It is estimated that around 75% of schools in England have asbestos in their buildings. This problem is particularly prominent in Devon, with 219 out of 264 Council run schools containing asbestos.
What is asbestos and why is it dangerous?
Asbestos is a mineral woven into many building materials, often found in the thermal insulation for pipes and floor/ceiling tiles in schools.
Asbestos fibres can be released when materials are disturbed. If inhaled, it can cause fatal diseases such as mesothelioma.
Given that the biggest risk is posed by disturbance, caretakers and other maintenance staff are particularly at risk.
However, pinning work to walls and other similar activities could cause the fibres to be released, meaning that teachers and pupils could also be exposed.
How many people have been affected?
The Joint Union Asbestos Committee ("JUAC") suggested that asbestos in schools has killed over 400 teachers since 1980.
The Education Select Committee has been told that around 200 – 300 former pupils during the 1960's and 1970's will die each year from asbestos-related mesothelioma.
Who is responsible for managing asbestos?
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 makes the 'duty holder' responsible for safely managing asbestos. The duty holder is usually the employer, as the person liable for maintaining the school.
For maintained schools the duty holder will be the local authority.
For academies and free schools, the duty holder will be the school governors.
What is the duty holder's responsibility?
There is no positive duty to remove asbestos from schools. The duty holder only needs to engage in the management of asbestos. This includes conducting surveys, assessing risk and reviews, devising a plan to manage asbestos including; making staff and visitors aware of the necessary precautions. Failure to manage asbestos can result in prosecution for a criminal offence. One Academy Trust has recently been fined £26,000 and was ordered to pay costs of £20,000 for exposing pupils and staff to asbestos during refurbishment works.
What happens now?
Despite the JUAC warning there is an "urgent need for action", the Government maintains that undisturbed asbestos is better left alone and merely managed, as this poses a smaller risk than the removal process. Duty holders should continue to manage asbestos in Schools to reduce the risk to staff and pupils and minimise the risk of potential liability.