Asbestos in Schools
Update 122
11 Oct 2011

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1. Enforcement action shows schools are failing to safely manage asbestos
 HSE enforcement action shows that a significant number of schools outside local authority control are not managing their asbestos safely. 158 schools were visited with enforcement action being taken in 30 for failures in asbestos management.  A further two local authority schools had enforcement action taken when asbestos debris was found in one and there was a potential disturbance to asbestos in the other. There were 70 breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act for a failure to ensure the health and safety of staff and children. There were a further 74 breaches of the Control of Asbestos Regulations for failing to identify asbestos, failing to implement a management plan and failing to train staff. This is in addition to earlier inspections of local authorities that resulted in 38 Improvement notices being issued for similar failures to safely manage asbestos in their schools.

This is a disgraceful and dangerous disregard of health and safety laws.  It is more proof that the Government’s policy of leaving asbestos in schools and managing it for the remaining life of the buildings is failing and putting teachers, support staff and pupils’ lives at risk.

2.  HSE guidance uses an unsafe workplace level for children.
HSE guidance applies an asbestos control level to children that is unsafe as it is meant for asbestos contractors wearing breathing apparatus and protective clothing.  The level is called the Action Level. HSE policy position was that parents would not be told of their children’s exposure to asbestos unless the Action level had been exceeded. When in Opposition the present Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, was informed that the Action Level was no longer current and there was no scientific basis for applying it to children. Despite that he has now confirmed to Parliament that schools are directed to the guidance following the release of asbestos fibres in schools. The Minister with responsibility for the HSE states that they have no plans to revise the guidance.

A formal request has been submitted to the Department for Education Asbestos Steering Group that the guidance is removed and that parents are told of all exposures of their children to asbestos. The case for withdrawing the guidance is at this link.

 3. Recent articles in the teachers’ journal SecEd about asbestos in schools

  • The teachers’ union Voice is critical of the relaxation of health and safety regulations including stopping proactive health and inspections in local authority  schools. This is directly relevant because pro-active HSE enforcement action has, and is, uncovering unsafe practice in schools that has been concealed for years.  
  • It was known twenty five years ago that just slamming a door can release cumulatively dangerous levels of asbestos into classrooms but nothing was done to warn the thousands of other schools with potentially the same problem.  This Sec Ed article examines why the recommendations of the James Review into schools capital spending should include an audit of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools.  The article includes the Department for Education response
  • A letter identifies the dangerous flaws in the DfE response.   (bottom half page 6) 

4. Committee on Carcinogenicity to assess the relative vulnerability of children to asbestos
For many years there have been calls for an assessment to be made of the risks to children from exposure to asbestos. Last February the DfE Asbestos Steering Group accepted that such an assessment should be carried out.  On November 17th the Department for Health’s Committee on Carcinogenicity will assess the relative vulnerability of children to asbestos.  Their findings will be included in a future newsletter.

The remit of the committee
Paper: The increased vulnerability of children to asbestos

Michael Lees

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1. HSE Enforcement action - schools failing to manage asbestos.
2. HSE use unsafe workplace asbestos fibre level for children
3.  Sec Ed articles:
a. Pro-active HSE inspections stopped.
b. James Review of capital spending should audit asbestos

4. Department of Health Committee tasked to assess relative vulnerability of children to asbestos - 40 years too late

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