The issue of asbestos in schools is going to remain an ongoing concern for the foreseeable future. For the UK Asbestos Training Association (UKATA) and our members, we remain committed to promoting a culture of safety, respect and risk management when it comes to asbestos. Asbestos is present in the fabric of so many public buildings, including schools, that in many cases removing it all is unlikely to be a viable option, let alone a cost-effective one. Yet, with the correct advice and training it is possible to keep staff and students safe from the dangers posed by asbestos.
As asbestos can generally be managed safely if left undisturbed, the people most at risk of coming into contact with asbestos in schools by unwittingly disturbing it are tradesmen. While posing a risk to the tradesmen themselves, the danger to staff and students becomes amplified should asbestos dust be unwittingly released in to the atmosphere. The best defence against such a threat is to ensure that any and all people who may be tasked on working on the fabric of the school building have the appropriate asbestos training.
Asbestos was widely used as a building material in the 60s and 70s and therefore many so-called ‘system’ schools built during this period almost certainly contain it. Official estimates of the problem have varied widely, but in March this year; reports by the BBC suggested the figure could be as high as nine out of ten schools. System schools have many features in common, one of them being the structural columns being fire proofed with asbestos containing material (ACM) which was then usually encased or cladded.
Mesothelioma exposure The debate rages as to just how many former pupils and teachers may have contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos. Given the long latency period of the illness, it can be over 20 years before symptoms manifest themselves, by which time tracing, proving and establishing the source of the asbestos exposure after so many years can be difficult.
Mesothelioma is a terrible illness and there is no cure. Asbestos remains the single biggest cause of workplace deaths in the UK, which has earned it the title of the silent killer. Estimates of how many teachers and pupils have been affected varies, but figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show a total of 228 school teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980. The HSE acknowledge the true figure is likely to be higher and that the numbers have increased year on year since records began in 1980.
Undoubtedly these cases are being caused by asbestos dust being released and the solution is either to remove all the asbestos safely, or manage it effectively. In either case, it is essential that those tasked with doing so have the appropriate training – to at the very least recognise asbestos should they come across it and if tasked with removal, be fully qualified to do so.
The effective management of asbestos in schools is an ongoing requirement and for schools to comply with their legal obligations, several actions need to be in place as apart of effective asbestos management arrangements. Public buildings should maintain an asbestos survey and an asbestos management plan, so everyone, but particularly so tradesmen or workers called in know what they are dealing with. It is also vital information for the emergency services, should there be a fire. The irony is, extreme cases can usually be tackled. It is those small jobs that can unwittingly see asbestos released.
Train safe, work safe, keep safe It is also the case that small businesses and tradesmen may not have the resources to finance asbestos training to protect themselves and others. To tackle this issue head on, UKATA has launched our ‘Train Safe, Work Safe, Keep Safe’ campaign.
The scheme provides free training aimed at individual tradespeople and small companies who may not otherwise have previously known about, or received training for working with a substance like asbestos. So far, UKATA members have offered over 3,500 hours of free asbestos training this year as means of highlighting the dangers of asbestos and the need for essential training for those who may encounter the substance.
While this scheme aims to tackle a lack of awareness and training at source, it is very clear from the Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012) and the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) that ignorance cannot be used as an excuse. Regulation 4 states clearly that all risks from asbestos must be properly managed and the Local Authority and individual school between them must decide who is ultimately responsible and who the legally responsible duty holder is.
This duty holder is required to undertake an assessment if asbestos is present and this (plus any work undertaken) must be completed by a technically competent person. On site, anyone responsible for managing asbestos must be competent to do so, must be properly trained and fully aware of their responsibilities.
HSE inspectors have found a range of staff in schools nominated to undertake asbestos management in schools in the past – from the head teacher, to bursars, caretakers and others. Who is the duty holder is less important than the fact they must be suitably trained. The point being that just ‘nominating’ someone and leaving it at that is not an option.
The duty holder will have a key role in briefing tradesmen and contractors who arrive on the school premises to carry out any kind of work and it is vital they are competent to do so and have the knowledge to recognise when tradesmen have the necessary qualifications and are not being sent to do a task unaware of any potential asbestos risk.
Exposure to asbestos is estimated to kill 20 tradespeople in the UK every week – including plumbers, electricians and joiners. The duty holder can help themselves by choosing a contractor that has been suitably trained by a UKATA approved training provider. Such a contractor should have the appropriate documentation and if in any doubt as regards to its authenticity, this can be quickly verified with UKATA direct.
A contractor who holds a current UKATA certificate will have passed a rigorous training programme to a high standard of competence and gives the school duty holder the confidence that the job will be carried out with an appreciation of the risks posed by asbestos and will undertake the work accordingly.
Any duty holders new to the role will need asbestos training of their own and once again, UKATA makes a sensible first port of call. For the Train Safe, Work Safe keep Safe initiative, a list of training dates by region is available for those wishing to attend on the UKATA website.
When it comes to asbestos, a duty holder can never have too much awareness of the issues and in addition to the UKATA website, the HSE website contains sections dedicated to providing information and advice for the effective management of asbestos in schools.
Asbestos retains its status as the hidden killer and remains hidden in schools, but organisations like UKATA are committed to drag the issue into plain sight and ensure everyone has the awareness, tools and training to keep themselves and others safe. We must start the process of cutting the number of deaths from asbestos related diseases which remains unacceptably high for something easily and safely manageable with the right awareness and training in place.
UKATA sets standards in asbestos training and ensures that its members meet those standards. A full list of approved asbestos training providers can be found on the UKATA website.