properly understand the risk, and design and implement appropriate controls.

The Times’ article brings together a body of evidence demonstrating that, for schools at least, this is not working. Headteachers have been unreasonably forced into the role of duty holder, responsible for management of asbestos in their schools without adequate training, support or budget.

When you add in the fact that the majority of the school population can’t be considered competent around asbestos, and the complication that we don’t know the true scale of the problem, it is not surprising that the system isn’t working.

Phased removal

If management in-situ doesn’t work for schools, the only answer is surely the phased removal called for in the excellent Work and Pensions Committee investigation and report. As I have written before, the government rejected the report’s key recommendation to remove all asbestos from public and commercial buildings, and this is where the Times is taking up the banner for schools, with its five-point plan:

  1. A 40-year programme to remove all asbestos
  2. National register of properties 
  3. Make access to this information easy for those most at risk – via an App and online digital register
  4. Regular air testing in buildings that contain asbestos 
  5. Minimum standards of training for those in charge of managing asbestos

The paper’s campaign has already gained support from significant political figures including Nadhim Zaharwi , Alan Johnson and Matt Hancock, who between them have formerly held the roles of Chancellor, Education Secretary, Home Secretary and Health Secretary.

The Times clearly doesn’t want to let this lie, and I applaud it for that. Its launch article ends by asking if you have been affected by asbestos. If you have, email the paper at asbestos@sundaytimes.co.uk.

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