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Jamie Hailstone is a freelance journalist and author, who has also contributed to numerous national business titles including Utility Week, the Municipal Journal, Environment Journal and consumer titles such as Classic Rock.
April 6, 2018

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Why asbestos is still a danger in British schools

The 14th Annual Global Asbestos Awareness Week (GAAW) has come as a timely reminder that action must be taken to remove toxic materials from many buildings, including schools.

The GAAW event, which is organised by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organisation (ADAO, aims to prove it is still biggest occupational cancer killer in the world and around 5,000 people die every year from work-related asbestos exposure in the UK alone.

Only last month, asbestos hit the national headlines again in the UK after the influential public accounts parliamentary committee warned asbestos is still a “significant” and “potentially dangerous” problem in many schools in a report on academy trusts.

Lack of information in Government

The committee also reiterated comments it made last year that the Government does not have enough information about the extent of the problem.

“In April 2017, we found that the Department [for Education] did not have a complete picture of the extent of asbestos in school buildings,” the report states.

“The Department’s first property data survey did not assess the extent of asbestos. Only a quarter of schools responded to its second survey, in 2016, which aimed to collect data on this issue.

“The Department’s latest property data survey is currently taking place and will provide more information on the presence and management of asbestos.”

Majority of schools do contain asbestos

Sophie Ward, a policy officer from the National Education Union (NEU), which is part of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) told SHP Online that around 86% of schools in England contain some form of asbestos.

“Blue and brown asbestos were banned in the 1980s, but white asbestos was only banned in 1999, so any school that was built before the year 2000 could contain asbestos,” said Ms Ward.

“The problem is that in many cases the asbestos is decades old and in a deteriorating condition and when asbestos is in a poor condition, it’s more likely to release asbestos fibres.

Risk for children and teachers

“It’s particularly concerning for pupils,” she added. “The condition that is associated with asbestos exposure is called Mesothelioma, and it’s a cancer of the lung and stomach lining. It is wholly associated with asbestos exposure and it’s fatal. It also has a very long latency period of between 10 and 50 years. The younger you are when you are exposed to asbestos, the more at risk you are of developing Mesothelioma in later life.

“If a child is exposed at the age of five, they have five times greater risk than an adult exposed at the age of 30. The epidemiologist Professor Julian Peto has estimated that every year between 200 to 300 adults die because they were exposed to asbestos at school.”

In terms of school staff, Ms Ward said HSE records show the number of teachers dying from Mesothelioma is increasing. In 1980, she said it was average of three a year, but now it’s an average of 18.

Action needed

“The first thing the government needs to do is undertake a full audit of all schools and colleges, ascertaining the location and condition of asbestos, so it has the full picture of the scale of the problem,” said Ms Ward.

“The Government then needs to use that information to start the removal of all asbestos in school, and prioritise which schools have asbestos in the most dangerous conditions.”

She added the JUAC would also like to see the HSE reclassify schools, which are currently rated as low risk and reinstate proactive inspections, looking at asbestos.

Asbestos management in Multi Academy Trusts

New figures released this week from the JUAC in conjunction with the campaigner Lucie Stephens and the MP Rachel Reeves, who chairs the Asbestos in Schools Group, have also revealed the disparity in asbestos management across Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) and reinforce the need for the Government to take urgent action.

The data, gathered via Freedom of Information requests, included 54 reported asbestos exposure incidents in academies, including:

  • Asbestos identified in the ceiling of the IT suite;
  • Removal of toilets in the children’s centre disturbed suspected asbestos;
  • Asbestos found when digging out new car park

And despite the many exposure incidents reported, the JUAC said the HSE had only taken enforcement action in five MATs.

The group also warned that despite it being a legal requirement, some MATs did not have asbestos management plans for their academies, and many were not auditing the plans on a routine basis.
Some MATs were unable to gather information about PFI schools – highlighting the lack of accountability in such arrangements.


“These latest findings show that many schools are unaware of the risk or the extent of asbestos in our schools.

“The Government needs to come up with a clear strategy to ensure any potential exposure to asbestos is minimised and that staff and pupils are kept safe. Parents and teachers have been left in the dark for too long about the extent of the problem. Labour committed to a phased removal of asbestos in schools in our 2017 manifesto. How many more teachers and pupils’ lives have to be put in jeopardy before the Government commits to tackling this ticking time bomb?”

No Time To Lose

This year’s GAAW event also joined forces with the No Time to Lose campaign, which is run by the Institution of Occupational and Safety Health (IOSH) to raise awareness of work-related cancers.

“The campaign began in November 2014 and has tackled some of the leading causes of occupational cancer,” said IOSH public relations manager, Simon Butt-Bethlendy.

“IOSH began with particulate matter in diesel exhaust fumes, then tackled solar radiation exposure, and next focused on respirable crystalline silica dust

“No Time to Lose – working together to tackle asbestos -related cancer will be the fourth and largest phase of our campaign. We’re really pleased to be joining forces with Linda and ADAO to draw more attention to Global Asbestos Awareness Week as we prepare for our own asbestos campaign launch.

“IOSH and its supporters have developed practical, useable, engaging and free resources to help managers and workers understand and respond to occupational cancer threats.

“Our new asbestos resources are looking really good and we look forward to making these available to ADAO supporters very soon.”

IOSH’s No Time To Lose campaign will be launched on 9 April.

You can join IOSH’s No Time To Lose Thunderclap at and use the #NTTLasbestos hashtag.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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Rob White
Rob White
6 years ago

It is down to school headteachers to audit and manage Asbestos. Removal of all asbestos, whilst desireable, is not required or reasonably practicable. The cost of removal would be huge and the money would be better spent educating children and managing what asbestos exists.

Comments like this panic the ignorant and acheive nothing except show have far detached health and safety professionals are from reality and the requirements of the law.