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BBC report: Asbestos in Schools

Update - 1 February 2009

  • Background
  • Issues raised
  • Transcript of HSE interview and analysis
  • Government refusal to carry out audit of asbestos in schools
  • Government refusal to carry out a risk assessment - particularly for children
  • DCSF (Department of Children, Schools and Family) questionnaire flaws

Background summary

The majority of schools in this country contain asbestos in one form or another, all of it is old and much of it is deteriorating. There is also evidence that far too many schools and local authorities have ineffective systems of asbestos management.  The result is that there have been numerous asbestos incidents in schools that have release large quantities of asbestos fibres, in addition tests have proved that common classroom activities such as slamming a door can release significant levels of fibres on a regular basis. Each exposure has a cumulative effect which contributes to the likelihood of a cancerous tumour developing.  Some of the asbestos in schools is chrysotile but many contain amosite which is 100 times more dangerous, and some contain crocidolite which is 500 times more dangerous. There is therefore a very real risk.

Government policy has been to manage asbestos rather than removing it, consequently thousands of tons remain in our schools, some of it is visible but large quantities lie hidden behind walls, ceilings and floors.  It only takes one failure in the system of asbestos management and asbestos fibres can readily be released.  However, despite their stated policy, the Government has never allocated sufficient resources so that schools actually can manage their asbestos.  This has been exacerbated because they have refused to assess the scale of the problem and the associated risks. It is therefore an easy step for them to state that there is no problem and also to deny that there is a risk.

BBC Inside Out Report on Asbestos in schools
On 28th January 2009 a BBC Inside Out report was broadcast about the dangers of asbestos in school. The HSE Head of Services Sector was interviewed and stated:
“We know it’s there. It would be a bigger danger to those that were in the school for it to be removed. If it is there and it is sealed in place then it represents no health risk to those using the building, it only represents a health risk if somebody comes along and drills into it and makes the fibres airborne and people breath them in.”

The programme had been filmed in a school where it was found that the asbestos had been damaged in more than one room and asbestos debris and fibres had been found, this being the direct result of an inadequate system of asbestos management. Indeed numerous holes had been drilled in asbestos insulating board and other panels had been damaged. When informed that the asbestos was not safe in the school the HSE Head of Services Sector stated:
 “No I didn’t say that asbestos was safe. I said that it was for the duty holder to make sure it didn’t represent a risk to health. You are calling it a problem. I don’t think that it is a problem. I think that it is a health risk that is being managed.”

It is extraordinary that a senior HSE official should state that she doesn’t think that it is a problem when she had just been given evidence about a manifest failure in asbestos management. The failure was such that it consequently led to an improvement notice being issued by the HSE. Her reaction had been very similar when serious failures in asbestos management had been discovered by a previous report by ITN which uncovered a blatant disregard of asbestos regulations which consequently led to two improvement notices being issued by HSE to Brent council for failing to manage the asbestos in their schools. A further 120 schools were visited which resulted in a further 18 improvement notices being issued to other local authorities for failing to manage their asbestos. No doubt if similar in depth investigations were carried out in the remaining 26,000 schools in the country then failures in asbestos management would be found on a similar scale.

HSE’s comment that “If it is there and it is sealed in place then it represents no health risk to those using the building....” does not stand up to scrutiny. Certainly drilling into walls will release fibres, however the problem is that asbestos fibres are also regularly entering the rooms from normal classroom activities. For in some schools there are hidden asbestos materials, debris, off-cuts and asbestos fibres in the wall, floor and ceiling voids. Over the years these fibres have seeped out through the smallest gaps and cracks into the rooms, for wherever air can pass then asbestos fibres can pass just as readily.

This applies to Victorian schools just as much as it does to more modern schools. The particular problem with system schools was first discovered in 1987 when air sampling determined that cumulatively dangerous levels of amosite fibres were being released from within the voids when walls were kicked and doors were slammed. The asbestos panels appeared to be in good condition but fibres had accumulated out of sight within the voids and when the walls were hit or vibrated a bellows effect ejected the fibres out of the smallest crack. Although this should have set off alarm bells throughout the country, nothing was done until twenty years later when the problem was rediscovered in a system school in the Rhondda.

HSE’s remedial action was to concentrate on sealing the gaps with bathroom sealant purely in the vertical structural columns, which in itself can only be considered a temporary expedient as the sealant does not solve the problem it only hides it as the debris, off-cuts and fibres remain hidden in the columns and it just takes one set of curious fingers and the sealant is removed and fibres enter the rooms once again. Whereas evidence also shows that debris, off-cuts and fibres have accumulated in the walls, floor ducting, ceilings and even cupboards. They are also readily released through drafts, vibration, being knocked, doors slamming, sitting on windowsills or in the case of cupboards just opening or closing the doors.  No doubt HSE are correct that if all these gaps were sealed then it would represent no risk to the occupants of the buildings, however that is an impossible task.

