How the coalition is failing to act on ‘time-bomb’ of asbestos in schools

A key government report on asbestos in schools was due in June 2014. Yet it still hasn’t been published. Why?

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A key government report on asbestos in schools was due in June 2014. Yet it still hasn’t been published. Why?

Before researching this subject I knew that asbestos was present in many schools. I thought, however, that it was generally well managed and that there was nothing much to worry about. I was wrong.

Schoolchildren and staff are at considerable risk of exposure to asbestos and the government is failing to take relatively simple steps to reduce their risk of developing the fatal disease mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers.

As the All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health and Safety (the APPG) stated in its March 2014 report on the subject, the presence and current management of asbestos is “a time-bomb in our schools”.

The problem

Approximately 75 per cent of state schools in Britain contain asbestos. It is often present in school walls, floors, ceilings, window and door surrounds as well as in pipes and boiler rooms. Normal school activity such as pinning work to walls, slamming doors and removing books from cupboards has been found to disturb asbestos leading to the release of fibres into the air.

In 2006 it was found that when doors were slammed in schools, asbestos fibres released were 800 times greater than background levels (there is no known threshold exposure to asbestos below which there is no risk).

140 school teachers died from mesothelioma in the ten years from 1999 to 2008. An unknown number of caretakers, cleaners, teaching assistants and admin staff have also died from the disease.

Given the delay in developing mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos it is not known how many people have died due to exposure as a schoolchild, but evidence by a leading epidemiologist to the Education Select Committee in 2013 estimated that between 200 and 300 people will die of mesothelioma each year due to exposure as a pupil in the 1960 and 1970s.

We’re better at managing asbestos than we were decades ago but – and this is a big but – we are nowhere near as good as we should be and asbestos has become much more difficult to manage safely now it is older.

Unsafe management

The government position is that it is better to manage asbestos rather than remove it provided it’s in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed. However, much asbestos is ageing and so not in a good condition and management in schools is often far from optimal.

Rather obviously, to minimise the risk of exposure to asbestos you have to know where asbestos is located. Those working in schools also need to know what activities are likely to increase exposure to asbestos fibres. In far too many cases even these basic steps are not being taken.

In 2010 a survey of over 600 school safety representatives only 28 per cent of respondents said the presence of asbestos-containing materials was clearly marked in the workplace and only 20 per cent confirmed that a register showing the presence of asbestos was shown to contractors before they commenced work.

Inspections in 2013/2014 by the Health and Safety Executive of non-local authority schools found that of the 153 schools inspected, 44 required written advice from the HSE and 20 had such poor safety management of asbestos that they were subject to enforcement action.

The APPG report similarly stresses the inadequacy of procedures to manage asbestos in schools, stating that:

“common faults include a lack of asbestos awareness and poor standards of training; asbestos management plans found to be ineffective; confusion over areas of responsibility; and the less accessible asbestos has frequently not been identified because of inadequate surveys.”

Government inaction

The government’s announcement in 2013 that it would review the management of asbestos in schools was briefly cause for optimism. Consultation took place between January and March 2014 with a report promised for June.

But despite calls by teaching unions and many others, this report has yet to be published.

The concern is that publication is being delayed because of the cost implications of better management of asbestos. The APPG for example has recommended the following measures:

  • the phased removal of asbestos from schools starting with those where it is considered most dangerous;
  • standards in asbestos training should be set and training made mandatory;
  • development of widespread air sampling in schools;
  • parents, teachers and support staff should be annually updated on the presence of asbestos and the measures being taken to manage it;
  • inspections to determine the standards of asbestos management should be reinstated; and
  • data should be collected centrally on the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools.

An ominous track record

The coalition has a nasty track record when it comes to victims of mesothelioma. Chris Grayling tried to reduce the amount of compensation payable to victims by allowing them to be charged up to 25 per cent of their compensation to pay for their legal costs and insurance.  Previously these costs had been paid in full by the insurers of those found liable for causing the harm.

Only after the High Court found that the policy was unlawful was Grayling forced to drop it (there’s that pesky judicial review again!).

Prior to introducing the legislation that attempted to reduce compensation for mesothelioma sufferers, the government reached a secret heads of agreement with the ABI. This document was not revealed to other interested parties and only came to light when the ABI were forced to disclose it. It contained proposals that would have been highly beneficial to insurers and detrimental to mesothelioma victims.

Finally, a leaked DfE document from October 2013 showed that Michael Gove and David Laws wanted to get rid of the Asbestos Steering Group which consists of asbestos experts, union representatives, school governors and local authorities.

It is hard not to suspect that the government, if unchecked, will happily disregard the review into better management of asbestos in schools and the lives that might be saved.

Annie Powell is a contributing editor at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

4 Responses to “How the coalition is failing to act on ‘time-bomb’ of asbestos in schools”

  1. swat

    I remember working at a school in the late 80’s just off St Johns Wood, and asbestos resulted in the whole school decamping off to another site for 2 Terms while the problem was sorted out. The best thing would be to knock down all thses schools and CPO all out of town supermarkets and build a brand new secondary school there. It would be a good thing for the High street too.

  2. Leon Wolfeson

    If I understand you right…you want to put schools well out of town, demolish a load of supermarkets and think that’ll do “good” things for the high street?

  3. ElieJulz

    My business partners wanted IRS 1040 – Schedule E earlier this week and were told about a great service that has lots of sample forms . If you need IRS 1040 – Schedule E too , here’s http://goo.gl/Zm0sWP

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