Asbestos in Schools: What You Need to Know

The subject of asbestos in schools is sadly not one that has ceased to be relevant, despite the importation, supply, and use of all types of this lethal material having been banned in the UK since 1999. This is because the material continues to exist in many school buildings across the country, and therefore needs to be appropriately and sensitively managed where it is present.

So, what do you need to know about the presence and management of asbestos materials in school buildings for which you may be responsible? Below, we have set out the essentials.

asbestos in schools

Is asbestos still present in schools?

The short answer to this question is: yes. As the Department for Education has stated in guidance last updated in 2020, “most school and college buildings contain asbestos.”

Although the aforementioned ban means that asbestos is no longer used by the UK construction industry, the naturally occurring fibres are still present in many buildings put up before the year 2000; it has been reported that around 85% of schools in the UK still have asbestos in their buildings.

Understanding the risk of asbestos exposure in schools

With the use of asbestos having been particularly widespread in the 1950s and 1960s – the substance being frequently chosen back then on account of its insulation properties and fire protection resistance – buildings erected during these decades are even likelier to still contain the material giving rise to concerns about asbestos problems in buildings.

Indeed, the mid-20th century – a time before the dangers of the substance to health became widely known among workers and the public – saw asbestos added to almost many types of construction and building materials.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), “asbestos that is in good condition and unlikely to be damaged or disturbed is not a significant risk to health as long as it is properly managed.”

The UK Government agency has said that this means school teachers and pupils are “unlikely” to be put at risk of being exposed to asbestos materials during their usual activities. However, it has said that activities posing a possible risk of causing damage to asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) – such as pinning or tacking work to insulation board or asbestos ceiling tiles – should be avoided.

Research conducted in 2018 found that there were five times more deaths from mesothelioma – a type of cancer almost always arising from direct contact with asbestos – among teachers than would be expected in populations that have not been exposed to asbestos.

It is a saddening reminder that the risks of school staff breathing in this potentially lethal material, possibly without even being aware of it, are likely still very real.

Where can asbestos be found in schools?

There is a wide range of areas within a school building put up before the year 2000, in which some form of asbestos might be present.

Asbestos lagging, for instance, was once commonly used as thermal insulation on pipes and boilers, while sprayed asbestos and asbestos-insulating board (AIB) also saw frequent use for partitioning and ducts. The asbestos material can also be found in some ceiling tiles, as well as in floor tiles, cement roofing and guttering, and textured coatings.

What is the current status of asbestos in schools?

As aforementioned, asbestos is likely to be present in at least some buildings in the majority of schools in the UK, such was the material’s widespread use in construction from the 1950s until the 1990s. Concerning news headlines have also continued to emerge on the subject of the asbestos that remains in schools, and the risks that the material might still pose.

Those stories have included – in July 2019 – reports that almost 700 schools in England had been referred to the HSE over concerns that they were failing to safely manage asbestos on their premises, thereby potentially putting school staff and students at risk. It was reported then by The Guardian that about 90% of school buildings in England were believed to still contain asbestos.

In May 2022, it was further reported that a widow whose husband passed away following his diagnosis with a lung cancer thought to have been caused by school-based asbestos exposure, said it was his teaching career that “ultimately killed him”.

Carol Plater said to the i that her husband John was “an amazing character” who dedicated himself to teaching. She added that he had been fit and healthy – being a keen skier and rock climber – until he began suffering abdominal pains in September 2019.

Mr Plater was diagnosed with mesothelioma in January 2020, and very sadly died in February 2021.

His widow said that he had qualified as a school teacher in 1974, and that it is believed his main exposure to asbestos happened five years later at an East Sussex school, where he worked “in a new workshop with a metal heating area which was lagged with asbestolux. He flagged it, but he was told it was fine.”

According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), a total of 305 teachers are confirmed to have died from mesothelioma between 2001 and 2016. And John McClean, of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, recently said that 102 teachers and educational professionals had died from mesothelioma during 2019 alone.

