How to deal with asbestos in schools

29th June 2015

While asbestos now carries with it deadly warnings, its use in the construction industry was extensive right up until the end of the 1990s. As a result, it can still be found in many buildings across the UK today, including homes, hospitals and – perhaps most worryingly – schools.

The material, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), kills around 5,000 people every year – making it a bigger threat than road traffic accidents.

Why asbestos is an issue

As mentioned above, asbestos is dangerous. When materials that contain the substance are disturbed or damaged, they release fibres into the air. These can cause serious diseases in anyone who inhales them and, seeing as it can take decades for symptoms to show, it’s usually too late to do anything once a diagnosis has been given.

Among the conditions it can trigger are mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis – all three of which can be fatal.

Where the asbestos problem exists

Geographically, asbestos is an issue in educational establishments across the country, with a recent BBC article claiming it can be found in 90 per cent of British schools. This is markedly higher than official figures, which have long put it between 70 and 80 per cent. As a rule of thumb, it can be found in most buildings constructed before the Asbestos (Prohibition) Regulations were amended in 1999.

Within these buildings, it’s normal to find asbestos used in a number of places, including:

  • thermal insulation on pipes and boilers
  • cement roofs
  • floor tiles
  • fire protection boards
  • partitioning and ducts

Who is at risk?

The presence of asbestos in schools isn’t always dangerous in itself; the damage tends to be caused when asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are disturbed during maintenance and repair projects. What this means is that contractors and caretakers are at particularly high risk, due to the nature of their everyday work.

In most schools, pupils and teachers are unlikely to be at risk while undertaking their normal, everyday activities. Care should always be taken to avoid interfering with ACMs, though. It’s much safer to use designated notice boards than to pin worksheets or images to insulation boards and ceiling tiles, for instance.

Whose responsibility is it to manage asbestos in schools?

According to Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, the responsibility of asbestos management in any non-domestic premises lies with the ‘duty holder’. In normal speak this means responsibility falls upon anyone who is responsible for the maintenance or repair of the property, and in schools specifically it means the employer.

Once again, this isn’t particularly clear, as the definition of ’employer’ will differ from school to school. In most community establishments, it’ll be the local authority, but in academies and free schools, the buck is likely to stop at the governors. When building management duties are shared by the local authority and the school itself, asbestos duties will also be split.

What needs to be done?

This duty holder should first know whether there is any asbestos on their premises, and whereabouts it is in the building. Then, they must assess and manage the risks posed to pupils, employees and anyone else who may enter. This will involve keeping up-to-date records which must be shared with anyone who could be affected (namely caretakers and contractors).

The next step is to devise a risk management plan and implement it. This could involve restricting access to certain areas of the premises, or even removing the hazard altogether if possible. All employees who are likely to come into contact with ACMs should be suitably trained too. Help with this can be found from a third-party training provider.

While schools aren’t legally required to tell students’ parents about the presence of asbestos on their premises, many tend provide reassurance in the form of information on management plans and the risk prevention measures in place. If ACMs are disturbed and fibres are released, however, contact must be made immediately and the school may need to be closed.

Staff and pupil responsibilities

While unlikely, it shouldn’t be forgotten that children could potentially disturb ACMs during unsupervised activities – this needs to be considered by staff and duty holders. With help from the locational records, entry to certain areas of the premises can be restricted if there is thought to be any particular risk. Teachers and other employees should also be vigilant, and raise any concerns about hazards that haven’t already been noted officially.

Schools should always be safe places for children to learn, and for teachers to work. While asbestos is often seen as a threat to this, it doesn’t have to be dangerous, providing its presence is managed properly. With all of the above in mind, there’s no reason this can’t be the case.