Is asbestos really an issue in our schools?
On the 12th October 2012, a high school in Wales suddenly closed evacuating more than 900 pupils with immediate effect. The closure of Cwmcarn High School in Caerphilly, Wales resulted after “high levels of airborne asbestos” were found in several school buildings.
A section of the school (believed to be a newer extension) has since been reopened for sixth formers, but the majority of children will now have to be schooled elsewhere. It has been estimated that the asbestos removal and decontamination of the school will take 12 months and is expected to cost £3 million. There is great anxiety amongst parents about the amount of exposure their children have been subjected to.
Was this a one off or is there a bigger issue?
What will shock everyone (parents, pupils, teachers and frankly anyone who has ever been to school) is just how much of our school system is in a similarly lethal state to Cwmcarn.
The Department of Education’s best estimate is that over 75% of UK schools contain asbestos. Although this percentage is thought to be even higher. For example, about 90% of schools in Wales, Greater Manchester, Kent and the North East contain asbestos.
The Health & Safety Executive summarised the amount of the use of asbestos in schools as follows:
“Of the approximate 20,400 primary schools and 3,400 secondary schools in the UK, some 13,000 were built between 1945 and 1974, when the use of Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMS) in building was at its peak. Many other school premises would have been refurbished during or since that period, providing the potential for the introduction of ACMs e.g. lagging, ceiling panels, partition walls, sprayed coatings. This suggests that a high proportion of our present schools contain asbestos and represent the potential to release deadly fibres.”
So is asbestos in schools a real problem?
On 31st October 2012, the Health & Safety Executive published the latest figures for mesothelioma deaths in the UK. The HSE has acknowledged that British mesothelioma (most significant asbestos related disease) death rate is now the highest in the world and their latest figures show that this is continuing to rise.
Increased numbers of school teachers are dying of mesothelioma. A total of 228 school teachers have died of mesothelioma since 1980 aged 16-74.
140 school teachers died of mesothelioma in the ten year period between 1999 to 2008 aged 16-74.
Schools support staff have also died of mesothelioma. Nursery nurses, education assistants, midday assistants and childcare related occupations, a period from 1991-2000 there were 17 deaths in this group and in the five year period from 2001-2005 there were 12 deaths. Five school secretaries died of mesothelioma between 2001-2005.
These figures are considered to be very significant to the argument against asbestos in school as they are all non building related professions. The Teaching profession should have little or no contact with asbestos, but HSE statistics show that teachers are dying of asbestos disease at a rate of death far higher than they would had they had no asbestos exposure.
The death rate is, for instance, significantly higher than occupations such as farming or forestry where they genuinely have little or no contact with asbestos.
So what should schools do?
This question is answered – with effective asbestos management.
Although concerns have been raised over the government’s position of “managing asbestos” in schools, at this current time this is still the enforced recommendation.
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 – Regulation 4 The duty to manage asbestos in non domestic premises, places responsibilities on the duty holder to manage asbestos. This regulation applies to all non domestic premises including schools and educational premises.
Headteachers, bursars, business managers, school governors, and other members of the school management team all need to know who is responsible for asbestos management procedures and documentation, and for ensuring that this is always followed.
School management teams must ensure that maintenance, repair work and improvements on school buildings are carried out safely. This means that:
- staff and visitors know what precautions to follow
- where health and safety functions are delegated, staff are appropriately trained and clear lines of accountability are established
- all work on buildings is carried out only after consulting the documentation on asbestos
- any work likely to affect asbestos-containing materials is carried out by a qualified person, after consultation with those who have duty-holder responsibilities, such as the employer, the governing body, or the building owner.
You can review how your school is performing on asbestos management by using the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) checklist, which you can be downloaded here. Schools Asbestos Checklist.
Are you compliant? Get further help.
If you would like a free asbestos compliance audit undertaken at your school or any other premises, please give us a call and book today! Our free asbestos compliant audit will take no longer than 30 minutes and will be undertaken by one of our asbestos management consultants.