It has been estimated that seventy five per cent of all schools across Britain possess asbestos containing materials (ACMs), escalating to around 90 per cent for schools located in specific areas of Manchester and Wales.

The problems surrounding asbestos whenever the material is uncovered in a school premises is rarely out of the press with repeated headlines referring to the neglect of statutory compliance with health and safety procedures creating a health risk.

A recurring theme is the apparent lack of asbestos awareness by some contractors and duty holders to the very real dangers that exposure to asbestos can present. As recently as 2005, more than 270 deaths from mesothelioma were reported over a twenty year period caused by exposure to asbestos in schools. Around 40 per cent of fatalities occurred after 2001, which included teaching or childcare assistants, caretakers and other school workers. Despite having the world’s highest number of teachers dying from asbestos-related mesothelioma cancer, Britain still has no national plan in place.

European Parliament recommends…

On 14th March the European Parliament voted by a 558 – 51 majority to support the recommendations of evidence produced at the Education Select Committee session on ‘Asbestos in Schools’, March 13th, with a call on the EU to “devise models for monitoring asbestos fibres in the air in the workplace.” Among the recommendations is a request to examine the possibility of “establishing action plans for the safe removal of asbestos from public buildings and buildings providing services which require regular public access” by 2028.

Asbestos in Schools – key issues…

Following sustained lobbying by the trade unions and Asbestos in Schools (AiS) group, the ‘Asbestos in Schools’ session, which was held at Portcullis House, Westminster, was a one-off enquiry focusing exclusively on the following key issues:

• The existence of evidence concerning the impact of asbestos (in its various forms) on young people and school staff.
• Determining whether current regulations and responsibilities for the management of asbestos in schools are adequate.
• The impact of changes to capital building programmes on asbestos management in schools.
• Analysing whether Government policy concerning asbestos in schools requires change.

Among those attending the enquiry was David Laws Minister of State for Schools, David Ashton Director of Field Operations & Directorate Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Julie Winn Chair of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee and Michael Lees Asbestos in Schools Group (AiS).

Conclusions…

Points presented to the Education Select committee by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) concerned the uniqueness of schools as workplaces because of the large numbers of children present and the lack of accurate and complete information on “the type, extent and condition of asbestos in schools.”

Other issues discussed concerned the number of mesothlioma deaths caused by exposure to asbestos in schools, the comprehensive scientific evidence about the risks and vulnerability of children and the adoption of a precautionary approach as a result of a current lack of full knowledge.

It was concluded that “current enforcement is reactive” and thus, a complete failure of the principle of “prevention of risk”. It was suggested that the Government should set a programme for the “phased removal of asbestos from all schools, with priority being given to those schools where the asbestos is considered to be most dangerous or damaged” and an independent review of government policy on asbestos in schools should also be undertaken.