Asbestos in schools – what is the scale of the problem and what’s being done?

Asbestos is still present in an alarming number of public buildings, including schools and hospitals – industrial illness solicitors at Browell Smith & Co examine the problem and ask if enough is being done.

Asbestos was used so widely as a building material for much of the 20th century that, despite widespread awareness of its dangers, it can still be found in an alarming number of places.

This includes a lot of public buildings such as schools and hospitals.

Asbestos death toll

In a recent blog we showed that the asbestos death toll in the UK is as high as it has ever been – 2,595 people died of Mesothelioma in 2016.

What those HSE statistics didn’t show was in which industry these deaths are occurring.

In the North East, we are sadly accustomed to the tragedy that has accompanied our industrial and shipbuilding heritage – but we are now seeing increasing numbers of people from other sectors dying from exposure.

An article by the trade union Unison claims that 335 primary and secondary school teachers died of asbestos-related conditions between 1980 and 2015, along with eight school secretaries, eight nursery nurses, 18 school assistants and 24 teaching assistants between 2003 and 2015.

The National Education Union says an average of 17 teachers per year are dying as a result of asbestos exposure, up from three per year in the early 1980s.

How common is asbestos in schools?

Asbestos is sadly incredibly common in a lot of school buildings. Estimates show that as high as 86 per cent of schools could contain asbestos.

It is mainly used as a roofing or lagging material, for example used to insulate boiler pipes. In schools it can also be found in floor and ceiling tiles, textured wall coatings and even noticeboards.

In one well-known case, of Gina Lees who died of Mesothelioma aged 51 in 2000, exposure took place when she was pinning children’s work onto an asbestos-filled noticeboard. The drawing pins would disturb the deadly fibres and release them into the air.

How much risk is there to pupils?

For years, there seemed to be a certain amount of denial from authorities about the risk that asbestos presents to pupils. Finally, a Government report published in 2017 concluded that asbestos represented a serious problem – and said many schools were failing to follow basic guidelines for asbestos management.

As asbestos management has tended to focus on the idea that asbestos is safe as long as it is not broken or damaged in some way – but there is no way to predict when it will become damaged, or to prevent accidental damage from taking place.

In the North East, it’s been reported that pupils in a now-demolished school in Sunderland ‘had to be hosed down’ after they were exposed to suspected asbestos fibres.

This is why campaigners are now urging action for the removal of all asbestos from schools.

Why isn’t more being done about asbestos in schools?

Naturally, it comes down to money. Asbestos management is costly and time consuming, but it’s removal is even more expensive still.

The state did find £150m to pay for asbestos removal at Buckingham Palace, however, so it shows the funds can be found if they look hard enough.

The Department for Education says it is investing in school buildings, with a view to removing asbestos ‘over time’, but does not give a target date for the removal.

All publicly-funded schools are expected to submit a declaration as part of the Asbestos Management Assurance Process, an online portal, so it’s hoped that data collection and management will improve with time.

What should you do if you are concerned about asbestos exposure at a school?

First, raise it with the school. They should be aware of what asbestos is in the building and have a management plan in place to deal with it. If you’re not satisfied with the response, then in the first instance it can be escalated to your local authority.

Browell Smith & Co has a reputation for fighting for justice for people negligently exposed to asbestos, and we will continue to do so. You can read more about our work with sufferers of asbestos-related conditions here.

If you, or a family member, have developed an asbestos-related condition and believe it was because of exposure at work, we may be able to help.

Contact our expert team today to arrange a no-obligation chat at any of our offices, in Newcastle, Cramlington, Ashington and Sunderland, or alternatively by 0800 107 3000, to discuss your particular requirements.

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