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Calls for asbestos to be removed from schools are “understandable” but “not practical”, according to a health and safety adviser.
© Alamy

05 August 2019 |  Herpreet Kaur Grewal

Kate Gardner, health and safety and facilities management adviser at training provider International Workplace, was commenting after an investigation by The Guardian found that nearly 700 schools have been referred to the national health and safety body over concerns that they are failing to safely manage asbestos in their buildings.

The teachers’ National Education Union said “serious action” needed to be taken with “the development of a planned, phased and costed programme of removal of all asbestos from schools”. 

But Gardner told Facilitate: “The recent campaign by trade unions to request the government to fund a phased removal of all asbestos from schools is understandable, but is not necessarily practical in terms of budget and disruption. The guidance on asbestos for the past 20 years has been ‘leave well alone’. Obviously that doesn’t mean to ignore it, but unless it starts to deteriorate, it’s safer left intact – provided people know it’s there and not to disturb it.

“Contractors, building maintenance workers and caretakers will have the highest risk of disturbing asbestos fibres, which could potentially result in asbestos exposure. However, there is obviously a risk to anyone coming into contact with asbestos fibres that have been disturbed, which could include teachers and children.

“For these reasons, understanding where asbestos may be present in your school buildings is vital, which is why school governing bodies – like those responsible for other non-domestic properties – have a legal duty to manage asbestos. An asbestos register is an essential starting point.

“Whilst the risks of exposure to asbestos are low if properly managed, this might give little reassurance in light of The Guardian’s report that nearly 700 schools have been referred to the national health and safety body over concerns they are failing to safely manage asbestos in their buildings.”

The newspaper’s investigation also revealed that the death toll from asbestos in the UK generally had reached “crisis levels”. 

A spokeswoman from the Health and Safety Executive told Facilitate: “HSE has worked with the Department for Education to use the asbestos management assurance process (AMAP) returns to provide targeting intelligence for a planned programme of proactive visits to schools. This identified a number of schools in England to select from to be included within the profile of HSE visits planned across Great Britain. The visits will assess compliance in respect of the duty to manage asbestos with the school buildings.”

Workplace health and safety

Separately, the number of workplace fatalities last year increased slightly, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), including asbestos-related deaths.

Mesothelioma, which is contracted through past exposure to asbestos, killed 2,523 in the UK in 2017, a broadly similar number to the previous five years. 

The figures are largely because of occupational asbestos exposure before 1980, and annual deaths are expected to remain similar for some years to come.

Other provisional annual data for work-related fatal injuries shows that 147 workers were fatally injured between April 2018 and March 2019. This is an increase of six workplace fatalities from 2017/18, however, the number has remained broadly level in recent years, said the HSE.

The number of fatal injuries to workers in construction – 30 – was the lowest number on record. However, the rate of fatal injuries (fatalities per 100,000 workers) was almost three times the average for all sectors. 

This is still lower than in agriculture, forestry and fishing, and the waste and recycling sector, which have a rate of fatal injury 18 and 17 times higher than the average respectively.

The three most common causes of fatal injuries continue to be workers falling from height (40), being struck by a moving vehicle (30) and being struck by a moving object (16), accounting for nearly 60 per cent of fatal injuries in 2018/19.

The figures also showed that 25 per cent of fatal injuries during the year were to workers aged 60 or over, even though they made up only around 10 per cent of the workforce.

HSE chair Martin Temple said: “[The] release of workplace fatality statistics is a reminder that despite the UK’s world-leading position in health and safety, we cannot become complacent as we seek to fulfil our mission in preventing injury, ill health and death at work.” 

Emma Potter