676 state-funded schools and academies in England have been referred to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for failing to show that they are properly managing the risk of harmful exposure to asbestos in their buildings.
These failings could potentially be placing thousands of pupils and staff at risk of developing incurable asbestos-related health conditions such as asbestosis (involving damage to the lungs) and mesothelioma (a type of cancer usually caused by asbestos exposure).
The revelations come following the government’s launch last year of a new asbestos management assurance process. This requires schools to provide written confirmation that they are complying with their legal duty to effectively manage asbestos on their grounds.
A freedom of information request showed that of the 2,952 schools that completed the process, 87% had asbestos in at least one building. The 676 schools and academies referred to the HSE by the Department for Education (DfE) all failed to provide evidence that they were “managing asbestos in line with regulatory requirements”.
Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “The fact that nearly 700 schools have been referred to HSE because they weren’t able to satisfy the DfE that they were managing their asbestos in line with legal requirements, is a shocking indictment of current systems of oversight.
“The lives of thousands of staff and pupils could be at risk in these schools. The HSE, which lacks resources following years of budget cuts, will now be expected to investigate these cases and we are concerned that it may struggle to do so.”
How dangerous is asbestos in schools?
The HSE estimates that around 5000 people a year die of asbestos-related illness in the UK. These illnesses typically develop decades after the initial exposure to asbestos, meaning people often do not realise they were at risk until it is far too late.
The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reports that at least 319 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980, with 205 of these deaths having occurred since 2001. Evidence also shows that children exposed to asbestos are five times more likely to contract mesothelioma than adults aged 30 who are similarly exposed.
While all types of asbestos were finally banned for construction use in the UK in 1999, there is no requirement for asbestos to be removed from existing buildings unless it can be shown to be posing an active risk of exposure. Asbestos was used in various ways in schools, including as insulation around pipes and boilers, and in walls and ceiling tiles.
Although asbestos can pose serious health risks, if managed properly, it can be safely left in place. This is because the substance only causes harm if it is damaged or disturbed, which can release asbestos fibres into the air where they can be inhaled.
The failure of schools to show they are meeting their legal obligation to monitor and control asbestos in their buildings is a serious concern as it means there is no proof that they are taking the right actions to minimise any health risks.
Get expert help to claim compensation for asbestos-related illness
If you or a loved one have developed an asbestos-related illness, such as asbestosis or mesothelioma, you may be entitled to substantial compensation. Making a claim might seem complicated and intimidating, but with the right legal advice and support we can do this for you.
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