In the UK, three-quarters of schools are reported to contain asbestos materials within their buildings. Between 1945 and 1975, the use of asbestos was frequent in the construction of schools, as part of the UK’s school building programs. 14,000 schools during that period were built with asbestos, especially in the construction of temporary buildings and thermal insulation. It wasn’t until 1999 that asbestos use was banned in the UK. With the hazardous fibres on site, it remains a danger for teachers and pupils while it is still there.
Why is Asbestos a danger in schools?
Asbestos causes fatal diseases such as Asbestosis and Mesothelioma which can be contracted from breathing in asbestos fibres. It doesn’t affect a person immediately as the fibres will attack the lungs over time. With an average 30-40 year period between exposure and onset of disease, it is a slow killer.
According to the National Union of Teachers, over 200 teachers have died from mesothelioma – an aggressive form of lung cancer – in the UK since 2001. The danger doesn’t end there, as government research found that children exposed to asbestos are five times more likely to contract mesothelioma than adults aged 30.
The Health and Safety Executive says asbestos presents a “very low risk” to people in schools if it is properly managed. However, any presence of asbestos materials means there is always a risk to anybody who might come into contact with it.
Where is Asbestos found in schools?
There are various Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) that can be found within many schools built before 2000. These include:
- Asbestos lagging used on pipes and boilers for thermal insulation.
- Sprayed asbestos used in thermal insulation, fire protection and ducts.
- AIBs (asbestos-insulating board) used for thermal insulation, fire protection, ducts and partitioning.
- Ceiling tiles.
- Floor tiles.
- Roofing and guttering.
- Textured coatings.
Poor maintenance of a school building can increase asbestos exposure from any of these ACMs. With tight budgets at the disposal of schools, most boards will opt to buy books, computers and other equipment needed for students. This means the upkeep of a building becomes a low priority. For this reason, effective asbestos management is required to keep everybody safe.
Who is most at risk from Asbestos exposure in schools?
Anybody who is working on maintenance, repair and construction activities on school premises could disturb asbestos fibres, and cause exposure to air. School caretakers are most at risk because of the nature of their work within the building. Teaching staff and pupils are unlikely to be at risk from asbestos materials during their normal everyday activities, however, there could be an asbestos risk if pupils are asked to pin or tack their work into insulation boards or ceiling tiles.
Should parents be concerned about Asbestos in schools?
Under health and safety regulations, parents do not have to be informed if their child’s school contains asbestos. However, it is the duty of the school to ensure it is managed well so there is no danger of exposure. The Local Education Authority is responsible for managing asbestos on-site for community schools, but it is the school governors who are responsible in academies and free schools.
What can be done to test your Asbestos?
Testing for asbestos can be done quite easily. ACMs should be monitored by visual inspection and checking for signs of any damage to the materials. If there are no signs of damage – such as visible debris, dust or asbestos in poor condition – then the risk of the spread of asbestos fibres is low. Thorough monitoring needs to take place regularly to ensure no damage has taken place that puts everybody under threat.
If construction work is expected to take place, a school must contact a qualified asbestos remove professional to make the site safe.
When remedial work is scheduled, an asbestos survey should take place to ensure pupils and staff are safe on site. If the survey finds any potential issues, then it is possible that the school could close temporarily. However, a school could postpone such work until holiday periods to minimise risk of exposures to asbestos.
Any school staff members likely to encounter asbestos in their work, must take asbestos awareness training. Online asbestos awareness courses are there to inform professionals on the exact dangers of asbestos, and the harm it can cause on exposure. The courses also teach you how to manage asbestos within your building. The best courses are provided by IATP, RoSPA and UKATA, and are imperative in ensuring your school is complying with asbestos regulations. School leaders who are responsible for deciding if asbestos treatment is required should also attend an awareness course.