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Who wants safer schools?

14 December 2021

Nick Pullan reminds us that asbestos in schools and hospitals remains a threat that we mustn’t lose sight of in the shadow of COVID-19.

IT’S DIFFICULT now to mention the idea of airborne hazards outside of the context of covid-19. While the worst does seem to be over, it remains on everyone’s minds and newsfeeds, set to dominate conversation and concerns about safety during, at the very least, the winter months of 2021.

However, with public spaces returning to their normal function and soon becoming filled again, we need to remember the threats to our safety that we may have lost sight of under the looming presence of COVID-19. One of these threats, which has had some news coverage but has also arguably become overlooked, is that of asbestos.

No longer old news

The idea that asbestos might still be a danger to many of us seems almost old-fashioned. The word itself conjures images of old buildings long since demolished or modernised, while the idea of lung disease caused by asbestos and dangerous working environments feels like something from the era of miners’ strikes and an industrial economy.

Readers of this magazine will know that this is far from the reality of the danger that asbestos presents to us now. How many members of the public would be able to guess the number of deaths related to asbestos that we see each year? Or where asbestos sits in the list of causes of work-related fatalities?

Despite the importation, supply and use of asbestos being banned for well over twenty years it is still diseases including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis that remain the largest individual cause of work-related fatalities in the UK. These deaths continue to occur each year as a result of exposure that occurred decades ago, and while there has been a small decline in recent years (2,369 people in 2019 was seven percent lower than the average of 2,540 between 2011–18) it remains unclear when we might see a meaningful decline.

It is not the ongoing suffering caused by exposure pre-legislation that is the issue here, however. Asbestos is a current threat, still present in hundreds of thousands of buildings across the UK. It is a problem that needs to be managed now, so that in decades to come we are not still seeing frightening statistics caused by a substance that most people have long since forgotten existed.

Asbestos in schools

The threat from airborne hazards in schools is currently under more scrutiny than perhaps any other type of public building, aside from hospitals. As children return to school and start socialising, learning and flourishing in a normal environment again there is a tangible sense of relief undercut with an understandable anxiety about safety. Unfortunately the asbestos situation in schools does nothing to help with this.

There are some conflicting reports about just how many UK schools contain asbestos (the Government’s Asbestos Management Assurance Process survey puts it at a staggering 87%, other reports have lower figures), but what is undoubtedly true is that hundreds and thousands of pupils and staff are at risk of exposure every day. Children are particularly vulnerable to mesothelioma and the average number of teacher deaths as a result of asbestos is around seventeen every year.

A recent report released by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) set out to determine whether pupils and staff in CLASP-type system-built schools are safer now than they were in the period between 1960 and 1980, before the threat of asbestos was understood in the way it is now. Worryingly, the study finds that the risk levels are likely to be higher, with the danger of cumulative long-term low level exposure having been underestimated. 

With hundreds of people dying now due to exposure as schoolchildren when risks were not effectively managed it’s clear that attention must be paid to this danger, so that in another twenty years we aren’t witnessing the tragic result of poorly fulfilled obligations to health and safety.

Risks to our most vulnerable

Concern for the safety of those in hospitals is also weighing heavily on our minds, with evidence of the awful strain hospitals are under impossible to ignore.

At a time when the wellbeing of healthcare staff and patients is on all of our minds it’s important to remember that risks from asbestos-related lung diseases developed via exposure in healthcare settings is a risk that will require careful mitigation for some time. Nurses are several times more likely to develop mesothelioma than the general population. Nine out of ten NHS trusts have hospitals containing asbestos. The question of managing this risk, while weighing all of the other pressures the NHS is facing, is an uncomfortable one, but one we have to answer if hospitals are to meet appropriate standards of safety.

What is being done right now?

While the presence of asbestos itself is a troubling reality, the fact is that removing it from public buildings entirely is usually impossible in the short term, due to costs and the sheer scale of work. Instead exposure to it must be prevented via safety measures and careful monitoring.

Studies like the one released by the JUAC show that some of the complacency around asbestos is being replaced with action and attention. The dangers of asbestos is even getting some cut-through in the overwhelming presence of COVID-19 reporting, with articles like this1 demonstrating that awareness may be increasing.

But what is being done, right now, about asbestos in these settings? And how can those both managing and inhabiting these buildings take extra precaution and contribute to reducing risk?

Dutyholder responsibilities

Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 specifies that anyone with the responsibility for the maintenance and repair of non-domestic properties, including schools and hospitals is a “dutyholder” and therefore responsible for managing asbestos. This could be local authorities, school governors, or an estates department depending on the employer for that premises. All dutyholders should know the details of asbestos in their building and provide information about asbestos status and risks to those inhabiting it.

Asbestos surveys must be kept up to date by dutyholders, with the information contained in resulting Asbestos Registers made available to all staff members and visiting contractors. Visiting contractors performing works on school and hospital buildings are often most at risk from asbestos exposure, because asbestos is typically applied or fixed to the inner parts of a building such pipes, boilers, and roofing materials. Dutyholders are responsible for making plans to manage the risks from asbestos containing materials (ACMs) and to put those plans into action, while working with outside experts and surveyors to ensure the greatest levels of safety.

The role of staff

Most public building staff are not directly involved in the buildings they work in. They are of course not responsible for the presence of asbestos in their surroundings, and it is up to those responsible, including government agencies, employers and surveyors to keep them safe.

When given the right information by dutyholders staff members are expected to act accordingly. For example, in a classroom it may not be possible to puncture walls in order to display work. When staff members are trained in what to look out for in their buildings, for example damage to fittings or to ceiling panels, they will be well equipped to report issues to building managers or other colleagues able to investigate the issue.

Issues like this will occasionally lead to temporary closures. However, when appropriate care is taken to prevent exposure such measures become less likely. When surveys and risk assessments are conducted by experts then all asbestos should be well accounted for, making it in most cases easy to directly avoid. Reduction in resources to the professionals and professional bodies able to offer and regulate these services is perhaps the biggest issue we are facing in relation to keeping staff members safe.

The future of asbestos management

The troubling realisation that needs to be made clearer in our understanding of asbestos in public buildings is that cumulative low-level exposure has risks that may have been overlooked. The push for an asbestos eradication law3 is based on the fact that there is no safe level of exposure. Current laws state that if existing ACMs are in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed then they can be left in place. This has been the position underpinning health and safety practices since 1999, and hasn’t fundamentally changed despite the understanding that this was to be a temporary measure.

School surveys have shown that current practices are not observed to the levels we would help. In 2010 only 28% of respondents to a survey of 600 schools said that ACMs were clearly marked, while only a third were aware of the Asbestos Register. Tradespeople, who are those most at risk, have been shown to lack training and awareness of correct safety measures. While reports of exposure number in the tens of thousands this only represents those who become aware of their exposure. Many more will have been exposed without realising, finding out the risks involved in their work when it’s too late.

Calls for a timetable to eradicate asbestos seem long overdue. While the safety of the most vulnerable members of society and key workers willingly exposing themselves to risk while keeping the country running is so prominently on our minds, it’s a good time to reflect on other risks we may have started to overlook. 


1 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-58500638

2 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2012/632/contents/made

3 https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/asbestoseradication.pdf

Nick Pullan is an asbestos surveyor with Alpha Surveys, a specialist surveying and fire risk assessment business covering London and the South East. For more information, visit www.alphasurveys.co.uk