A digital approach to managing asbestos

Andrew Paten, co-founder of UKNAR - UK National Asbestos Register, talks about how schools can take the digital approach to improve the management of asbestos, which is estimated to be in 80 per cent of UK schools

This summer school buildings will have undergone many internal adaptations to modify the space available for social distancing. Across the UK, maintenance teams, visiting contractors and teachers will be carrying out a variety of minor works to equip school buildings for a ‘new normal’ and a safe return to the classroom; whether installing new wash basins and sanitation areas or putting up new health and safety signage. In addition, recent government announcements of increased funding for school means new refurbishments and repairs will be planned.

However, this increased activity poses a great concern for community interest company, UKNAR (UK National Asbestos Register). Although there is a greater opportunity to remove asbestos safely with major refurbishments, there is also a significantly increased likelihood of accidental and potentially fatal asbestos disturbances while carrying out minor works, building maintenance and repairs.
Andrew Paten comments: “It is absolutely vital that contractors and teachers get to see where asbestos may be located so that they don’t disturb it when carrying out their duties or minor works.  This critical information is contained in the school asbestos register but actually getting this information into the hands of those that need to see it, when they need to see every time and without fail is not always simple. Reports suggest over 50% of school teachers and one third of contractors have never seen the asbestos register for the place where they work. This is despite this being an absolutely key dutyholder responsibility for them to see this information if they may be at risk of endangering themselves or others. Electronic copies do not always reach the individual contractor visiting site and paper copies are not always easily accessible (nor currently desirable). Covid only makes this harder.”

Lives lost to asbestos in schools

At the end of 2019 there was increased mainstream public concern expressed over the presence of asbestos in UK schools, with particular fears for the long term health and wellbeing of teaching staff, pupils and caretakers.

According to the National Education Union (NEU), in 2016, 32 teaching professionals and 8 school support staff died of mesothelioma, a cancer linked exclusively to asbestos exposure.  It is estimated that 200-300 people die each year as adults from mesothelioma because they were exposed to asbestos when a pupil in school.

The Department of Health’s Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) concluded in 2013 that children are more vulnerable to the effects of asbestos. A five-year-old child exposed to asbestos is five times more likely to contract mesothelioma than someone exposed to asbestos in their 30’s for example.
Government lacking

Despite these very disturbing statistics, active campaigning from various pressure groups, plus a recent voluntary Asbestos Management Assurance Process (AMAP), by the DfE to all schools in England, there appears to be no long-term government plan to tackle the persistent issue of asbestos in schools.

Time to upload your asbestos register

UKNAR is proposing that now is the right time to make safer asbestos management in schools a key priority and help dutyholders protect everyone in schools where asbestos is known to be present.  

UKNAR is encouraging all schools to sign up to a national database that gives access to  Asbestos SMART, a very simple, contactless, paperless system to help schools and dutyholders manage their asbestos registers and asbestos risks more effectively and prevent unnecessary asbestos exposures.  As well as saving lives, it saves administration time and money and potentially expensive disruption caused by accidental asbestos disturbances or delays to works.

Once UKNAR has uploaded a copy of your latest asbestos register, the Asbestos SMART system can provide 24/7, instant access for your contractors and staff on site to identify all known asbestos threats in your school buildings. On site, this can be done simply by using their Smartphone to scan strategically placed notices with a unique QR code that leads them to the asbestos register. This is presented in an easy to understand mobile phone friendly format, taking less than ten seconds to access. It requires no physical contact with paper or people. In advance of arriving on site contractors can also be emailed a link.

Notices with the Asbestos SMART QR code may be integrated into contractor signing in procedures and placed in staff rooms, as well as places of high risk.
During this period of disruption, dutyholders can have peace of mind that their contractors are safely informed of the location of any asbestos risks just by using their Smartphone. Contractors can work efficiently and safely, eliminating the need to interface with reception staff to consult hard copy asbestos registers.

Liz Darlison, Head of Services at Mesothelioma UK commented: “Having become very familiar with the Register, I am amazed how practical, incredibly easy and affordable the Asbestos SMART system is. It’s a wonder that we haven’t had something like this before in the UK, a national register to protect people against the dangers of asbestos.”

Andrew Paten, Co-Founder, UKNAR, comments: “Our vision is to make critical asbestos information instantly visible to those that need to see it, when they need it.  Like Covid, it is an invisible killer. Schools are currently undergoing lots of modifications in order to social distance for the safe return of pupils and staff.  Yet, even the smallest maintenance job in school could easily dislodge asbestos, causing potentially fatal exposure.”

Andrew Paten continues: “ We are providing schools with a very simple and cost effective means to help manage asbestos more safely whilst giving trustees, head teachers and their dutyholders improved line of sight and reassurance that they are fulfilling their legal and moral responsibilities to protect staff, pupils and site visitors.”

“Asbestos in schools is a persistent and present danger. It is hidden and has been largely forgotten.  And with the huge costs of removal the problem isn’t going away quickly. Not enough has been done to address this but modern technology ie. the Smartphone can help us all.  I truly believe now is the time to take a smarter digital approach as a modern tool to better address a longstanding problem. There is no pleasant way to say it – asbestos in schools causes lung cancer and asbestos kills and exposures continue to happen.

 “While COVID-19 is prevalent, we are aware that talking about asbestos in schools could be unwelcome, but we want to prevent hundreds of future lives being unnecessarily lost in the future. It is clear Government intervention won’t come quickly and something can be done right now at negligible cost per school if enough schools, academy trust and LEA’s engage. We have a solution that is paperless, contactless and efficient. We believe it really will save time, money and lives.”

Be part of the pilot

Asbestos SMART QR code technology is now being trialled in a small number of UK schools. To test further suitability, UKNAR is extending the reach of the trial by recruiting fifty additional schools to take part in a larger pool of early adopter trials.  

Trials will last until the end of 2020 and are free for all schools selected. The sample will be split between primary and secondary education. Information gathered will be used to inform future product development.

To discover more about how Asbestos SMART  works or  participate  in UKNAR’S early adopter trials, contact Stuart Towers, Head of Research & Sales email: stuart.towers@uknar.org 

Further Information: