What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring soft fibrous mineral. It has been used widely for many years due to its properties of resistance to heat and chemicals. Many thousands of tonnes have been used in construction of public buildings and, although the use of most types of asbestos is now banned, much asbestos is still present in buildings today.
There are three main types of asbestos:
- blue asbestos or crocidolite
- brown asbestos or amosite
- white asbestos or chrysotile.
Despite the reference to colours, the different types of asbestos cannot be identified by colour alone. All three types of asbestos are classified as class 1 carcinogens. The import and use of blue and brown asbestos in the UK has been banned since 1984, and the import and use of white asbestos has been banned since 24 November 1999.
Where is asbestos found in schools?
The most common uses of asbestos in school buildings were:
- spray coatings, mixed with paint or water, for fire protection and insulation on concrete walls and ceilings and on steelwork
- insulation lagging, particularly around pipework, boilers and ducts
- insulation boards, for example, Asbestolux in heating equipment and other kinds of equipment such as protective mats in laboratories
- asbestos cement products such as wall and ceiling panels, corrugated roof panels, tiles, gutters, pipes and decorative plaster-type finishes.
In March 2017, the DfE published guidance for schools on where asbestos may be located.
Why is asbestos so dangerous?
Asbestos gives off very small and fine fibres which can be breathed in easily. They can remain in the lungs or settle in the linings of the lungs and the chest cavity, for long periods after exposure, and their presence can lead to many asbestos-related diseases.
These can include:
- asbestosis or fibrosis, a scarring of the lungs caused by an accumulation of fibres which leads to chest pain, breathlessness, and strain on the heart
- lung cancer
- mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the lining of the lungs or stomach. Since 1980 at least 363 school teachers have died from mesothelioma, 249 of those since 2001. School teachers are now dying from mesothelioma at an average of 19 per year, up from three per year in 1980. Since 1980 at least 165 higher and further education teaching professionals have died of mesothelioma.
There is usually a long delay between first exposure to asbestos dust and the diagnosis of illness. Neither cancer can be cured; both can rapidly cause death. Asbestos-related diseases currently kill around 5,000 people every year. The vast majority of people dying now were exposed to asbestos in the 1950s and 1960s when use in the UK was at its peak.
On 9 March 2011, the Supreme Court upheld an earlier Appeal Court judgement that Dianne Willmore, who died of mesothelioma in October 2009, had been negligently exposed to asbestos while a pupil at a school run by Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council in the 1970s.
Ms Willmore was diagnosed with mesothelioma at the end of March 2007, at the age of 46. She gave evidence in court that she had been exposed to asbestos while a pupil at Bowring Comprehensive School in Merseyside. She remembered council workers removing ceiling tiles to re-route cables. She also remembered fellow pupils removing ceiling tiles to put blazers into the ceiling cavities as a prank, as well as vandalised stacked tiles in the girls’ toilets. Some of these turned out to have contained asbestos.
This case is of great significance in terms of the NEU’s longstanding campaign against asbestos in schools as it was the first time that a former pupil has been awarded compensation (of £240,000) for asbestos exposure which took place while at school.
It has been known for many years that children are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of asbestos exposure, even at low levels. If teachers are dying from their exposure, inevitably pupils will die too in later life. Because of the long latency period there are no records of adults who have died because of childhood exposure. However, Professor Julian Peto, a leading epidemiologist, has estimated that 200 to 300 adults die each year from mesothelioma because of asbestos exposure when they were a pupil at school. There are also no occupational records of those who die after the age of 75, so the real figures for teachers are likely to be much higher.
The risks in schools are clear. Asbestos was widely used in constructing schools in the past but poor structural maintenance and vandalism make schools more vulnerable than other buildings to the risk of release of asbestos fibres.
Asbestos and the law
In addition to the general requirements of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, there are several sets of specific regulations dealing with work with asbestos.
- The general duty placed upon employers by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees and others will require steps to be taken to deal with the potential risks to health and safety posed by the presence of asbestos.
- Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2012: these regulations define those who own, occupy, manage or have responsibility for premises which may contain asbestos as duty holders.
Other relevant regulations include the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations, which govern the licensing of contractors permitted to undertake asbestos removal, and the Asbestos (Prohibition) Regulations, which govern the import, availability and use of asbestos products.
