Are councils ignoring asbestos awareness to the dangers of exposure and deliberately putting school children and teachers at potential risk rather than spend money to remove the hazardous fibres? A Labour group motion to remove asbestos from all schools in Worcestershire has been rejected by Conservative opposition. The defeat comes just weeks after a Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) report warned that the number of UK schools containing asbestos had risen from 75 per cent to 80 per cent.

Figures previously released under the Freedom Of Information Act showed that 180 schools in the Worcester area were known to contain asbestos. More recently, an asbestos register kept at County Hall revealed that nearly half (46 per cent) of 1,500 Worcestershire County Council properties contain asbestos including, 337 schools, as well as public libraries, offices and other smallholdings.

“Mass closures”

Council spokesmen said that any attempt to remove the asbestos would result in “mass closures”, and instead, have decided upon a ‘do not disturb’ policy unless buildings are to be demolished or renovations carried out, such as converting schools to academies. A Conservative councillor who supported the view said that it would be “more dangerous” to try and remove the asbestos and accused Labour of pushing “project fear”. The asbestos register shows there are 160 academies included among the asbestos-containing properties across Worcestershire.

According to one Labour councillor who backed the motion, it was “not good enough just to convert schools into academies and have that asbestos risk hanging over another organisation.” Previously, Worcestershire Council had given an assurance that “ all the buildings have been surveyed” and all asbestos is “managed in accordance with the approved code of practice. Any potentially hazardous is being removed under an ongoing programme.”

Cost cutting measures

Teaching unions continue to highlight the risks of asbestos exposure in schools and urge government and local authorities to seriously address their mounting concerns. A year ago, the Department for Education published it’s long delayed ‘asbestos in schools’ policy review, considered by teaching unions and asbestos victim groups to be disappointing as it did little more than acknowledge the existence of a problem.

In 2012, an All-Party Parliamentary Group Report on Occupational Health and Safety stated that, ‘Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years” and proposed a programme of measures should be introduced for the phased removal of asbestos from all schools. However, it appears that cost cutting measures are increasingly being adopted, which simply means that asbestos is left in place to be “managed”.

Schools do not retain asbestos records

Unfortunately, the standard of asbestos management, is often found to be severely inadequate and asbestos dust in school boiler rooms, classrooms, and corridors continues to be reported. In its recent report, JUAC stated that a proportion of schools do not retain asbestos records or exposure registers of pupils and school staff.

It has also been found that asbestos surveys and risk assessments previously carried out did not always identify all the asbestos that could be disturbed by normal school activities and building deterioration. Between November 2010 and June 2011, compliance checks carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) at 164 voluntary aided and foundation schools and academies found that 28 were unable to produce and show inspectors asbestos management plans or neglected to provide adequate staff training.

Teachers not told about asbestos

A National Union of Teachers survey carried out in 2015 found that more than four in ten (44 per cent) teachers claimed that they had not been informed whether their school contains asbestos. Nearly a half of respondents (46 per cent) did know that asbestos was present in their school and nearly all (40 per cent) said that they had not been told where it was located. Of those who were aware of the presence of asbestos, more than one in three also claimed an incident had occurred, which may have led to exposure but fewer than two in ten had seen a copy of their school’s asbestos management plan.

Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR), those responsible for the maintenance of school premises have duties to manage asbestos “so that the risks to staff and pupils are as low as reasonably practicable” (HSE). Duties involve all schools ensuring they have an asbestos management plan and any in-house staff carrying out building and maintenance work must receive adequate asbestos training. A proper system must also be in place to inform anyone of the presence of asbestos who may disturb the materials.