MPs condemn “national scandal” of asbestos in schools
An influential group of MPs has called on the Government to embark on the phased removal of asbestos from all schools to protect teachers, staff and children from the dust’s potentially harmful effects.
In a report sent to MPs and Peers on 1 February, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health highlights that more than 75 per cent of Britain’s 33,600 schools contain asbestos, and sets out six proposals to prevent school staff and pupils from being exposed to the deadly fibres.
Britain has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world – 37.8 cases per million per annum (or about 2321 deaths in 2009) – more than double that of France, Germany, or the USA, and twice as many people die from asbestos exposure in Britain as are killed on the roads.
According to the All-Party Group, more than 140 school teachers have died from asbestos-related mesothelioma in the past ten years, but they describe this number as “the tip of the iceberg”. Based on US estimates that for every teacher’s death, nine children will die, the MPs speculate that more than 100 people die every year in the UK as a result of exposure when they were at school.
The MPs suggest that successive governments have seen the issue as ‘too big to handle’. They believe the most effective way to address the problem is for the Government to remove asbestos from all schools under a phased programme.
They are calling on the HSE to reverse the decision made in March last year to cease pro-active inspections in schools, after they, along with other workplaces like offices and shops, were defined as ‘low-risk’. The HSE is also advised to work with the Department for Education (DfE) to develop specific asbestos guidance for schools and review current standards.
Launching the report, the All-Party Group’s chair, Jim Sheridan MP, described the issue as a “national scandal”. He added: “We need both far greater awareness of the risks that this material poses and a programme for its phased removal.”
To help raise awareness, the MPs also call for properly funded training on asbestos to be made mandatory for all teaching and support staff, as well as governors and local-authority officials. The DfE is in the process of designing basic Web-based asbestos awareness training, but there are no plans for this to be compulsory, and doubts remain about how it will be funded.
There is also a need to improve information on asbestos in schools, say the MPs. Firstly, they recommend that parents and teachers be updated annually on the presence of asbestos and the measures that are being taken to manage it. Secondly, they insist that data on the extent, type and condition of asbestos is collected centrally.
A DfE spokesperson said: “The HSE’s expert advice is based on the best current evidence. They are clear that if asbestos is not disturbed or damaged, then it is safer to leave it in situ, with robust processes in place to contain and monitor it. We are working hard with the HSE to make sure asbestos is managed properly in schools and will not hesitate to take tough action where there is danger to the welfare of pupils and staff.”
However, the All-Party Group’s report claims that slamming doors, or hitting walls and columns can release asbestos fibres, and that when their release occurs every day over the course of many years, the “cumulative exposures of staff and pupils are considerable”.
A spokesperson for the HSE said the regulator is gathering intelligence to see whether further inspections of schools are necessary and, should it deem this to be the case, then it will monitor the ‘duty to manage’ asbestos requirements through inspections in 2013/14 to ensure compliance.
However, added the spokesperson: “This should not simply be a matter of more inspections – everyone has a role to play in raising and maintaining awareness. Our recent inspection initiatives of both of schools under local authority control and those outside of it, found that the majority of schools were adequately managing asbestos, though a proportion did fall below acceptable standards.
“The findings of the inspections have been published so that all schools can review their asbestos management in areas where common weaknesses were identified.”
The full report, ‘Asbestos in schools: The need for action’, can be found at www.jimsheridanmp.org.uk/asbestosinschoolsreport.pdf
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