Indeed, he expressed fears that the true numbers of deaths for teachers exposed to asbestos may be even higher than those officially shared, due to the fact that “anyone who dies over the age of 75 is not recorded as an industrial death.”

He added: “Also, the HSE records mesothelioma deaths by the last profession someone worked. So, if someone worked as a teacher for many years and then took retirement and worked as something else before their death, their occupation would not be listed as a teacher.”

Lynne Squibb, chief executive of the Hampshire Asbestos Support Awareness Group (Hasag) charity, said: “We have lobbied the Government and written to MPs for many years asking for a planned removal of asbestos from state schools, but they keep telling us that the HSE say asbestos is safe to remain in schools if it is properly maintained.

“But I don’t think we would be seeing rising numbers of teachers dying of asbestos-related disease if this was the case… we feel the Government won’t commit to removing asbestos because of the expense.”

Who is responsible for managing asbestos in schools?

For clarity on who is the ‘duty holder’ with regard to the management of asbestos in a school, one has to look to Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. This regulation states that anyone who is responsible for maintaining and/or repairing non-domestic premises – such as a school – has the role of ‘duty holder’.

In practice, in the case of schools, it is generally the employer that is the ‘duty holder’. However, the exact identity of the ‘employer’ will depend on the type of school.

So, in the case of community schools, voluntary-controlled schools or maintained nursery schools, it is the local authority that will be the ‘employer’. But if the institution is an academy or free school, it is the school governors who be the ‘employer’, and at independent schools, it may be the proprietor, governors or trustees who have this role.

If your school has its building management budget delegated to it by the local authority, the duty to manage asbestos will be shared between the local authority and the school.

For the financing of maintained schools, the local authority will have a written scheme stipulating the categories of work that will either be financed from the delegated school budget share or remain the local authority’s responsibility. It will therefore effectively be both parties that have responsibilities as ‘duty holders’ as far as the maintenance and repair of the premises is concerned.

asbestos in schools

What happens when asbestos is found in schools?

The dutyholder has a series of responsibilities with regard to the management of asbestos in their school buildings. These include – as outlined by the health and safety executive (HSE) – keeping an up-to-date record of where asbestos containing materials (ACMs) are located on the school premises, and the condition of those materials.

It is also expected that the dutyholder will assess the risks that any given asbestos containing materials pose within the school buildings, in addition to making and implementing plans to manage those risks.

So, in practice, what should happen if asbestos is discovered on your school property? The plans that you put together – and put into action – should include one or more of the below elements.

Maintenance

Are the asbestos fibres on the school premises in good condition? If so, you should prepare a plan designed to ensure they remain in this condition. It should be detailed in the plan what kind of maintenance needs to be carried out in order to achieve this.

Repair

There may be a need for maintenance personnel to carry out repairs to pipe or boiler coverings that have sustained damage, and it is possible that these coverings may contain asbestos. These are normally modest repair jobs where there might only be a small amount of asbestos present. You may need to arrange for a licensed professional to carry out this work.

Encapsulation

The step might be taken in some cases of spraying a thick, paint-like sealant on exposed asbestos materials, to secure them in place so that asbestos fibres aren’t released later. This is a process known as ‘encapsulation’.

Enclosure

This is a process not unlike encapsulation, except that it entails surrounding the asbestos with an airtight barrier, created from a material such as wood or metal.

Removal

While the entire removal of asbestos isn’t always chosen, as it may be judged that asbestos removal isn’t necessary or cost-effective, it is nonetheless the only solution in this list that would completely take away the risk of the asbestos being disturbed or damaged at some point in the future. This task typically involves the asbestos containing materials being removed and replaced with materials that do not contain asbestos.

Given the extremely high levels of risk involved when dealing with asbestos in any type of building, if you are in doubt about the processes or requirements for any of the above elements of asbestos management, you are urged to get in touch with a reputable asbestos consultancy that can provide more specific advice and guidance.

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