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(Part of "Asbestos Policy Suggested Improvements")



American Policy of Openness

In America it has been the law for the last twenty years that schools have to have an asbestos survey carried out by an accredited inspector. The law then requires them to implement a system to manage the asbestos. Parents have to be updated annually on the school’s asbestos management plans. (25)

“ All primary and secondary schools must inspect buildings for the presence of friable asbestos materials, sample and analyse materials found and maintain records of all findings. If ACM is discovered schools are required to post notices, provide guidance to maintenance personnel and notify parents or parent/teacher organisations".
(May 27 1982 EPA Asbestos in Schools Identification and Notification Rule)

“Provide yearly notification to parent, teacher and employee organisations regarding the availability of the school’s asbestos management plan and any asbestos abatement actions taken or planned in the school.”
(1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act)"

British Policy of Secrecy

In this country there is no policy of keeping parents' organisations annually updated on the school’s asbestos management plans. In fact the opposite is true:

The HSC and HSE’s policy on informing people about the presence of asbestos in schools is as follows:

“HSE’s approach is on a “Need to know” basis.
“A Right to know” concept might distort what HSE is trying to achieve.”

The HSE and the HSC’s policy on who should see a school’s asbestos management plan is as follows:

“The asbestos management plan in a school would need to be seen by those likely to disturb asbestos ie: teaching staff, cleaners and caretakers. This would not necessarily include parents.”(26)

Private Schools Legal Right to Secrecy

The Freedom of Information Act obliges State Schools to disclose their asbestos surveys and asbestos management plans if they are asked to do so.(27) This is a right that if publicised, and if used by parents would ensure that asbestos management plans were effective. However this “Right to know” is against Government policy and consequently the HSE and DfES do not publicise it.

In contrast Private schools (including nursery and infant schools) have the legal right to prevent anyone, including parents of children exposed to asbestos, seeing their asbestos survey and management plans.(28) The legal right is exercised even when mismanagement has occurred and parents ask about the extent of their child’s exposure. The school can thus avoid expensive legal action and bad publicity.
(Confidential case available but not attached)

Action after an Asbestos Incident

HSE guidance on how and when to inform people after an asbestos incident is detailed in a series of pamphlets. The guidance specifically advises that people should be given prompt and reasoned advice regardless of the level of exposure.

One pamphlet cites various incidents where prompt and reasoned advice should be given, including: “Pupils in a secondary school potentially exposed to asbestos.” (29)

The HSE were informed of a particular asbestos incident in a school that had led to the exposure of teachers and children. The HSE sought and were given advice from their medical branch. The advice was as follows:

“Even when it is not possible to determine whether an exposure was significant or not, entry in the medical record is recommended.” (30)

The guidance advocates a policy of openness, however what has occurred in practice is the opposite. The “Action Level” has been used to keep the incident secret.

Secrecy Based on Incorrect use of Asbestos Contractors “Action Level”

The HSE were advised that this particular incident had occurred in an infant school, the exposure had been to amosite, had been frequent and had lasted for many years. (31)The HSE made a policy decision that neither the teachers nor the parents should be informed unless the exposure had exceeded the “Action Level.” The Secretary of State for Schools then wrote to the General Secretary of the NUT stating: (32)

“HSE guidance is to inform those who may have been significantly exposed to asbestos (eg: exposure has exceeded the Action Level)" (33)

The Minister and the HSE did not follow their own written guidance and the expert opinion of their medical branch.

They also applied the Action Level incorrectly as it was designed for contractors whose work involves disturbing asbestos. It was not designed for teachers and children who are occupying a classroom.

The Action Level is a limit designed for asbestos removal contractors, and is assessed before work begins, and then monitored continuously as the work progresses. Levels of exposure must be kept well below this, however if it is likely to be exceeded respirators have to be worn within a sealed negative pressure enclosure, and if exceeded medical surveillance is required every two years. It is monitored during the work by fibre samplers worn by the contractors, and cumulative exposure levels are assessed over a continuous three month period. (34)

The Action level far exceeds the fibre levels and safety limits that do apply to teachers and children. That level is the Clearance limit.(35) Even then cumulative exposures at such levels will cause cancer amongst some people,(36) particularly amongst children who are the most vulnerable

In theory after an asbestos incident has taken place the HSE’s policy is to tell people the facts and to be open about it. In reality they practice a policy of secrecy by using the “Action Level” to avoid openness. Because of their policy of secrecy, to this day the teachers and children in this particular school remain unaware that they have been exposed to asbestos.

