HSE criticised over safety. Parliamentary Questions asked. Asbestos warnings still not sent to other schools by DfE
On 17th April Caerphilly Council took the decision to spend £1million on the removal of asbestos materials and contamination from Cwmcarn High School to make it safe for reoccupation.
The school was closed in October on receipt of a report that identified significant amounts of asbestos insulating board (AIB) in places vulnerable to damage by the occupants, amosite fibres in classrooms and the stairwell, widespread AIB debris in the ceiling void and AIB debris, unsealed and damaged AIB panels in classroom heaters. Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) tests confirmed that amosite fibres are released from the heaters. However the HSL report also gave the misleading impression that there was minimal potential for the release of asbestos fibres – when that is contrary to the evidence and other expert opinion.
HSE criticised by Council. Wrong message sent to other schools
The matter is highly controversial. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publicly stated that “The school is essentially uncontaminated.” HSE informed the school that “It is satisfied that there are appropriate asbestos management arrangements in place” (1) and a senior director of HSE gave evidence to the Education Select Committee that “It is perfectly safe to reopen that school.”
The evidence and the expert opinion of Caerphilly Council, two asbestos consultancy firms and an independent assessor is that the school is unsafe to reopen until the extensive asbestos remedial work is completed.
A report by the Council is highly critical of the HSL report and advice from HSE. It states: “…HSE issued statements essentially based on the report by HSL.….the Council has sought clarification on their position from the HSE, as it is our belief that the scientific analysis, as well as the visual evidence of extensive asbestos debris at the site does not support their conclusions that the site is 'essentially uncontaminated'.... Given all of the above officers have concluded that a return to the Cwmcarn High School site cannot be safe for pupils or staff without the abatement and remediation work being carried out.”
HSE has sent completely the wrong message to other schools about the standards of asbestos management that they consider are acceptable. Their handling of the incident at Cwmcarn has been unprofessional, and not only has it delayed a solution being found, it has also caused confusion amongst school staff, parents and pupils.
HSE report of investigation concealed
On 26th February a letter from the Minister, David Laws MP, stated “The HSE has investigated the asbestos related incident at Cwmcarn High School in Wales but has not yet published its report on its investigation. I understand that HSE expects to publish its report shortly....” (2) On 8th April DfE stated that “HSE will not be publishing a report into Cwmcarn High School...” (3) Clearly HSE have briefed the Minister, but have not made their report public. It is a reasonable assumption that they are aware that if they did so it would confirm that their conclusions and decisions are based on unsound data. It would also confirm the serious criticism already levelled at them, and leave them open to further criticism.
Follow the link for a summary of the HSE’s conduct over the asbestos incident at Cwmcarn School.
DfE fail to warn other schools of potential asbestos release from heaters.
The type of heaters at Cwmcarn was one of the most popular forms of heating schools. In December, following confirmation that the heaters were emitting asbestos fibres, the Asbestos in Schools Group and the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) asked DfE to issue an urgent warning to all schools about the heaters. On 8th April DfE stated that because of the HSE investigation and the HSL report they will not be issuing a warning. JUAC has therefore issued a warning .
Parliamentary question asks for HSE report of investigation
On 22nd April at Education questions Annette Brooke MP asked the Minister to publish the HSE report on its investigation:
“In the interest of transparency and to provide information for schools and local authorities, will the Secretary of State ensure that all reports on the asbestos incident in Cwmcarn High School in Wales, including the final report from the Health and Safety Executive, are made publicly available? I note that the local council has decided to remove asbestos from the school on safety grounds.
The Minister, David Laws MP, replied: “I will look at this matter on behalf of my Right Hon. Friend. We are keen to ensure that policy on asbestos is evidence-based, and that there is clarity about the inquiry carried out by the HSE.”
The Minister can be assured that Caerphilly Council have based their policy and decisions on the evidence. It is unacceptable that HSE have not. The publication of their report would go some way in bringing the clarity the Minister is keen to engender.
Comment on evidence to Education Select Committee
The Newsletter 128 gave a summary of the evidence given on 13th March to the Education Select Committee on asbestos in schools. A transcript of the oral evidence is at this link and the written evidence is at this link . Follow this link for a comment on the evidence.
Government will review asbestos policy on receipt of report of risk to children
The Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) plan to finalise and then publish their report on the relative vulnerability of children to asbestos soon after their meeting on 9th May. The Government have stated that they will review their policy on asbestos in schools on receipt of the COC report.
24th April 2013
For more information on Cwmcarn School and background information on asbestos in schools see: www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk
(1) E-mail DfE/Lees 8 Apr 13. DfE/JUAC 19 Apr 13
(2) Letter Rt Hon David Laws MP. Asbestos in warm air heating systems 2013/0008963PODL 26 Feb 2013
(3) DfE/JUAC 19 Apr 13. DfE/JUAC 19 Apr 13