Schools are being urged to check any warm air cabinet heaters to ensure they are not releasing lethal asbestos fibres.
It follows confirmation that the closure of Cwmcarn High in South Wales was caused by the school’s heaters emitting fibres into the classrooms. The school was closed in October 2012 and remains shut.
Tests carried out last year by experts appointed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) confirmed that brown asbestos fibres were being released.
The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) has this week urged schools to get their heating systems checked by professional asbestos consultants.
A statement said: “This warning is specifically about warm air cabinet heaters where the cabinets were constructed on site. Other types of heaters can also contain asbestos materials which also need to be checked against guidance in the Gas Safe Register.”
Chair of JUAC, Julie Winn, said: “The Cwmcarn High case clearly demonstrates the confusion around asbestos management and the poor management of it in many schools.
“Although three separate asbestos consultants reported the potential for asbestos fibre release in the school, as its heaters contained unsealed and damaged asbestos panels and asbestos debris, it has taken six months to reach an agreement to remove the dangerous asbestos so that the school can be safely reopened.”
However, the HSE said this week that the JUAC statement “misrepresents” the findings from testing at Cwmcarn.
A spokesperson said: “Airborne sampling at Cwmcarn and at other schools has shown that there is only extremely low fibre levels in the vicinity of the heater units while the units were operating normally.
“That is not to say that schools should ignore the presence of asbestos in heating systems, but that they shouldn’t focus disproportionate attention on them. They need to manage all asbestos risks. The presence of asbestos alone should not be a concern if it is appropriately managed.”
Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, schools must maintain and regularly update an asbestos register with the location and condition of asbestos-containing materials.
Ms Winn has also attacked the HSE’s “continued failure” to issue a report on its investigation at Cwmcarn, saying it “shows a lack of transparency and has added to the confusion for staff, governors and parents”.
Furthermore, she criticised the HSE for evidence given to the Education Select Committee in March stating that it was “perfectly safe” to reopen the school.
The HSE said that it does not routinely issue reports publically on its investigations and that the comments to the Select Committee were “fully informed by testing carried out by the Health and Safety Laboratory and reviews of other reports and surveys”.
The spokesperson added: “From these, conclusions could be drawn that there was no asbestos contamination in areas occupied by pupils and teachers.
“HSE has communicated its findings with the local authority and governors at Cwmcarn school.”
More than 75 per cent of UK schools contain asbestos and JUAC is currently campaigning for a national audit of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in UK schools and for a risk-assessment of the standards of asbestos management.
Download the JUAC guidance on warm air cabinet heaters at www.voicetheunion.org.uk/files/pdfs/JUACAdviceWarmAirHeatingApril2013.pdf