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Asbestos in Schools

An Investigative report on asbestos in Highland Schools
- Highland News -

  • The report appears to have prompted an HSE Improvement Notice
  • Council fails to be open
  • Surveys not undertaken

See also:

  1. A public petition to the Scottish Parliament about action on asbestos in schools
  2. Action being taken on the petition

(December 2009)

Highland News December 2009: HEALTH and safety officials have ordered Highland Council to get its act together to protect staff and pupils from the threat of asbestos in schools.
The local authority could face court action if it fails to comply with an order slapped on it by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as its record on tackling the risks from the deadly material was slammed by a teacher’s union official. And this week the Highland News reveals the names of more than 100 schools – 19 in the Inverness area including Culloden and Charleston academies – where only partial surveys have been carried out to assess the dangers. It is a list the council was reluctant to issue.

The HN first raised concerns about asbestos in schools two years ago when teachers in some schools were told not to put tacks in walls because of the risk of releasing spores. And earlier this year seven classrooms had to be closed at Nairn Academy as a result of an asbestos scare. It is believed this incident may have prompted action by the HSE. An improvement notice was served on the council in May compelling it to improve its record-keeping to reduce the risk from the material.

Last month, the HN learned that the council had gone to tender to get comprehensive surveys for all its 197 schools. The contract is expected to cost the council in the region of £2 million. The HN reported that the tender documents showed 74 schools had full surveys, 58 partial surveys, and 65 had no surveys whatsoever. We asked the council to name the schools where full surveys had not been carried out. But the council initially refused and we were told this request would be dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act. Last week the council provided us with the information but did an apparent U-turn on the contract figures. We were informed that there were now in fact no “operational schools” without asbestos survey records.

However, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) teaching union has revealed that in May of this year HM Inspector of Health and Safety in Inverness served an Improvement Notice on the council concerning its management of asbestos. And the council has been given one year to meet its obligations under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 and Safety at Work Act 1974. Confirming its actions, an HSE spokesman said: “Those in control of buildings with materials containing asbestos have the duty to manage the risk of exposure and prevent asbestos-related disease. The Health and Safety Executive has therefore served Highland Council with an Improvement Notice, requiring them to put plans in place to ensure the proper management of asbestos in its schools.

“Our principal aim is that the arrangements Highland Council put in place in response to the notice are comprehensive, workable and robust. HSE advice is that if asbestos is in good condition it does not pose any risk and should remain undisturbed. There is no evidence to suggest that there is an immediate risk to staff or pupils at Highland schools or any other schools. In cases where Improvement or other notices issued by HSE are not complied with, a report may be sent to the procurator fiscal.”

Secretary of the EIS in Highland, Andrew Stewart, said: “The council has until May 2010 to remedy these contraventions. It shows how badly prepared they have been for managing asbestos in schools and I hope all the requirements are met as soon as possible. If not, that will be a matter of concern to our members. The Inspector was of the opinion that they had failed to identify premises where asbestos is liable to be present and they also have to specify the measures they are going to take to manage that risk.”

Mr Stewart admitted he did not think many teachers were fully aware themselves of the risks they face working in environments where asbestos could be prevalent. “I worked at Culloden Academy when the roof came off in strong winds and asbestos was exposed,” he continued. “As teachers, we became acutely aware of the problem and risks to our health posed by asbestos then. Likewise, with this recent incident at Nairn, we have concerns raised by our members there. But in general teaching staff just go in to work day-in day-out not fully aware of the dangers that could be lurking behind these walls. “The council should have in place full surveys and plans for each individual school to manage the risk of asbestos.”

One council insider said: “The background is over a number of issues, not least the recent asbestos scares at Nairn Academy and Kingussie High School. There is also concern about contractors going into plant rooms in all council buildings where there is a lot of asbestos. These notices are not served at the drop of a hat. To reach the stage of an Improvement Notice is a serious state of affairs which would suggest the council has not been bothering its backside about the regulations governing asbestos."

“Contractors have come in and done surveys on schools in the past and the management was so shambolic no-one knew where the surveys were kept and no-one had overall responsibility for managing asbestos. In some cases, surveys were given to head teachers and in some cases they were not.”

A full survey was available for Nairn Academy before contractors moved in last March which shows the presence of chrysotile (asbestos) in the artex in the ceilings where the panels were being installed. The council said a risk assessment was carried out but the contractors went ahead and artex was disturbed, showering seven classrooms in potentially lethal dust. The incident happened at the weekend and no staff or pupils were in the rooms, which remained closed for several weeks.

Highlands MSP Mary Scanlon, who is the Tory spokeswoman on health, said: “This looks like a catalogue of failure in management of a potential health hazard. It appears that pupils and teachers have been kept in the dark over previous surveys. It’s incumbent on Highland Council to notify all parents and staff of potential asbestos hazards where they exist. It is also alarming that this issue has only been brought to the fore by persistent and dogged determination on the part of the Highland News Group to get to the truth.”

It took over three weeks of phone calls on the part of the Highland News to Highland Council to extract the names of the schools where there were either partial or no surveys of asbestos available.

At no time was it indicated to us by the council that they had been issued with an Improvement Notice by the HSE.

We now publish for our readers a full list of schools with only partial surveys. It should also be noted of course that even those schools with full surveys are going to be reviewed under the contract which has gone out to tender. The tender documents showed 74 schools had full surveys, 58 partial surveys, and 65 had no surveys whatsoever – but the council now claims there are no operational schools without asbestos survey records and 119 schools have partial surveys.

“The council did go out to tender on the basis of the information quoted,” a spokesman said. “The tender documents were prepared some time ago and in the intervening period there are a range of actions that have been continuing in relation to improving our asbestos information. This is necessary to support ongoing works.”

Asked by the HN what a partial survey covered, a spokesman said it was a survey of an area or areas of a building rather than the whole building. This can result from surveys being carried out in advance of specific works in specific areas where no other part of the building is affected.”

Of the 119 schools where only partial surveys are currently available, 33 are in Ross-shire, 14 are in Lochaber and 19 are in Inverness and one in Nairnshire.

Reporter: Donald Wilson - Highland News