Schools asbestos survey challenges official line
Just 20 per cent of school safety reps confirmed they have been given asbestos awareness training, according to a new nationwide survey that highlights inconsistencies with an earlier HSE report.
The survey of 600 school safety reps was carried out at the end of last year by the Joint Union Asbestos Campaign (JUAC) – a coalition of six education unions, as well as the education sections of Unison, Unite, GMB and UCATT.
JUAC campaigns on the effective management of risks associated with asbestos in school buildings. It encourages the Government to be open about its policy on asbestos in schools, and, ultimately, wants the substance to be safely removed from all schools.
The unions decided to carry out their own research after an HSE survey and follow-up inspection initiative in September last year revealed that 72 per cent of 152 English councils surveyed were managing asbestos in their ‘system-build’ schools in line with the appropriate procedures.
JUAC’s survey found that 80 per cent of safety reps had not been trained in asbestos awareness, or did not know if they had, and 70 per cent had not been consulted on asbestos management.
Many system-built schools in England have structural frames that are fire-proofed with asbestos. But only 28 per cent of respondents said the presence of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) was clearly marked on school sites.
Julie Winn, chair of JUAC, said: “It is worrying that such a large gap exists when it comes to marking the presence of asbestos. The recognisable symbol can be discreetly placed on the ACM, alerting a contractor to the presence of asbestos and helping to protect staff and the student body. The teaching profession routinely has a fluid turnover of staff, and without clearly marking ACMs, new staff will be unaware of the presence of asbestos.”
When it comes to keeping an accurate asbestos register, just one third of respondents were aware that the register was kept, and only 20 per cent confirmed that the register was shown to contractors before they commenced work.
Winn says the survey highlights the worrying gap between what local authorities claim to the HSE is happening, and the reality on the ground. She said: “In the schools themselves, there is a completely different picture, which shows that awareness training is needed for all staff working with materials, or in buildings containing asbestos.”
The Asbestos in Schools group welcomed the findings, and called on the Department of Health to commission a full study. The group’s chair, Annette Brooke MP, commented: “Despite the dilapidated state of the school stock and an estimated £8.5bn backlog of repairs, the Government has recently confirmed that its policy for schools is to leave the asbestos in place and manage it for the remaining life of the buildings.
“If people are expected to manage the asbestos they have to be trained, and yet the results of the JUAC survey add to all the other evidence, including recent HSE enforcement action, that there is a woeful lack of training and asbestos awareness among school staff.”
An HSE spokesperson said: “We will certainly look at the details and results of this survey to see if it can assist our work with schools and local authorities.
“It is important that anyone who has the responsibility for asbestos management in school premises is properly trained and aware of what they must do. Whether it is the bursar, headteacher, caretaker or another nominated member of staff, they must have an appropriate awareness of the issues and risks and be competent to tackle them. In several cases we have issued Improvement Notices on training provision where we found it to be inadequate.
“This survey undertaken by the unions complements our recent work and acts as a useful reminder for all schools. There is no room for complacency – managing asbestos in buildings needs effective and ongoing attention.”
In its recently-published Delivery Plan, the HSE confirmed its plans to undertake 1500 visits in relation to licensed asbestos removal work in general.
For more information, go to www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk/default.htm
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