Who is the duty holder in education establishments?
The HSE’s Approved Code of Practice on the Control of Asbestos Regulations states that the duty holder under the regulations will be “the person in control of maintenance activities” in those premises. In maintained schools and academies, financial control of school budgets for routine maintenance, and in some cases structural works, is delegated to the governing body. The principal responsibility under the regulations for ensuring that asbestos is identified and managed therefore also rests with the employer.
Asbestos and academies
The NEU has concerns that moves towards mass academisation and an increasing number of employers will affect asbestos management in schools. When schools become academies, they lose the support of the local authority as duty holder. While some academy trusts will be experienced in asbestos management, many, especially small trusts, will not. This could lead to poor asbestos management practices.
Determining the presence of asbestos
The ‘duty to manage’ does not specifically require asbestos surveys to be carried out. The regulations require ‘reasonable’ steps to be taken to identify the potential presence of asbestos. The HSE advises, however, that surveys may be needed depending on what is found during an initial assessment.
The NEU believes that asbestos surveys should be carried out in all schools unless there is good reason not to do so.
For example, if a school was built wholly after 2000 than asbestos would not have been used in its construction. Many education employers will previously have carried out some forms of survey, in particular the ‘condition surveys’ required under the asset management planning process. It should not be automatically assumed that such surveys satisfy the requirements of the duty to manage.
Surveys should be undertaken by competent personnel. The HSE advises that they can be either external consultants or in-house staff who have received sufficient appropriate training. The NEU and JUAC have concerns about the quality of many asbestos surveys. Therefore, the NEU strongly recommends that schools should only use surveyors accredited with the UK’s national accreditation body UKAS.
Copies of surveys should be readily accessible to staff so that they can monitor the condition of their work areas and report any damage to walls/ceilings etc that contain asbestos. The NEU believes this information should be on permanent display in the staff room.
Where potential asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are identified, the HSE sets out three options for duty holders in determining the action to be taken:
- to presume that all potential asbestos-containing materials do in fact contain asbestos unless this can be specifically ruled out
- to establish in each case whether asbestos is actually present or not by sampling
- to conclude that no such materials contain asbestos. This is permissible only on the basis of strong evidence, for example records of building plans or age of the building.
Where surveys are carried out, the information obtained must be recorded in writing. It should set out whether ACMs/presumed ACMs are present, their location and condition and, if known, the type of asbestos involved.
It is important that all staff members in a school are aware not only if the school contains asbestos, but where the ACMs are located; the duty holder has a legal responsibility to provide information on the location and condition of ACMs to anyone who is likely to disturb them. If an asbestos survey is not on permanent display, or if staff members are unsure how to interpret it, they should ask the duty holder or head teacher where asbestos is located within the school.
Lucie Stephens, an asbestos in schools campaigner whose mother, a retired teacher, died from mesothelioma in 2016, submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all local authorities in England and Wales. The requests asked for details of all schools which contained asbestos and how this asbestos was managed. Any reps or members who aren’t sure whether their school contains asbestos can check the response for their LA.
A similar exercise has been undertaken in respect of academies, although the data is less complete. Contact Sarah Lyons or Sophie Ward for information about particular academy trusts.
Managing asbestos in schools
Duty holders must prepare written plans setting out how the risks from any potential asbestos materials are to be managed. Such plans will need to cover:
- decisions and rationale on options for managing risks
- timetable and priorities for action on removal or encapsulation
- arrangements for monitoring materials to be left in place
- responsibilities of staff
- arrangements for informing and training staff, including contractors
- timetable and procedure for review of management plan
- dealing with emergency situations.
Management plans should in all cases provide that information about the location and condition of presumed asbestos will be provided to all employees, to others who are liable to disturb it and to the emergency services.
Duty holders should take immediate action to deal with identified damaged/disturbed materials before preparing their plans. Duty holders should put safe systems of work in place to prevent disturbance of potential asbestos materials. For example, if a wall or ceiling is known, or suspected, to contain asbestos, it is important that contractors do not drill into the asbestos and that teachers do not stick drawing pins into it. If an incident occurs, for example debris falls from a ceiling or a roof collapses, the area should be sealed off. No attempt should be made to enter or clear up the area, until a competent person has confirmed that asbestos is not present.
