Could your school contain asbestos?

With a teacher in Buckinghamshire recently dying due to asbestos cancer mesothelioma, asbestos in schools is still a very real problem. The Independent Asbestos Training Providers examines the scale of the problem, what can be done about it, and how schools can comply with legal obligations.

Asbestos was a staple of the construction industry. It was spurred on in the mid-19th century by the industrial revolution and the need for low cost, readily available and efficient building, insulation and fire proof materials. Asbestos became the choice of many. With the development and growing demand for electricity and the need to make it and the buildings it was used in safe, asbestos was introduced not only in industrial and commercial buildings, but also in our homes and our educational establishments.

Throughout the early to mid 20th century, the use of asbestos in materials developed even further, more sources were identified and the mineral exploited. Bigger and more advance production facilities were built making it more readily available and its use even more widespread. It was used, not only in construction materials but, due to its almost magical status, now into everyday products, such as irons, blankets, and even toys.

The out-break of the second world war pushed asbestos development to new and higher levels. By the end of the war, asbestos was much in demand having proved itself on the battlefields of Europe and the Far East. Again its low cost and availability made it the perfect material to re-build the country in the post-war years.

The country needed to create new housing, hospitals, infrastructure and, of course, schools. The 1950s pushed construction even further, especially where schools were concerned. Due to the growing population, schools were needed, and fast.

In 1957, the Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (CLASP) was formed with the purpose of designing modular framed buildings to speed up school construction and replace older damaged buildings. The system took off, having first being introduced in the East Midlands, the low cost and efficient build time meant that it was adopted nationally. The problem faced with CLASP building was down to the materials used in their construction. They basically required upgraded fire protection installing which unfortunately meant more use of asbestos. It is understood that as of today, there are somewhere in the region between 17,000 and 25,000 schools in the United Kingdom that are believed to contain asbestos.

Lurking behind the scenes
Asbestos could be in any part of a school building, from floor tiles to roof sheets, toilet seats to wall panels and all things in-between.

One of the biggest issues seen with schools over the last 20 years in the UK is mainly down to poor maintenance of these old buildings. Given the choice, schools would opt to purchase new books, computers and pay staff wages; up keep of the building is often last on the list in budgetary terms.

One thing that is often misunderstood or even unknown and in some cases even ignored is that since 2004, there has been a legal requirement in the UK to manage asbestos. Regulation 4, of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 12), referred to as ‘the Duty to Manage’ was introduced in the 2002 asbestos regulations, becoming enforceable by 2004, requires the identification and management of all asbestos materials in all non-domestic buildings in the UK. This includes schools. A failure to comply with this requirement can result in severe consequences.

Most tend to believe that the worst thing about non-compliance with regulation 4 would be a fine and probably even a bit of a telling off from the HSE. However, this is not necessarily the worst case.

Releasing the fibres
Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs), if not managed will over time deteriorate, they get damaged and if not identified, they could be incorrectly or even accidentally worked on, all of which could release levels of asbestos fibres that could be harmful to anyone exposed to them. One problem from this being that the fibres are so small, they cannot be seen with the naked eye, they are odourless and have no taste so exposure would go unnoticed. In addition to this, the consequence of exposure may not show itself for decades. Asbestos is a category 1 carcinogen, meaning that it is proven to cause cancer in humans. Again the problem here is that cancer takes time to form and the victim is normally not aware that they have it until the symptoms show themselves.

The harm it could cause
In the school environment, a release of asbestos that goes unnoticed could mean exposure to many hundreds, potentially even thousands of children. The exposure encountered could occur every day while in the school, it may occur for many years resulting in a cumulative exposure which could potentially result in a disease developing in years to come. There is also a risk to teaching and support staff, visitors and contractors.

A further consequence of not complying with regulation 4 is cost. A very common misunderstanding about asbestos is that it can be cleaned up with little effort. After all it’s only dust. Depending on the severity of the release, clean-up costs could cost millions, it may require the school to be vacated for lengthy periods, it could result in the disposal of equipment, computers, books, carpets, and so on. The biggest question here is, who is going to pay for it? Then there’s the issue of relocating pupils, parents having to get them to alternative school or even bringing in temporary classrooms.

Dealing with the problem
This is the Legacy, we didn’t ask for it, we don’t want it, but we have to deal with it. So how do we deal with it? As previously mentioned, regulation 4 requires the identification and management of asbestos, the key word here is identification. If you don’t know what asbestos materials are in the premises, how can they be managed? Therefore, a good quality asbestos survey is needed. From the survey an Asbestos Management Plan (AMP) can be created. Based on what materials are found, a schedule of re-inspections can be implemented.

Information can be presented to contractors before they start work. Staff can be trained, and made aware of what to do if they see damaged materials and information can be provided to the emergency services if they are required to attend the premises out of hours.

Asbestos surveys, although not a legal requirement, are a useful tool if carried out correctly. HSE guidance document, HSG 264, the Survey Guide provides the duty holder with all the information required to ensure the survey is fit for purpose. This guide can be freely downloaded from the HSE website:

Asbestos training
Asbestos training is another are where legal compliance is required. Regulation 10 of CAR 12 states: ‘Asbestos awareness training should be given to employees whose work could foreseeably disturb the fabric of a building and expose them to asbestos or who supervise or influence the work.’

The question must be asked; is a teacher in a school where asbestos is located foreseeably going to be exposed to asbestos? Not ordinarily, but what if damage is caused to a wall by a chair or a desk, would they know what to do, or just ignore it? What of the World War II gas mask that is being used in the history lesson, could that filter contain asbestos? Are science lessons still using old Bunsen burner mats or more worryingly, asbestos gloves? Would a school cleaner know what to do if they encountered debris from a ceiling tile, and are the school’s managers ensuring that contractors and maintenance staff are working safely where asbestos is present.

The two final regulations taken from CAR 12 that are worthy of mention are regulations 11 and 16. Regulation 11 ‘requires employers to prevent employees being exposed to asbestos or, if this is not possible, to put in place the measures and controls necessary to reduce exposure to as low as is reasonably practicable.’

Regulation 16 states: ‘Every employer must prevent or, where this is not reasonably practicable, reduce to the lowest level reasonably practicable the spread of asbestos from any place where work under the employer’s control is carried out.’

A breach of any of the above stated regulation is potentially devastating, either in the short or long term, yet they are so easy to follow and comply with. I suppose the worst, or probably the best question that could be asked is: Is your child attending a school that contains asbestos, and if so, are they being exposed?

The UK has one of the highest numbers of asbestos‑related deaths in the world, over 5,500 deaths per year and this figure is rising. One must never lose sight of the fact that every one of the 5,500 are normal everyday people, these are not just trades people, this figure includes teachers, so I guess that the answer to the earlier question is yes, teachers can be exposed to asbestos. So protect yourself, protect others, and be aware of asbestos.

Further information