The Time Bomb still ticking in UK schools


The persistent threat of asbestos in schools

Asbestos Roof
Asbestos Roof (By Bill Bradley)

Keeping children safe is our highest priority as a society. But asbestos in school buildings is an invisible threat to thousands of children which is in danger of remaining hidden. 

Cause for concern

It is now over a year since a government survey revealed that nearly one in five schools were not following safety procedures to manage asbestos. The alarming results suggested that over a million school children could potentially be exposed to the dangerous fibres and dust. The 100 schools seen as a “significant cause for concern” were emailed by the Department for Education and replied with “assurances” that the asbestos was now safely managed.

Doubts about approach

But these survey results must cast some doubts about the current approach to asbestos. The Department for Education - and other government departments - maintains the best approach is safe management of existing asbestos in buildings. They publish guidelines that schools and public buildings must follow. But the Department for Education is not actually responsible for school buildings - they fund school places and provide funding to maintain existing buildings. Asbestos management is the thorny problem of whoever maintains the premises: either the local authority, school governors or academy trust. The government is currently collecting data on the condition of all schools, set to complete the process in Autumn 2019. Maybe this information will confirm the wisdom of the government’s approach or reveal that is not adequate to protect people from asbestos.

Split opinions

There are vastly different opinions about the approach to this lethal material, heavily used in buildings constructed between 1945 and 1975. In 2015 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health published a report, titled “The asbestos crisis: Why Britain needs an eradication law”. The message was clear: “the time has come to put in place regulations requiring the safe, phased and planned removal of all the asbestos that still remains in place across Britain.” Or: let’s get rid of it, entirely.   

Premature deaths

That report drew attention to the 5000 people likely to die prematurely from asbestos-related conditions that year, more than road accident deaths. Because the development of life-threatening conditions often takes place 30-40 years after the original inhalation of dust, it is hard to gain purchase on the extent of this threat. The Health and Safety Executive estimates that the number of deaths from mesothelioma (the cancer associated with asbestos exposure) will rise until 2020 and then begin to decline. However, the all-party group questioned this belief, because little is known about the extent of exposure to asbestos after 1980. The threat from this ticking time bomb does not seem pressing enough to warrant dramatic action.

Without any new legislation or funding to push forward the full removal of asbestos, the up to date guidelines are the best tool we have in combating asbestos. 

McCormack Benson Health and Safety offer specialist consultants to work with schools and public buildings, helping them adhere to guidelines and create the safest possible environment for students and teachers.