A spot-check of asbestos management in schools outside local authority control has led to enforcement action being taken in a number of cases.
Inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) carried out visits to a randomly selected sample of 153 non-local authority schools, including free schools and academies.
While a majority required no further action or were “given straightforward, simple advice”, 29 per cent – 44 schools – have been sent written advice on improving their asbestos management.
Furthermore, the visits led to enforcement action being taken in 20 of the 44 schools (13 per cent) in the form of improvement notices.
Of these 20, eight had no asbestos management plan while another eight had failed to carry out a survey or assessment, or had done an inadequate assessment, of its asbestos-containing materials.
Two schools had failed to “effectively manage the risks or implement a suitable system to manage the risks from asbestos”, while another two had “inadequate” training and information for employees.
The findings have concerned school leaders and teachers and have sparked calls for better training for leadership teams on asbestos requirements as well as for the reinstatement of proactive HSE asbestos inspections, which were ended in 2011.
The HSE has emphasised that the enforcement notices do not mean that staff or pupils were considered “at significant risk of exposure”. However, it has warned schools that managing asbestos “requires ongoing attention”. Of the 153 schools, 131 were in England, 11 in Scotland and 11 in Wales.
It is estimated that around 75 per cent of schools in the UK have asbestos-containing materials and more than 140 teachers in the UK have died from asbestos-related diseases, including the cancer mesothelioma, in the past 10 years. Furthermore, last year, the Education Select Committee heard evidence suggesting that thousands of people could have died because of exposure to asbestos dust in schools over the past few decades.
Current government policy, based on HSE advice, is for asbestos “which is in good condition and remains undamaged and undisturbed” to be left in situ and managed by the school.
However, in the past decade there has been a growing campaign, led by the Asbestos in Schools group as well as the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, for the phased removal of all asbestos materials.
Other findings from the HSE visits include that 46 per cent of the schools did not have “comprehensive systems” in place to provide information to staff or visitors who might be at risk of disturbing asbestos materials. Also, only 39 per cent of the schools in England were aware of the Department for Education’s (DfE) guidance on asbestos management.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) this week repeated calls for “mandatory, good-quality training for all headteachers, staff and governors”. It said that a recent survey of its members had found “inconsistent support” and “no training or expertise in this issue”.
General secretary Russell Hobby said: “Local authority cuts mean that specialist support often no longer exists and not all academies and free schools have access to expertise. While our members make the best of managing asbestos in their schools, the current situation can leave them exposed, at risk and with inadequate resources.”
Elsewhere, the NAHT urged the DfE to carry out an audit of schools to “establish the extent and condition of the asbestos”. Mr Hobby added: “We want (to) see investment plans developed to remove the worst of the asbestos and ultimately all the asbestos in UK schools.”
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the HSE findings were “extremely worrying”.
She added: “Of even greater concern is the finding that nearly half of the schools did not have a comprehensive system in place to ensure that anyone who may disturb asbestos – this could be staff or contractors – is told of its presence.
“It is clear that some schools are struggling to meet their legal requirements to manage asbestos safely. Against this background, we call for the re-introduction of proactive HSE inspections of schools. Without these inspections there is no safety net to pick up instances of poor management that expose staff and pupils to risk.”
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, added: “Asbestos is lethal. It is unacceptable that children and the workforce are being put at risk as a consequence of a failure to put in place mechanisms which monitor compliance with important legislative provisions. It is equally unacceptable that there is no coherent funded national plan for the systematic removal of asbestos from schools.”
The HSE inspections took place between April 2013 and January 2014 and the results show that there has been a drop in the number of improvement notices issued when compared with a similar programme in 2010/11 (when 164 schools were visited and 41 notices issued).
Geoff Cox, head of HSE’s Public Services Sector, said that awareness of the duty to manage asbestos has increased. However, he added: “Schools should not be under any illusion – managing asbestos requires ongoing attention. Schools now have access to a wealth of guidance setting out clear and straightforward steps to achieve and maintain compliance.”
Schools’ duties include maintaining an up-to-date record of asbestos-containing materials and ensuring training for maintenance staff whose “work could foreseeably expose them to asbestos”. The HSE adds: “It is vital that schools ensure that anyone who may disturb asbestos is made aware of its location and condition.”
For the HSE’s schools’ asbestos management duties, visit http://bit.ly/1vnOuLM
For the DfE’s guidance, go to http://bit.ly/1jCDdll