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Asbestos in Schools
Asbestos in Schools : The monster in the cupboard
Written by Joanne Lewis, chair of the education group for the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health
Demonstrating Auditing and Regulatory Requirements for
Independent Asbestos Training Providers
(19 Aug 2010)
Around 75 per cent of Britain’s schools contain asbestos. With the right support and training, schools can manage asbestos effectively
Learning to manage the risks in day-to-day activities is part of a good education. School pupils learn how to handle a wide variety of risks, from the busy road where a crossing or lollipop warden helps pupils to cross safely to the science lab where safety spectacles stop chemicals splashing into students’ eyes.
When the danger is hidden and its effects aren’t apparent until years later, it becomes more menacing and more diffcult to manage – a monster in the cupboard waiting to pounce. Asbestos is just such a monster, prevalent in many of our schools as well as domestic properties. But with knowledge and effective management, we can tame it. Know your monster
In order to manage the risk, it’s important to understand what you’re dealing with. The Asbestos Training and Consultancy Association (ATaC) says that around 75 per cent of Britain’s schools contain asbestos and asbestos containing materials (ACMs). There are high-risk materials such as asbestos lagging on pipes and boilers; sprayed asbestos used for thermal insulation, fire protection, partitioning and ducts; some ceiling tiles; and asbestos insulation board. Some ACMs, such as floor tiles, asbestos cement roofing and guttering, and textured coatings, are considered a lower risk – but a risk nonetheless.
The menace of asbestos is two-fold: it causes respiratory illness and death, and it acts with stealth so many victims don’t know about the damage until it’s too late. Mesothelioma, the most potent asbestosrelated cancer, can take 20 or 30 years to emerge, and by the time patients realise they’ve got it, they often have only months left to live. In the UK, around 2,000 people die from mesothelioma every year. The figure has doubled since 1992, and it’s set to rise further because many of the people who were exposed before the ban won’t know they’re ill yet.
To date, says ATaC, 178 teachers are known to have died from asbestos related illnesses. Asbestos has also been implicated in the deaths of younger people like Leigh Carlisle, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma aged 26. Leigh died in 2008, aged 28, and it’s still unknown whether her illness was caused by asbestos in her school or taking a shortcut through a factory yard where asbestos was cut.
Closing the cupboard door
The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2006 bans the importation, supply and use of all forms of asbestos. The most dangerous types, crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos) have been banned since 1985, while chrysotile (white asbestos) has been banned since 1999. There’s also a ban on the second-hand use of asbestos products.
Nevertheless, asbestos and ACMs can often be found in schools and colleges built or refurbished before blue and brown asbestos were banned in 1985. Some ACMs such as asbestos cement were still used up until 1999.
The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations specify a “duty to manage asbestos” for non-domestic premises. Anyone with responsibility for the maintenance or repair of non-domestic premises has a duty to know whether the premises contain asbestos, where it is, what condition it’s in, and to ensure that it’s managed properly – including telling anyone who may disturb it that it’s there. If it’s undamaged, and isn’t in a place where it’s likely to be damaged, it can be left in place and monitored regularly to make sure it’s still sound.
For most educational establishments, the ‘dutyholder’ will be the employer. In many cases that’s the Local Education Authority, although for voluntary aided schools, foundation schools and Academies it will be the school governors, and for independent schools it may be the proprietor, governors or trustees.
These measures aim to close the cupboard door; to contain the asbestos monster so it can do no more harm. But it’s important to acknowledge that constant monitoring and competent management is needed to make sure that door stays closed.
Support for schools
In February this year a snapshot survey of 16 British schools by ATaC found that none of them was meeting the regulations on managing asbestos. The report followed a questionnaire carried out by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and HSE in 2009 on local authorities and dioceses, which showed similar flaws in asbestos management.
ATaC says that many schools lack the resources to manage asbestos safely, and has joined forces with the Campaign Against Asbestos in Schools to press for a working group to be set up, risk assessments and management plans to be effectively implemented, and full training to be introduced for teachers and school staff.
Some teachers’ unions are also calling for all asbestos to be eliminated from school premises. At the very least, the survey has highlighted a need to give schools more support in managing asbestos.
“ATaC’s audit and our own research reveal that in many schools, staff are not aware of the dangers of asbestos; they do not know where it is and are not involved in its management,” says Philip Parkin, general secretary of Voice: the union for education professionals. “Urgent action is required to improve standards of asbestos management, and to create an action plan for asbestos in schools, including: audits, risk assessments, relevant training and guidance, and for all asbestos to be identifed and removed in a phased programme when schools are refurbished.”
Taming the monster
At IOSH, we believe that because all types of asbestos fibres are potentially harmful, people should be protected from inhaling them. That means the careful recording, monitoring and management of asbestos and ACMs if they’re in good condition and the sealing off or safe removal of any materials that are in poor condition.
The IOSH manifesto, Creating a healthier UK plc, sets out the challenge of getting better health through better work and advocate the embedding of sensible risk management principles throughout the education and training system. We’re also working to support teachers in educating tomorrow’s workers about the risks. We developed the Workplace Hazard Awareness Course, a free resource for education providers to teach Year 10 pupils about the risks they might face at work – including asbestos.
“IOSH takes a sensible risk management approach to the problem of asbestos,” says David Garioch, corporate health and safety manager for the London Borough of Sutton. “Adequate training and support needs to be provided by the employer for schools to manage asbestos effectively.” David describes how those principles have been put into practice in Sutton. “We’ve provided school asbestos duty holder training along with help and support to complete the asbestos registers,” he says. “We firstly carried out a Materials Assessment through a competent contractor, and then worked with the duty holders to complete the Priority Assessment and show them how to inspect the condition for updating the register.” The key to taming the asbestos monster lies in education and advice from competent professionals. Everyone responsible for non-domestic premises should have their property checked for asbestos, using a competent person such as an accredited asbestos surveyor. And you need to keep checking any asbestos and ACMs to make sure you’re aware of any new risks that arise. Most importantly, information about the risks needs to be passed on to anyone – teachers, maintenance staff and pupils – who might come into contact with asbestos or ACMs.
For more information
Workplace Hazard Awareness Course: