Does your school have asbestos?

The presence of asbestos in many public buildings, including schools, remains an ongoing issue. UKATA is keen to emphasise the need to understand the risks of asbestos whilst at the same endorsing the fact that with correct advice and training it is possible to keep staff and students safe from the dangers that exposed asbestos poses.

The scale of the problem
The use of asbestos became illegal in the late 1990s and is perceived to be a ‘historical’ problem, but unfortunately the legacy of asbestos is still very much with us. Thanks to its thermal and insulating qualities and heat resistant properties, as well as its cost effectiveness as a building material, the use of asbestos in the construction industry was widespread in the UK and will need to be managed for decades to come. Used everywhere from public buildings like schools and hospitals to flats and houses, this 100 year legacy is quite staggering in scale.
In post-war 1940s Britain new buildings were needed quickly, but there was often precious little in the way of funds to deliver them. Cheap building materials that offered the finest qualities were understandably popular which led to the wide use of asbestos, particularly in schools. The chances are high that any ‘system’ school built between 1945 and 1980 contains asbestos. Schools constructed in this way have several features in common – which include the structural columns being fire proofed with asbestos containing material (ACM) which was then generally enclosed by metal casings or cladding.
The effective management of asbestos is an ongoing requirement for authorities and duty holders across all schools. To comply with legal obligations, there are several actions that need to be in place as part of effective asbestos management arrangements. While system schools are more likely to contain asbestos, the legal obligation applies to any school building.
These obligations are enshrined in the Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012) and The Health and Safety at Work Act (1974). Surveys undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reveal the majority of authorities have taken action to comply with legal requirements to manage asbestos in schools, with 107 of 152 authorities providing satisfactory responses. Most schools proved to be compliant although action was taken in ten local authorities. This demonstrates that this work is far from complete and while most were satisfactory, lessons still need to be learned.

In addition to keeping teachers and students safe, there is the ongoing threat of litigation. Earlier this year, a Devon man diagnosed with mesothelioma (a terminal cancer associated with asbestos exposure) as a result of being exposed to asbestos in a school where he worked was awarded £275,000 by Devon County Council. Mr Chris Wallace is not alone and his case may not be the last. The House of Commons Education Committee heard as many as 300 former school pupils develop asbestos related cancer every year, while the National Union of Teachers has called for all asbestos in schools to be removed.
Due to asbestos being bound up with the integral structures of so many school buildings, removal programmes would be costly and in many cases, impractical. But if the correct steps are taken to comply with the law and treat responsibility for management with the seriousness it deserves the risk to staff, students and contractors from asbestos can be managed effectively.

Taking Responsibility
Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations states that all risks from asbestos must be properly managed. There can be uncertainty between schools and local authorities as to who is ultimately responsible for the management of asbestos, although the legally responsible duty holder is usually the employer or the provider of delegated funding.

Whoever is responsible for the maintenance of a school will have an obligation under Regulation 4. Where responsibility is shared, the duty is shared. It goes without saying that a clear understanding should exist for who is responsible and what their practical duties are.

On the Record
An asbestos survey should exist for all school sites and a copy must be on the premises, together with an asbestos management plan. A written plan must exist for the actions necessary to manage the risks on site from ACMs and should be site specific. A generic ‘one size fits all’ plan is again unacceptable.
In addition duty holders are required to undertake an assessment of whether asbestos is present in their premises. Such an assessment should be undertaken by a technically competent person to include the location and condition of any asbestos present within the school building. On site, anyone responsible for managing asbestos must be competent to do so. They must be properly trained and fully aware of their responsibilities.
HSE inspectors found a range of staff nominated to undertake asbestos management in schools – from the head teacher to bursars, caretakers and others. This is fine, but whoever is nominated as a duty holder must be suitably trained to effectively carry out the role. Just ‘nominating’ someone and leaving it at that is unacceptable. Potentially the duty holder could have a key role in briefing contractors who arrive on the school site to carry out any kind of work. It is vital that they are competent to do so.
Disturbing asbestos can lead to devastating health consequences and the HSE continue to prosecute individuals and organisations who breach the law.
Asbestos kills 20 tradespeople in the UK every week, including plumbers, electricians and joiners. Using a contractor that has been suitably trained by a UKATA approved training provider is a good starting point. By virtue of their UKATA certificates, these contractors will have passed rigorous standards. If in any doubt about the authenticity of certificates and documents, this can be checked with a call to UKATA.

The asbestos management plan should cover every eventuality within a particular building. While the most obvious points to consider are maintenance and refurbishment work, the plan must also cover ‘emergencies’ such as damage caused by burst pipes or fire and it may even be prudent to consider the school’s local environment.
Unexpected threats from asbestos can come from anywhere and may not always originate on site. Yardley School in Birmingham was contaminated by asbestos following a fire at a nearby industrial estate. The school was initially closed, but the head teacher came under pressure to reopen from the city council, despite the continued presence of asbestos removal specialists on site.
The case demonstrates that the two parties responsible for managing asbestos in the school environment may not always agree. UKATA has backed the stance of the head teacher in this case; to let removal specialists’ complete work before allowing children back in. Why? Because asbestos remains the biggest single cause of work related deaths in the UK and why take the risk of adding to these numbers?
Asbestos remains a hidden killer and is still hidden in schools. People continue to die as a result of asbestos-related disease, through ignorance as much as anything else. Yet by following the simple advice above, exposure to asbestos is entirely preventable and manageable, even in system schools, and together we should be able to bring the death rates down.

Further information