Asbestos In Schools

It is estimated that at least three quarters of school buildings contain asbestos. Following the second World War a school building boom ensued, with many pre-fabricated structures being used to create brand new schools all over the country. These cheap, quick to build structures often contained large void areas due to their structure, and asbestos was used frequently as fire protection due to its excellent thermal properties to ensure fire did not spread through buildings and as insulation. Much of the asbestos in schools was installed during the 1940’s to 1970’s when asbestos usage was at its peak. This asbestos is now aged and in a deteriorating state of repair.

A recent report published by the HSE estimates that there is asbestos in 86% of the schools within the UK.

In 2012, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health & Safety made plans for the phased removal of all dangerous forms of asbestos from public building, including schools, this was to be completed by 2028’[1]. However, a recent report published in October 2017 by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) suggests that at the current rate of asbestos removal, unsafe asbestos may remain in our schools until at least 2050. The JUAC was formed in 2010 and is a trade union campaigning committee comprising of the 8 unions, with the objective of making all UK schools and colleges safe from the dangers of asbestos.

Asbestos exposure is linked to a number of serious health problems and associated disease, one of these is a mesothelioma, a cancer caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos. Between 1980 and 1985 there were 15 mesothelioma deaths among school teachers- just three per year. In 2012 alone, there were 22’[2].  It seems that the legacy of the post-war school building boom has some way to go yet.  It is also estimated that more than 200 teachers have died across the country since 2001 from mesothelioma, (according to the National Education Union, (NEU).

The Department of Health’s Committee on Carcinogenicity looked into the potential harm caused to children by asbestos exposure. They concluded that, due to their longer life expectancy and the long latency period for the disease to develop, children have an increased lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma compared to adults if exposed to a given dose of asbestos. However, we do not have conclusive evidence on the relative risks of asbestos exposure in a school setting or on whether children are intrinsically more susceptible to harm from exposure to asbestos.[3]

Whilst guidance has been issued for the management of asbestos in our schools, it seems that a lack of knowledge and understanding of the problem by staff, including the risks and ways to minimise exposure are also a key concern. Figures in a recent study conducted by The National Teachers Union in March 2017 found that: ‘46% of teachers had been told that their school contained asbestos but about half of those said they had not been told where it was located’. School staff often are not told whether their school contains asbestos, and where the asbestos is located. This means it may be impossible for them to avoid disturbing it, and they could be at risk of asbestos exposure.

Data released by the Freedom of Information (FOI) details that requests submitted in 2016 revealed that UK councils have paid out over £10 million in compensation to staff and former pupils because of asbestos exposure in schools.

Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations Act 2012 details that the ‘duty holder’ is anyone who has the responsibility for maintenance and/or repair of non-domestic premises, including schools. For the majority of schools, the duty holder will be the employer. Who the employer is varies dependent on the type of school. For community and public schools the local authority is the employer, whereas for academies and voluntary-aided schools this will be the school governors, and for private independent schools this may be the proprietor, governors or trustees.

In situations where budgets for building management are delegated to schools by the local authority, the duty to manage asbestos will be shared between schools and the local authority. The authority’s written scheme for the financing of maintained schools will set out the categories of work that will either be financed from the delegated school budget share (revenue repairs and maintenance) or remain the responsibility of the local authority (capital expenditure). Both parties will therefore have ‘dutyholder’ status.

The DfE (Department of Education) guidance on school asbestos management advises all Duty Holders to have a UKAS accredited survey of the type, location and condition of all the asbestos and recommends that this survey is easily accessible. UKAS accredited asbestos surveys are undertaken in accordance with HSG264 and these regulations state that to manage asbestos in non-domestic properties the Duty Holder must:

  • Keep and maintain an up-to-date record of the location, condition, maintenance and removal of all Asbestos Containing Materials (ACM’s) on the premises
  • Repair, seal or remove ACMs if there is a risk of exposure due to their condition or location
  • Maintain ACM’s in a good state of repair and regularly monitor their condition
  • Inform anyone who is liable to disturb the ACMs about their location and condition
  • Have arrangements and procedures in place so that work which may disturb ACMs complies with CAR2012
  • Review the plan at regular intervals and make changes if circumstances change.

A report conducted by the JUAC in 2017 suggests that in the DfE Data Collection Report (DCR) 2017 the responses received [at the time of publication] showed that 57% of responding Duty Holders in schools containing asbestos still have asbestos management plans that were not fully compliant with the regulations and 22% of schools with asbestos were not compliant’.

Schools are public buildings, and therefore included under the Duty Manage Asbestos Regulations (2012). Some campaigners have suggested that these regulations do not go far enough to protect children and teachers from asbestos within school buildings. This is because school buildings are used differently to other public buildings, and more likely to be damaged or disturbed due to children’s careless nature. Some have suggested that schools should be treated as special workplaces with a higher level of risk, because they contain children who are known to have a higher life time risk that an adult of developing mesothelioma and the manner with which the buildings are used. The HSE advises that: ‘the most likely way ACMs (asbestos containing materials) will create a risk in schools is when they are disturbed or damaged through maintenance, repair or construction activities.’[4] Further guidance issued by the HSE also suggests that groups that are at particular risk are ‘school caretakers due to the nature of their work, eg. Drilling and fixing, and other contractors may be at risk while undertaking maintenance or installation work’. [5]

With ever increasingly pressure on schools’ budgets and funding, it seems that the issue of effective asbestos management in our schools may be on that continues to reoccur.

EMS are able to provide UKAS accredited surveys of all types and have significant experience consulting on and managing asbestos management plans for schools and local authorities. Do not hesitate to contact us for comprehensive, impartial and expert advice with regard to asbestos management within your school. Whilst funding is undeniably one of the most serious issues regarding the removal in asbestos in our schools, correct asbestos management procedures will ensure that the asbestos that remains is managed correctly and safely.

[1] Education Business UK, Asbestos the Unseen Hazard, 11th October, 2017

[2] The Guardian, Schools are Facing an Asbestos Time Bomb, 19th May, 2015

[3] Statement on the relative vulnerability of children to asbestos compared to adults, Committee on Carcinogenicity

[4] HSE, Asbestos in Schools

[5] HSE, Asbestos in Schools,

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