The options for managing risks from presumed asbestos will range from adopting a ‘once and for all solution’ whereby competent specialists identify and remove asbestos, to recording information about presumed asbestos and setting up a system of monitoring and review in case of deterioration. Removal is always the option favoured by the NEU.
The HSE’s present advice is: “If asbestos-containing materials are in good condition and are unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, then it is better to leave them in place and to introduce a system of management.”
The NEU does not agree that it is preferable to leave asbestos–containing materials in place and seek to manage them. As described below, removal should always be the first consideration. Where this is not immediately possible, safe management may mean that major changes are required in the way in which school staff work.
Asbestos insulation boards and drawing pins
In February 2006, the independent working group on action to control chemicals (WATCH), chaired by the HSE, considered whether the practice of inserting drawing pins into asbestos insulating boards (AIB), ceilings or walls, when putting up displays in classrooms, was an activity which should cease. They concluded that, although the risk involved may be small, it was an activity which could and should be avoided.
The NEU is keen that this message be conveyed to teachers and other school staff who then follow this recommendation where a school’s asbestos survey indicates that this is necessary. Staples are no better than drawing pins. Fibre release is likely to be greater when the staple is removed. Where there is no information available as to whether asbestos is present or not, the precautionary approach should be adopted until such time as the situation is clear. This means that, as set out in the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations it should be assumed that asbestos is present.
In such circumstances, the NEU strongly recommends that members should not mount displays until either the AIB is removed or sealed, as a temporary solution, or it is categorically confirmed that no asbestos is present.
Similar precautions need to be taken before screwing display boards or, for example, interactive whiteboards into a wall.
Asbestos in gas masks
Following concerns raised by the NEU about pupils and staff handling, and even wearing, Second World War military service gas masks containing asbestos, eg during history or drama lessons or school productions, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issued a warning in November 2013. The HSE advised that it was not appropriate for children or teachers to wear or handle a WW2 gas mask unless it could be clearly demonstrated that the particular mask did not contain asbestos.
Since issuing this advice, due to continued pressure from the NEU and JUAC, and following analysis of a number of masks, the HSE has widened and strengthened the scope of its guidance to include all gas masks and the advice is that no gas masks should be worn or handled by children or teachers for the following reasons:
- Analysis showed that the majority of vintage masks did contain asbestos and often the more dangerous crocidolite, or blue, asbestos. Only a minority did not, and it is not possible to say which types or models do, or do not, contain asbestos.
- It is very difficult to decide whether or not a mask contains asbestos from a simple visual examination, and in addition it is likely that some masks will be in very poor condition.
- The Imperial War Museum advise that their policy is to assume any mask, whatever the vintage, contains asbestos as well as potentially other toxic or otherwise hazardous materials, and so should not be worn and only handled if clearly certified as safe to do so.
The HSE has also issued a warning that the majority of the British Army ‘Brodie’ helmets issued during the First World War, contain chrysotile or white asbestos in the helmet liner. Accordingly, the advice in relation to these items is the same as for gas masks – it is not appropriate for children or teachers to wear or handle any artefacts that potentially contain asbestos. Replica gas masks and Brodie helmets that do not contain asbestos are available as teaching aids.
When duty holders consider their management plans, they must determine who is going to oversee the processes and how employees are to be consulted and kept informed.
NEU health and safety representatives are entitled under the 1977 Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations to be consulted on matters affecting employees they represent. They, therefore, have the right to be consulted about employers’ proposals to undertake work to meet the requirements of the duty to manage and to see any records made in connection with this work or other records relevant to asbestos issues.
Dealing with asbestos in schools
NEU safety representatives should contact their NEU health and safety adviser or NEU regional/Wales office whenever the presence of asbestos is suspected. This is particularly important when the suspected asbestos material is in a poor condition since urgent consideration may need to be given to closing part, or all, of the school.
There should be full consultation between the employer, head teacher and all safety representatives. NEU safety representatives should be involved in all such discussions even if the asbestos is found in an area where NEU members do not work, such as the boiler room, since errors in removal might result in asbestos contamination of a far wider area of the school.
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