The levels of asbestos fibre release have been measured by air sampling. (The Clearance indicator is a level at which a room can be legally reoccupied following work on asbestos, however even then HSE acknowledge that it is not a safe long term level.) Air sampling in schools has determined that just slamming a door five times the airborne fibre levels were 33 times greater than the Clearance indicator, knocking a wall and column 44 times greater and kicking a wall 87 times greater.   The majority of the fibres were amosite. 

Cumulatively these levels are dangerous, particularly for children.
Sufficient evidence is there already that there is a serious problem of asbestos in schools, so the HSE has no justification for their statement that denies that there is a problem.

Under the Freedom of Information act (FOI) the BBC had determined that out of 1606 schools in Kent, Sussex and Surrey 1499 contained asbestos.  A separate FOI request earlier in the month by the Manchester Evening News revealed that of the 1,043 schools in Greater Manchester, 903 contain asbestos. Other FOI requests had determined that 87% of schools in Bedfordshire contain asbestos, 96% in Cambridgeshire and of the 23 councils in Scotland who replied to an FOI request, 1261 of their schools contain asbestos. These FOI requests have been made by newspapers and TV programmes and yet for most questionable reasons the Government refuses to carry out an audit and centrally collate the information.

The Head of Services Sector was asked why our Government hasn’t undertaken an audit of asbestos in schools in England, Scotland and Wales, when in the USA they undertook an audit some twenty five years ago, as did Southern Ireland ten years ago and more recently they also have in Northern Ireland. The HSE Head of Services Sector stated:
 “What we do has to be proportionate to the risk, and we have done so much in the past and duty holders have taken so much action in the past that a national audit wouldn’t be proportional to risk.”

When asked if the reason was cost she stated:
No.”

Regrettably her arguments are flawed. For twenty five years MP’s, Trade unions and others have asked successive Governments to undertake a national audit of the extent type and condition of asbestos in the nation’s schools, but they have refused. They have also been asked to assess the associated risks to the occupants of the schools and they have also refused.
Because the Government have refused to assess the scale of the problem and the associated risks they have no real idea of the risk, and therefore cannot claim that their actions are proportionate to the risk.

Also one must question HSE’s claim that an audit would not be proportional to the risk because the HSE, the local authorities and school authorities have done so much in the past. For their statement does not stand up to scrutiny, rather there is plenty of evidence going back many years that the measures taken by the HSE, local authorities and school authorities have failed to adequately address or even contain the risk. There is also evidence that Government policies have been led by political and financial expediencies rather than a desire to make the schools safe, the Department for Education even arguing strongly and successfully against asbestos surveys being made mandatory in schools. 

There has been and still remains a lack of asbestos awareness in the Government, the Department of Education, critical parts of the HSE, some local authorities and many school authorities, which has resulted in misguided policies and inadequate systems of asbestos management. A lack of training and badly drafted guidance has added to the problem which has been compounded by a lack of funding to even maintain the fabric of schools, let alone to take the expensive measures that are required to ensure that the asbestos is effectively managed and is safe. 

Over the years the on-running issue of asbestos fibre release in System built schools proves that the policy and measures implemented by the Government have failed so seriously that widespread and significant asbestos fibre releases have regularly occurred. Despite them being fully aware of the situation more than twenty years ago, they took no measures to remediate it, instead it was only when the problem was “re-discovered” three years ago that anything was done to reduce the release of amosite fibres, and then the measures can only be described as a sticky plaster solution. 

The HSE Head of Services Sector chairs the committee that looked into the problem, came to conclusions and issued guidance.  At the first meeting as Chairwoman she called for “Positive messaging,” which clearly it was when she described the bathroom sealant and sticky tape solution as the “Rolls–Royce of solutions.” The whole matter has been so badly managed by the HSE and DfES that even the guidance they issued omitted critical advice and recommended dangerous practice.

It is only now, three years after the problem was rediscovered that a questionnaire has been sent to local authorities to determine how many schools could be affected, when such an action should have been carried out at the very beginning. As it was not, the Working Group have up until now been working in the dark with no idea of the scale of the problem they were supposed to be tackling. This clearly is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

In 2004 after a series of serious asbestos incidents in schools the HSE acknowledged that a significant minority of them were not managing their asbestos, as a consequence they instigated a campaign to improve the asbestos management in schools and “dramatically” reduced the asbestos exposures of teachers and children. Despite the overwhelming need for such a campaign it was dropped a year later, not because the problem had been solved, but because HSE wished to reallocate their limited resources to reducing the asbestos exposure of plumbers, carpenters, electricians and decorators. 

