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Asbestos in Schools
Joint Union Asbestos Committee
Government warned of danger of making school governors wholly responsible for health and safety of pupils and staff
“The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC)*, a national asbestos trade union campaign group, urges the Government to think again before it puts the full responsibility for the health of children and school staff on school governors.”
The current court case against Staffordshire County Council, following the release of dangerous asbestos fibres in Glenthorne Primary School in Cheslyn Hay, Walsall, West Midlands, highlights the problems of dealing with asbestos safely.
The school had to be closed to the 178 pupils for four months in 2009 after contractors dismantling a cupboard disturbed asbestos fibres contained in asbestos insulating boards. Asbestos insulating boards were in common use in the building trade between the 1950s and the early 1980s and used extensively in schools buildings.
The Staffordshire case follows a number of recent cases relating to the failure to maintain asbestos safely in schools. In November 2010 a coroner’s inquest found that Brenda Waddell had died of mesothelioma contracted from exposure to asbestos during her time working as a cleaner at Grimsby College. And in the same month the University of Lincoln was fined over £10,000, with over £12,000 in legal costs, for failure to act on reports of the presence of asbestos in 2006 and 2007 and to implement an appropriate asbestos management plan.
Chair of JUAC, Ms Winn said: “Incidents like the one near Walsall ought not to happen, but without specific school guidance and training it comes as no surprise that they do.”
The Government’s own estimate is that 75% of all schools and colleges in the UK contain asbestos. The UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma deaths in the world, with school staff deaths from mesothelioma increasing year on year.
Ms Winn said: “This latest prosecution increases our concerns about the Government’s plans to make the governors of all state-funded schools responsible for the health and safety of their pupils and staff. Even in the best local authorities, which have trained and dedicated health and safety officials, things can, and often do, go wrong. It is hard to believe the situation will improve if the responsibility is devolved to school governors who lack the expertise or resources to deal with asbestos.
“The Government needs to take the issue of asbestos in schools more seriously. The escalating cost of dealing with disturbed asbestos will remain a burden on schools until the Government carries out a national audit to identify the state and whereabouts of asbestos in schools and targets sufficient resources to deal with that in the most dangerous condition and begin a program of phased removal.”