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teacher teaching in a school with concrete walls and pupils sitting listening
27 October 2023

By James

Category: Industry

Asbestos in our Schools

Addressing Asbestos Issues in Educational Institutions, Including Legal Guidelines for Asbestos Removal and Management in Schools.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring soft fibrous mineral known for its resistance to heat and chemicals. It has been widely used in construction due to its properties. Despite the ban on most asbestos types, a significant amount of asbestos remains in buildings. There are three main types of asbestos: blue asbestos or Crocidolite, brown asbestos or amosite, and white asbestos or chrysotile. These types cannot be identified by colour alone. All three are classified as class 1 carcinogens, with the import and use of blue and brown asbestos banned in the UK since 1984 and white asbestos since 1999.

Where Is Asbestos Found in Schools?

Asbestos was commonly used in school buildings for purposes such as fire protection, insulation, and construction materials. Some common uses of asbestos in schools included spray coatings on walls and ceilings, insulation lagging around pipework, insulation boards in heating equipment, and asbestos cement products like wall panels and roof tiles. In March 2017, the Department for Education (DfE) provided guidance on where asbestos may be located in schools.

Why Is Asbestos Dangerous?

Asbestos releases tiny, easily inhalable fibres that can remain in the lungs or chest lining for extended periods. Exposure to asbestos can lead to various diseases, including asbestosis (lung scarring), lung cancer, and mesothelioma (a lethal cancer affecting the lung or stomach lining). Schools are at particular risk due to the widespread use of asbestos in their construction, coupled with inadequate maintenance and potential vandalism.

Asbestos and the Law

In addition to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, specific regulations address asbestos-related work. Employers must ensure the health and safety of employees, making it essential to manage asbestos risks. Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR) defines duty holders as those in control of premises that may contain asbestos. In educational establishments, the responsibility for asbestos identification and management falls on the employer.

Asbestos and Academies

The transition to academies may impact asbestos management in schools. Upon becoming academies, schools lose the local authority's support as the duty holder. While some academy trusts may handle asbestos management well, others may not, potentially leading to subpar practices.

Identifying Asbestos

The 'duty to manage' requires taking reasonable steps to identify potential asbestos. Asbestos surveys may be needed based on initial assessments. The National Education Union (NEU) recommends conducting surveys in all schools, except in cases where asbestos use can be ruled out due to the building's construction date (post-2000). Surveys should be carried out by trained personnel, either external consultants or in-house staff with appropriate training. The NEU recommends using surveyors accredited by UKAS (UK Accreditation Service) to ensure survey quality. Survey results should be readily accessible to staff for monitoring and damage reporting.

Managing Asbestos

Duty holders must prepare written plans outlining how potential asbestos materials' risks will be managed. These plans should cover risk management decisions, timetables, monitoring arrangements, responsibilities, staff training, and emergency response procedures. Asbestos management plan should provide information on presumed asbestos location and condition to employees, those liable to disturb it, and emergency services.

Precautions for Asbestos-Containing Materials

When dealing with presumed asbestos-containing materials, duty holders should adopt a precautionary approach, assuming asbestos presence until confirmed otherwise. Caution should be exercised when working with materials like asbestos insulation boards or attaching items to walls or ceilings. The NEU favours removal as the preferred risk management option.

Asbestos in Gas Masks

Handling or wearing Second World War military service gas masks with asbestos, even during school activities, is inappropriate unless it can be demonstrated that the masks are asbestos-free. The HSE has extended its guidance to include all gas masks. It advises against using artefacts that potentially contain asbestos, such as most First World War 'Brodie' helmets. Replica gas masks and Brodie helmets without asbestos are available for educational use.

Consulting Employees

Duty holders must determine who will oversee asbestos management processes and how employees will be consulted and informed. NEU health and safety representatives have the right to be consulted on asbestos-related matters affecting employees they represent. They should contact their NEU health and safety adviser or regional office when asbestos is suspected in schools.

Managing Asbestos in Schools

Full consultation is essential when dealing with asbestos in schools. Safety representatives should be involved in discussions, even in areas where they do not work, to ensure proper removal and prevent contamination. Coordination between the employer, head teacher, and all safety representatives is crucial.

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