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 as just another 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.
Figures gathered by the National Union of Teachers’ Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) reveal that, since 1980, at least 363 of 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.
There are no equivalent figures for children, but we do know that each year around 2,500 people die in the UK from mesothelioma. Giving evidence to the Education Select Committee in March 2013, Professor Julian Peto – a leading expert in occupational carcinogens – estimated that around 200-300 of these deaths are the result of childhood exposure to asbestos in school.
The shocking figures are compounded by the fact that the onset of mesothelioma typically comes decades after the asbestos exposure which caused it. While the incidence of the disease in the general population is finally thought to be nearing a plateau – 20 years after the UK banned all asbestos imports and use – there’s no clear indication that the same applies to school-related cases.
The authorities can’t claim to be unaware of this risk. Back in 2011 the Asbestos in Schools Group – a multi-agency organisation chaired by MP Rachel Reeves – was damning, its report concluding:
Forty five years ago the Department for Education [was] warned about the increased vulnerability to children from asbestos, but for financial, commercial and political reasons the warnings were not heeded. Instead asbestos materials continued to be used in science and other lessons, and schools continued to be built using large amounts of asbestos.
Unfortunately it’s not just a historic problem. Scan the news for asbestos headlines, and on any given day you’re likely to find at least one story about asbestos being discovered, disturbed or removed at a UK school. Indeed, according to MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, 85% of schools contain asbestos, and the risks become greater as those buildings age.
What’s being done?
At present, the answer is not enough. Parliament says that the government doesn’t have enough information to address the problem, and it may have a point. The Department for Education’s first school property survey did not assess asbestos, and in 2016, when a second survey aimed to collect data on the issue, only a quarter of schools responded. When a third survey closed in 2018, 77% of schools had responded. Given the importance of the information, the survey was reopened and all remaining schools were urged to respond – the final results are due soon.
There’s no doubt the government needs more information, but there is a question over whether the survey will provide it. The safe management of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) is a school’s legal duty, and the fact that they are hardly being forthcoming with high-level information about the presence and management of ACMs is concerning. Some multi-academy trusts (MATs) couldn’t even gather information about their private finance initiative (PFI) schools, which shows a worrying lack of accountability.
The detail of what is known isn’t especially reassuring, either. Of the 77% of schools which responded within the original deadline of the most recent survey, 68% were found to be “assured by the appropriate responsible body”. It’s a singularly woolly phrase, which means nothing to asbestos professionals.
According to the JUAC, “These latest findings show that many schools are unaware of the risk or the extent of asbestos in our schools.” With the poor response to the government’s latest survey, can we be confident that this has got any better?
But while the survey leaves us in the dark, we do know that most schools contain some form of asbestos. The UK outlawed the majority of the most hazardous asbestos types in the 1980s, but the final banning of all asbestos – including asbestos cement, floor tiles, artex and so on – only came in 1999. Any school built before 2000 could – and probably does – contain asbestos.
Sophie Ward sums up the fundamental issue: “The problem is that in many cases the asbestos is decades old and in a deteriorating condition, and when asbestos is in a poor condition, it’s more likely to release asbestos fibres.”
Children’s comparative vulnerability compounds the problem. Ward adds: “If a child is exposed at the age of five, they have five times greater risk [of developing mesothelioma] than an adult exposed at the age of 30.”
Where does that leave schools?
Against this background, it’s instructive to look at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advice to schools regarding asbestos, as follows:
The duty-holder’s responsibilities include:
- keeping an up-to-date record of the location and condition of ACMs in the school
- assessing the risks from any ACMs in the school
- making plans to manage the risks from ACMs in the school
- putting those plans into action
Those most at risk of disturbing ACMs are tradespeople, caretakers, etc. The school’s plan needs to contain provisions to ensure that information about the location and condition of ACMs is given to anyone who might disturb these materials. The duty-holder should also ensure that staff likely to disturb asbestos are suitably trained.
As the Asbestos in Schools group pointed out back in 2011, aside from the addition of caretakers this is essentially the same advice that applies to any other employer. As with other premises, ACMs assessed as low-risk are managed in situ.
In an ordinary workplace, that 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. Even in typical workplaces, that’s a big task.
A key component is identifying the people who might come into contact with any risk, and ensuring they know what that risk is. Anyone who might disturb the asbestos must have asbestos awareness training. In a normal workplace this would be the workforce, with tight controls for visitors and contractors. However, where the ACMs are in a classroom or a school corridor, the risk extends to children. The current rules require that this ‘workforce’ is trained – but clearly it’s hard to train away the risks of play, over-excitement, or a casually swung schoolbag.
Schools are essentially small businesses: employers, with all the duties of employment. Head teachers already have daunting responsibilities: is it reasonable to also expect them to manage asbestos for vulnerable building users? And yet, since The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, that’s become their duty. We have to wonder if heads are aware of this sea change in responsibility: have they been trained to take on the role, and are they properly resourced to fulfil it?
Again, the Asbestos in Schools group has been damning:
There has been a lack of asbestos awareness and a lack of resources so that schools have failed to adequately manage their asbestos. Numerous asbestos incidents have occurred and the exposure of the occupants has been widespread. The Medical Research Council concluded that it is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings. Teachers, support staff and children have subsequently died.
If our schools’ managers aren’t competent to manage asbestos, and the majority of our school population can’t be considered competent around it, and the government doesn’t know the scale of the problem anyway, managed removal would seem to be the only justifiable approach. Concerning a high proportion of the UK’s 32,000 schools it would be a big, expensive, time-consuming job, but our continued failure to act poses unacceptable risks to the most vulnerable in our society, and the professionals who teach and care for them.
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