The management of asbestos in schools continues to be an issue, which according to the latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspection, has shown improvement – but more “ongoing attention” is still needed.

Since the ban on asbestos use in the UK was introduced nearly thirty years ago, HSE has tackled the raising of asbestos awareness with the essential management, education and training procedures needed to be properly carried out in schools and academies.

According to recent estimates, of the 28,950 schools across the UK, at least 75 per cent 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.

During the previous asbestos management inspection carried out by the HSE between November 2010 and June 2011, it was found that around 17 per cent of those schools inspected were unable to produce the necessary asbestos management plans or evidence that the required training had been conducted for teaching staff and other school employees.

“Improvement Notices”

The latest HSE inspection, which was undertaken between April 2013 and January 2014, was drawn from a carefully selected random sample of 153 non-local authority schools across England, Scotland and Wales, including independent, voluntary aided and foundation schools, free schools and academies. The inspectors were specifically focused on assessing the standards of asbestos management rather than the condition of the asbestos itself.

The positive news is that while just over 70 per cent required “no further action” to be taken, nearly 30 per cent received “written advice” from HSE. A further 13 per cent were also given “improvement notices”, enforcing action for managing asbestos to be carried out, key factors to Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR 2006/12).

A closer look at the published results clearly shows that the biggest failing by just over 45 per cent of the schools inspected was the lack of “a comprehensive system in place to ensure that anyone who may disturb asbestos was told of its presence”, followed by nearly 40 per cent of those schools who were responsible for their own maintenance had “not trained their maintenance personnel.”

Nearly a quarter of schools lacked any form of asbestos management plan, and 15 per cent did not possess any asbestos management survey or failed to keep their records up to date.

Failure to manage asbestos still a cause for concern

While an overall improvement can be seen when compared with the 2010/11 inspection of 164 schools where 41 improvement notices were served on 28 schools, the failure to manage asbestos as required is still a cause for concern.

Between 1945 and 1975, just over 45 per cent – or around 6,000 of the 13,000 schools built in England and Wales – used insulating materials made from asbestos fibres often concealed in the walls, ceilings and pillars. A further 1,400 schools were constructed using large quantities of asbestos in areas such as ceilings, partition walls, heaters, water tanks, pipes and window surrounds.

In 2012, a House of Commons ‘All Party Parliamentary Group’ report noted that, ‘Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years”, highlighting the level of danger from asbestos in Britain’s schools, and calling for urgent action. In 2013, the Medical Research Council suggested that “it is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings”.

In the same year, evidence given to the Education Select Committee estimated that, “ in Britain between 200 and 300 people will die each year of mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure experienced as a child at school in the 1960 and 1970s. Over a twenty year period that means that between 4,000 and 6,000 former pupils could die.”

Asbestos does not pose any significant risk to health if it is in good condition, undisturbed and, most importantly, managed in compliance with Control of Asbestos Regulations, and according to HSE published guidance.