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THE THREAT

(Part of "Asbestos Policy Suggested Improvements")

My draft paper “Asbestos in Schools” (30 July 05) gives a detailed analysis of how asbestos fibres have been released and how teachers and children have been exposed. It shows how this has resulted in their deaths. An estimate of children’s deaths is given in the annex to this paper.

The HSE Head of Asbestos Policy identified the threat:

"A high proportion of our present schools contain asbestos and represent the potential to release deadly fibres….. … Due to their physical immaturity children are at greater risk of suffering from asbestos related disease than adults, and will live longer to develop the disease….."(1)

"Whilst many authorities have been managing asbestos risks effectively for many years, HSE believes a significant minority have still not established complete control of asbestos on their premises."

The Secretary of State for Schools identified failures in asbestos management:

"Asbestos in schools has not always been dealt with in a professional manner. ………."
"Our guidance to schools and LEAs is dated and should therefore be revised as a matter of urgency.
………"

(letter to the General Secretary of the NUT, approved by HSE Head of Asbestos Policy) (2)

The schools “Asbestos Guidance,” referred to by the Minister, is 20 years old and much of the information is now out of date. However if schools had followed the guidance they would have identified the presence of asbestos, its extent, type and location and then would have implemented an effective management system. The professional failures identified by the Minister include those schools who have failed to have an effective management system, as a consequence staff and pupils have been exposed to asbestos. The numbers of schools who have no effective plan are impossible to identify as the supervisory system is inadequate. The DfES Officer responsible for asbestos safety in schools illustrated this by writing, recently:

“I think that certain critical Health and Safety procedures should be checked by OFSTED as no one else is doing it really. They should check there is a Health and Safety policy and plan and that key elements such as asbestos management,…are written down."

As the HSE have rarely inspected schools, investigated asbestos incidents in schools or corrected failures of asbestos management, they have no real idea how many schools have failed to manage their asbestos risks. There is no evidence on which to assess the size of the failing ‘significant minority’ identified by HSE Head of Asbestos Policy, or even to identify whether it is a minority. As no one is really checking whether schools have an asbestos management plan, the statistics required to demonstrate whether asbestos is being controlled do not exist. The schools without plans, or with weak plans, will have an impeccably clean record. Where there is no system for reporting exposures, or gathering and collating information on exposures, then there is no record of asbestos incidents and damage to asbestos. No record on which to judge the extent of the “deadly fibres” released, and no record of the teachers and children present at the time. As no reporting system exists and few inspections and investigations are carried out, there really is no one to identify whether a school has an effective asbestos management plan, and no one to give guidance on how to correct an ineffective one.

In his letter the Minister expressed the urgency, and put forward pragmatic and effective proposals for managing asbestos in the future. The HSE have abandoned two of those key proposals and they have been replaced with ones that do not improve on past bad practice. The threat is that children and teachers will continue to die because of avoidable asbestos exposure in schools. That exposure has been caused by poor guidance, poor management plans, lack of supervision of management plans, lack of openness and a failure to collect, analyse and act on information.

This paper addresses the Government’s admitted failure to manage the threat. The threat can be readily countered, and the reinstatement of the campaign to improve the asbestos management in schools is an essential step. I ask for you help.

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