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(Part of "Asbestos Policy Suggested Improvements")

HSE and DfES Initiative to Improve Asbestos Management in Schools

In January 2004 a memo from the HSE Education Division to the DfES concerning an infant teacher’s death from the asbestos related disease mesothelioma stated:

“In order to help ensure that cases like this one cannot happen in future HSE is introducing the new duty to manage asbestos in buildings, which was added to the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations that will come into force on 21 May 2004. HSE is running a three year campaign to make people aware of this new duty and the action they will need to take to ensure effective compliance. In particular we will be targeting the education sector including independent schools. HSE will be seeking to meet with DfES to see what part they can play in this.”

“One of the issues raised is the need for DfES to be involved in developing guidance on informing people in schools exposed to asbestos. This is something DfES may want to consider and HSE would support this” (3)

In August 2004 planning for the campaign was progressing well:

“ DfES officials have agreed to take part in the initiative and the NUT has been invited to become involved with other main stakeholders. This will ensure that they have confidence in the steps taken to prevent teachers and pupils from being exposed to asbestos in schools in the future”.(4)

In November 2004 there was a meeting attended by HSE Head of Asbestos Policy and a representative from the HSE Education Division where it was acknowledged that some schools were not managing asbestos satisfactorily. More details of the campaign were given:

“A working group would be set up to drive the campaign forward in schools, which would be a priority, and care would be taken to ensure that the right stakeholders are engaged.” (5)

In an HSE briefing to the Local Authority Forum the Head of Asbestos Policy said:

“ The intention is for this group to be more than simply a consultation forum, for it will propose, and more importantly take forward, many of the initiatives anticipated in the project

…”The project will be aiming to reduce exposure dramatically over a few years, initially we will be concentrating on achieving a 20% reduction in current exposures.” (6)

The working group was to be led by the HSE with the DfES playing a leading part. There were to be stakeholders from a wide cross section of interested parties, including the teaching unions, the Independent Bursars Association, Local Government, LEAs and the Welsh Assembly. The advantage of these stakeholders was that a wide cross section of views and experience could be sought, openness would be assured and there would have been the commitment and drive to ensure that any decisions that were made would have been vigorously taken forward.

The first meeting was planned for early January 2005. It was cancelled.

An email from HSE Head of Asbestos Policy read : “I want to emphasise that we are still strongly committed to the project and will take it forward as soon as we can….. I wish them and you every success in eliminating the risks from asbestos in schools”. (7)

Minister Fails to Enforce Action

As part of the campaign the asbestos guidance for schools was to be updated. In August 2004 the Secretary of State for Schools wrote:

“What schools need is clear guidance on best practice including what should be done in the event of inadvertent exposure. This should not dumb down the subject as has so often happened in the past, but needs to be written in a way accessible to the layman.”
Our guidance to schools and LEAs is dated and should therefore be revised as a matter of urgency.” (8)

Despite the rhetoric no action has been taken for more than a year.

It seems inevitable that this inaction has resulted in some teachers and children being exposed to asbestos who would not have been. It is also inevitable that they will continue to be exposed, until action is taken.

I would be grateful if you would ask the Minister if she would ensure that the guidance is urgently updated.

Education Initiative Cancelled to meet Construction Industry Target

“It is evident that a number of initiatives would generate very limited results in terms of contributing towards PSA targets associated with reducing exposures to asbestos, the key target for the Asbestos Programme; this includes the “Education Sector” project. In view of this the initiative has been removed from the Disease Reduction Programme”

…….I would propose that we call a meeting of DfES and HSE officials with the aim of discussing, and if possible, agreeing an exit strategy for this project.”

HSE Head of Asbestos Campaign e-mail 23rd August 2005.

The HSE’s reason for dropping the education initiative is because “it would generate very limited results in contributing towards PSA targets”. The main effort in reducing asbestos exposure is instead targeted at the construction industry which is “likely to be a significant contributor to those PSA targets.”(9)

For some years this industry has been comparatively well regulated with laws and guidance aimed specifically at achieving a reduction in exposure levels. There is a reasonable idea of likely exposure levels and all asbestos contractors carry samplers that measure the levels of fibres in the air. Statistics show how many have died and are likely to die. Given the information available improvements in this industry are readily measured and can be used to meet targets. The 2002 laws and the proposed 2006 laws are designed specifically to reduce asbestos exposures of this group of workers and PSA targets have been set to achieve, and be seen to achieve, a reduction in their exposure and subsequent deaths.

In contrast insufficient resources have been put into ensuring the effective management of asbestos in schools. Management of asbestos has not been supervised, corrected or analysed so there are no readily accessible statistics. Teachers’ deaths from asbestos exposure are known, however there are no official estimates of how many children have been exposed to asbestos at school and have died as a result. Because asbestos is so poorly managed and the facts are not known there is no base line on which to measure improvement. Reducing exposure and deaths amongst teachers and school children cannot be seen to be ‘a significant contributor to PSA targets’ as there is no way of measuring the present situation or measuring improvements, or failures.

The results of asbestos exposure in the construction industry can be clearly identified and progress can be easily measured, consequently the Government has taken the decision to concentrate the limited resources available on reducing that exposure. Those resources are being taken from the education initiative, where the results of exposure cannot be easily identified and progress is difficult to measure. The risk in schools was identified by a Government Minister who proposed the education initiative to dramatically reduce asbestos exposures in schools. It is therefore clearly flawed to chase a ‘PSA target’ for the construction industry at the expense of an initiative that would have protected school children.

“The Education initiative no longer forms part of our present programme of work”

HSE Head of Asbestos Campaign e-mail 23 August 2005

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