Secrecy Results in Institutional failure to Collect or Analyse Statistics

If there is no effective asbestos management plan then nobody will be aware there has been an exposure to asbestos. It is particularly the parents and children in schools with bad asbestos management systems who will remain in ignorance – and the bad practice will continue as there is no effective monitoring system.

The HSE and DfES have no system to collect statistics on teachers’ or pupils’ exposure to asbestos. The HSE do not inspect sufficient schools to monitor their asbestos management plans, and they have no estimate of asbestos related deaths among school children. Consequently they are unable to identify exposures and follow up their effects. The result is that statistical trends, such as the effect of low level cumulative exposure to asbestos in schools, cannot be used to identify and remedy a problem.

In addition the long latency of mesothelioma means that the children’s subsequent deaths occur long after they have left school and their deaths are listed in the statistics under the occupation they had at the time of their death, and not as a death caused by exposure to asbestos at school. As records of exposure at school are concealed by both the law and HSE policy, Coroners’ Inquests can rarely identify schools as possible sources of asbestos contamination. Statistics cannot be collected, problems remain concealed and corrective action cannot be taken.

Openness Solution to Management of Asbestos

The policy of secrecy has the flaw that it can be misused to conceal asbestos exposures and asbestos management failings. It can also be used to conceal inaction by the HSE, failure to co-operate between HSE and DfES, and poor management of asbestos by schools. It can prevent lessons being learned.

I would welcome your support in introducing openness. Openness and action can be ensured by reintroducing the schools' asbestos campaign, and by ensuring school governors give parents and teachers annual access to asbestos management plans. Both proposals are cost effective and can be rapidly implemented. Knock on costs will be high if gross mismanagement and extensive exposure to asbestos is then found – But it is better if such faults are found than if they remain concealed and teachers and children continue to be contaminated with asbestos.

Bad Press

The HSE fear an over-reaction from parents to an open policy. However when best practice has been followed and the correct actions have been taken then parents have not over reacted.(37) An adverse reaction would be more probable, and understandable, if bad practice had taken place or dangers had been hidden from them, and this is acknowledged by the HSE:

“Parents have a heightened sense of awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure, and any failure to manage risks properly could result in authority losing the confidence of their local communities.” (38)

The HSE are also most aware of the bad press that could result in a policy of openness:

“ High profile incidents from maintenance activities in schools have resulted in widespread exposure to asbestos. Local authorities and school managers have been subject to serious criticism in the media….
Recent publicity relating to possible exposures in a number of schools has provided a reminder of the potential for “Bad” press in this sector that could impact adversely on the HSE.” (39)

Openness is the Policy in America, and the Longer that it is not in this Country the Worse the Situation Becomes.

Openness is the policy in America. It provides an inexpensive check on management systems. In contrast the UK policy of secrecy allows poor asbestos management in schools, and where bad practice exists it allows it to continue unchecked. Intentionally parents are not told of the existence of asbestos or whether it is being safely managed. This leads to asbestos exposure of teachers and children, and because of HSE policy, they remain unaware that it has happened.

It would be better if the HSE and DfES led by example by adopting a policy of openness. The longer they rely on secrecy the worse the situation becomes. If they do not give a lead, they will undoubtedly “lose the confidence of local communities” when their policy of secrecy is revealed. Once the public realise that the extent of the problem has been hidden from them the HSE/HSC and the DfES are guaranteed to get “bad press,” particularly when parents realise that the reliance on secrecy conceals acknowledged failings in asbestos management in their own children’s schools.


A Solution.

By their own admission the DfES do not have the skills or officers to lead an asbestos initiative programme. (40)

The HSE have limited resources and have been criticised by the Parliamentary Select Committee over enforcement policy and for carrying out too few inspections and investigations.(41) The situation is unlikely to improve in schools and this was confirmed by the HSE Head of Asbestos Policy who said about monitoring the new “Duty to manage” in schools:

“There would not be an increase in inspectors to do this”. (42)

There are insufficient resources to enforce the present guidance in the present way, and insufficient resources within the HSE/DfES to ensure the new regulations are complied with. It seems clear that delegating the monitoring of asbestos policy to parents, by annually publishing the plans, would be an effective and relatively inexpensive way to monitor management plans.


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