DfES refused to take over the lead of the “important campaign,” and now both they and the HSE erroneously claim that the campaign is inappropriate, claiming that it “would alarm people unnecessarily.” No doubt people will be more alarmed when they discover that the whole problem has been known about for decades and yet the Government, DCSF and HSE have failed to take actions to solve the problem and so as not to create undue anxiety the facts have been kept from them.  As a consequence of this secrecy and these misguided policies the asbestos incidents continue unabated.

All the evidence is that the HSE claim that “we have done so much in the past and duty holders have taken so much action in the past that a national audit wouldn’t be proportional to risk”, is not borne out by the facts. A national audit of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools is as essential now as it was when it was first called for some twenty five years ago.

DfES Documents show that cost is the overriding reason for failing to undertake an audit.

Both the HSE Head of the Services Sector and the HSE Head of the Disease Reduction Programme claim that cost is not the reason for refusing requests to undertake a national audit of asbestos in schools. However a number of documents obtained under the FOI show that they are wrong, for cost has always been the underlying reason.  It is also the reason that the DfEE argued strongly and successfully against asbestos surveys being made compulsory. It is the reason why a risk assessment has never been carried out and it is even the reason that the guidance for schools remained out of date for more than twenty years. For the policy has been one of secrecy as the concern has always been that if the public’s attention is drawn to the issue of asbestos in schools and they become aware of the true scale of the problem, they might become anxious about their children’s safety, and they might even panic . Pressure would then be exerted on the Government for the removal of all asbestos from schools, and that would be extremely expensive.

On 14th November 2008 HSE’s Head of the Disease Reduction programme was interviewed for ITN’s specialist channel, Teacher’s TV. He was also asked whether cost was the reason that an audit had not been carried out, and once again he claimed that it was not. An analysis of his interview, a list of the number of occasions an audit has been called for and extracts from documents obtained under the FOI is on www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk  under Teachers TV report “analysis of statements made by HSE.” The document are DfES memos, letters and Ministerial briefings and clearly show that despite what was being said publicly and in Parliament, that cost is the overriding factor behind the refusal to audit the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools.

DCSF Questionnaire 29th January 2009

The BBC report was broadcast on the 28th January 2009, the following day the DCSF released a questionnaire to local authorities and school authorities. It is designed to determine the number and type of System built schools in the country. It also asks questions in an attempt to determine whether the authority has complied with the law and the CLASP Working Group guidance.  This is a step in the right direction but because of the nature of such questionnaires it is most unlikely that an authority is going to admit that they are breaking the law.  The only way that compliance with the regulations and the standard of asbestos management can be assessed is by inspectors on the ground carrying out thorough investigation in the schools.

The BBC report is a graphic demonstration of this, for the school was offered for filming because the authorities believed that their systems of asbestos management were above reproach, and no doubt that confidence would have been reflected in their answers when they filled in the questionnaire. It was only when an inspection was carried out by experienced asbestos consultants that it was determined that the standards of asbestos management were seriously flawed.

On the 29th November 2008 the Schools Minister stated that “We believe that the majority of school employers and particularly local authorities are managing their asbestos responsibly.”

It must be questioned on what basis he makes his supposition, as no proper assessment has been made of compliance to the duty to manage.  Perhaps he is correct that the majority are managing their asbestos, however the concern is over the significant minority who are not, and there is ample evidence to show they are not. That concern was quite rightly expressed by one of his predecessors and the HSE in 2004 when they established the campaign to improve the asbestos management in schools. One of the initial tasks of the campaign was to assess how many local authorities and schools were effectively managing their asbestos.  When the campaign was scrapped this assessment never took place. 

Instead, two years later in December 2006 a meeting took place to brief the education sector on DfES and HSE asbestos policies in schools. Two days before this meeting the Local Government Employers phoned 66 of the 149 local authorities to ask if they were following the guidance for managing asbestos in System built schools and whether they were obeying the Asbestos Regulations. 33 replied, and not surprisingly most said that they were complying with the guidance and obeying the law. The LGE official who conducted the “snap shot survey” acknowledged that it was not scientific, which indeed it was not.

Between April 2007 and March 2008 HSE contacted the owners of System buildings asking whether they were managing their asbestos and whether they had followed the guidance. The majority wrote back saying that they were.

