For many, asbestos is something they imagine to be a relic of the past. It certainly won’t cross many parents’ minds that it has the potential to be a health issue in the place where their children go to learn every day. Unfortunately, it still remains a serious issue.
The good news, however, is that with proper management, the issue can be contained so that children and teachers are not exposed to this potentially fatal material.
The threat of asbestos in schools
Asbestos may have been banned in 1999, but that doesn’t mean that all the buildings which were built with asbestos could be transformed overnight. The material was a common building product right up until its ban and although it was used with less regularity throughout the 90's, it was still prominent. Before that, it was extremely common.
When you consider that many, many schools were built long before awareness of its potential danger become widespread in the 90's – often between the 1950's and the 1980's – you begin to see why asbestos remains a problem to this day.
Research by the BBC found that a little over half the schools in the north-west of England are known to contain asbestos. Shockingly, local authorities are unaware if a staggering 44% of schools even contain asbestos in the first place,due to them falling outside LEA control, for example, in the cases of free schools and academies.
To give an indication of the scale of the issue, the National Education Union report that more than 200 teachers have died from mesothelioma, which is a form of cancer usually linked to asbestos exposure.
Managing asbestos in schools
The responsibility of managing asbestos safely lies with what is known as the ‘duty holder’. Generally speaking, this is the employer,which in the case of a school would most likely be the local authority.
Managing asbestos can be a complicated issue, however, government advice suggests the following steps to help limit asbestos exposure in schools.
Conduct a management survey of any asbestos-containing materials. Common places where asbestos is found in schools includes but is not limited to; thermal installation on pipes and boilers, spray asbestos for things like fire protection, ceiling and floor tiles, cement roofing and guttering, textures coatings and more. Other materials may come as more of a surprise. For example, there have been cases of asbestos mats used in schools, the kind which are most commonly associated with Bunsen burners.
However, because of the importance of avoiding the spread of asbestos fibres, not all these materials may be accessible. In the case of building work taking place in the school, refurbishment and demolition surveys of the area will need to take place to identify asbestos that could previously not be reached. Meeting with a surveyor is the best way of planning this process out, and the local authority budget for building management in schools will include costs for the management of asbestos.
The school materials which contain asbestos will need to undergo an assessment. This will include things such as assessing the type of material, the type of asbestos, any damage it has and the likelihood of someone disturbing the material. This is all about understanding the risk posed to those who work and learn in the school.
Establish a plan based on the information gathered.Essentially, this is where you decide how to move forward in the best interests of everyone at the school. This includes planning whatever work is needed, for which professional advice must be sought.
If you need expert advice for anything related to asbestos surveying, testing, encapsulation and removal, then you can find useful information in our FAQ section.
Next, you will need to inform every one of the risks and precautions that will need to be undertaken in the school. It is a requirement by law for employees to be consulted about anything that may affect their health and safety, including something like the disturbance of asbestos.
In some circumstances, schools may need to close due to things like structural damage causing potential exposure to asbestos, although the emphasis should always be on prevention
Finally, keep a management plan of any new information, including removals, work undertaken and any occurring damage. Remember that, when dealt with correctly and professionally, asbestos is an issue that can be kept under control.