Lack of asbestos awareness and training in Britain’s schools, highlighted by recent inspections and surveys, is an issue that continues to be high on the health and safety agenda, and a cause of growing concern. The Department for Education (DfE) says it will publish “a summary of its response to its own review of asbestos policy for schools.”

A report on a schools inspection carried out by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) between April 2013 and January 2014 found a ‘slight’ improvement in the standard of asbestos management but still found it necessary to issue ‘written advice’ to nearly a third of the 153 schools visited. HSE also found nearly 40 per cent of schools visited had not provided any asbestos training to school and other on-site staff.

The issue of a lack of evidence to show asbestos training in schools was clearly indicated once again by further surveys undertaken by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC), and the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) together with the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). The results for asbestos training appear to be in stark contrast to the HSE inspections for asbestos management.

“No asbestos training”

Nine in ten of the 1,350 who responded to the JUAC survey said they received “no asbestos training.” The majority of respondents also described themselves as “teaching assistants” whose daily tasks include “pinning children’s work to walls and ceilings and taking books out of cupboards”, often found to be constructed with hidden asbestos containing materials (ACMs). The joint survey carried out by the NAHT and ASCL fared little better. Of the 1,300 head teachers who responded, more than four in ten admitted that they had not received asbestos training, neither had the six in ten of school governors.

The findings strongly suggest that asbestos training for headteachers, teachers, support staff –  and school governors – should be compulsory in Britain’s schools. It is also one of the recommendations included in the DfE asbestos policy review, especially in academies and free schools “who may not necessarily have the skills or resources to safely manage their asbestos.”

Up until the 1970s and the eventual ban on the most toxic asbestos types a decade later, around 6,000 of the 13,000 schools in England and Wales were constructed used insulating materials made from asbestos fibres fabricated in the walls, ceilings and pillars. Large quantities of asbestos can still be found in areas such as ceilings, partition walls, heaters, water tanks, pipes and window surrounds, which were also installed in a further 1,400 schools.

75 per cent of schools likely to still contain significant amounts of asbestos

White ‘chrysotile’ asbestos continued to be used in the building industry until a final ban was introduced late in 1999. The north of England was a traditional asbestos industry blackspot and the county of Lancashire, uniquely, has its own specialist asbestos inspection teams. While all “high risk” asbestos in Lancashire schools have been resolved, there are currently 500 schools with at least one indentified “low incidence” case.

According to some estimates, of the 28,950 schools across the UK, at least three quarters are likely to still contain significant amounts of asbestos. In areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure could be as high as 90 per cent.

Medical research has previously warned that children are more vulnerable to exposure to asbestos, a conclusion clearly pointed to in a recommendation by the Committee on Carcinogenicity over future decisions and policy regarding asbestos in schools.

The government has also been called upon by the DfE review to collect information on the “extent, type and condition” of asbestos in schools and the setting of airborne fibre dust level to be significantly lower than those presently applied in the workplace.