In December 2007 ITN filming took place in a System built school, that had been chosen at random, where the asbestos was found to be in a dangerous condition, the local authority had made no effort to follow the guidance, and their asbestos management was non-existent. HSE issued two improvement notices as a consequence. The ITN investigation had also established that a number of other local authorities had not followed the guidance, and gave their evidence to HSE. As a result HSE carried out 130 visits to System buildings of which 120 were to schools, out of those 20 improvement notices were served because of a failure to identify the asbestos, failure to manage the asbestos and a failure to implement a reasonable plan of action. That equates to 17% of the schools that had been visited had failed to implement the guidance more than a year after it had been issued.

According to Scape System Build Ltd about half the schools in the country are System built, therefore if the percentage of non compliance was constant throughout the country it would equate to almost 2,000 System built schools failing to manage their asbestos to the extent that they merited improvement notices.  If the proportion was the same throughout all schools then it would equate to 4,000 schools containing many thousands of children. That is a very significant minority.

It is now two and a half years after the problem of asbestos fibre release in System schools was rediscovered and because of the BBC investigation DCSF have compiled and issued their questionnaire.  Without question some of the information will be very useful, but because of the reliance on the honesty of the authority filling in the answers correctly, it cannot be considered as a reliable indication of compliance with the law, and it will not determine the standards of asbestos management. Indeed it is most likely to give a most misleading picture. It certainly is not an audit of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools. 

The “snap-shot” assessments and questionnaires that have, and are, being carried out are not undertaken with sufficient rigor, so the results cannot be considered to be a true representation of the facts. Each one has taken place as the result of external pressures, and some certainly have all the appearance of a PR exercise rather than being a proper scientific assessment, apparently being designed to deflect criticism with positive messaging so that the press can be told that all is well and positive actions are being taken. It would be very surprising if the replies to the latest DCSF questionnaire are any different from previous ones, for no authority is openly going to admit that they are breaking the law. The only valid survey was the one carried out by HSE when they visited 120 System built schools, where it was discovered that a significant minority were not managing their asbestos, a finding that reflects all the other evidence and shows that staff and many thousands of children are at risk.

  • It is essential that a proper scientific assessment is made to determine how many schools are effectively managing their asbestos, and how many are not.
  • The standards of asbestos management have to be assessed by inspectors on the ground
  • It is essential that there is a proper scientific audit of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools.
  • All of this will be brought together by a properly constituted committee and campaign to improve the asbestos management in schools.
  • It is essential that without any further delay the schools’ asbestos campaign is reinstated.

 

Michael Lees
2nd February 2009

Annex: 
Transcript BBC Inside Out. Asbestos in Schools 28 January 2009. HSE interview with Rosalind Roberts, HSE Head of Services Sector.

 See also:  www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk   

“Update 1st February 2009 All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health Asbestos Sub-Committee”

Teachers TV report “analysis of statements made by HSE.” For FOI documents and chronological list of MPs’ and unions’ calls for an audit

Annex.
BBC Inside Out. Asbestos in Schools. 28 January 2009                                     
Transcript of Interview with HSE Head of Services Sector.

Reporter, Glen Campbell:           So why is asbestos still in our schools?   Well far from seeing it as a problem the Health and Safety Executive believes asbestos is best left where it is.

HSE Head of Services Sector, Rosalind Roberts :                We know it’s there. It would be a bigger danger to those that were in the school for it to be removed. If it is there and it is sealed in place then it represents no health risk to those using the building, it only represents a health risk if somebody comes along and drills into it and makes the fibres airborne and people breath them in. So the duty holder has to have a register as it were to check where it is, the duty holder has to know what condition it is in and the duty holder has to make sure that it is sealed in place and the duty holder.....

Reporter:            We went to one school and we picked a school .. the school allowed us to come in..   and we went in with consultants and within a matter of hours they found asbestos dust in a cupboard. That is just one school in Kent.

HSE Head of Services Sector:     Then I need to know the name of that school because I need to get an HSE inspector there very quickly indeed because that is not satisfactory

Reporter:            The point you just made is that asbestos is safe in our schools the one school we went into it obviously wasn’t.

HSE Head of Services Sector:      No I didn’t say that asbestos was safe. I said that it was for the duty holder to make sure it didn’t represent a risk to health. You are calling it a problem. I don’t think that it is a problem. I think that it is a health risk that is being managed.

Reporter:            Why haven’t you done a national audit. They have in the States they have in Ireland they have in Northern Ireland.  Why not here in England, Scotland and Wales? Is it because of cost?

HSE Head of Services Sector:      No. What we do has to be proportionate to the risk, and we have done so much in the past  and duty holders have taken so much action in the past that a national audit wouldn’t  be proportional to risk

Reporter:            What is your advice to parents watching this?

HSE Head of Services Sector:      If they are concerned they should approach the school or they should approach the local authority and ask what action have you taken. They are perfectly entitled to do that ....    I would suggest that is my message to them.