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Union guidance on asbestos: schools advised against putting up festive decorations

December 19, 2017

Schools shouldn’t use staples or pins to fasten Christmas decorations to ceilings and walls in classrooms, as this could potentially disturb asbestos, if the make-up of the ceiling or walls is not known.

Children particularly vulnerable to asbestos dangers

That’s the advice of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, which represents nine teaching and support worker unions. Pressing pins or staples into ceilings or walls which contain asbestos could release harmful fibres. Breathing them in could lead to diseases like mesothelioma, an aggressive type of incurable lung cancer typically linked to asbestos, which may not make presence felt for years. Indeed, it is typically diagnosed up to 60 years after exposure.

Typically, some 2,600 people a year in the UK lose their lives to this condition, more than die on the roads, and it’s the highest incidence of this illness to be found anywhere in the world – Britain was once the biggest user of asbestos in the world.

(Because of this, children are especially vulnerable since they have so many years ahead of them, the disease clearly has much more time to develop.)

‘Timely reminders’

Schools have now been urged to give staff ‘timely reminders’ and to ensure there is provision for decorations in their ‘asbestos management plan’.

According to a report on the Schools Week website, nearly a fifth of schools in the UK are not managing asbestos properly, while government intervention has been needed in dozens of schools found to represent ‘significant cause for concern’.

Uncertainty over presence of asbestos

What’s more, around half of school staff claim to be unsure whether or not their buildings have asbestos. However, the reality that, in any school built pre-2000, there is likely to be some of this carcinogenic compound. (The law says ‘it must be assumed that it is present, unless it can be proved otherwise’.)

This new guidance serves as a pertinent reminder of how deadly asbestos can be, and how easily it can be disturbed by something as seemingly innocuous as putting up seasonal decorations.

And if you’re decorating a classroom or similar area for Christmas, or even just displaying pupils’ artwork, you may want to use noticeboards or freestanding decorations instead. Or use Blu Tac or sellotape, which won’t involve piercing the surface.

The advice adds: “Nearly 90% of schools still contain asbestos. This message needs to be repeated regularly – not just at Christmas – because of staff turnover and because messages can be forgotten over time.”

Cuts to funding ‘increase asbestos risks’

A Freedom of Information Request made this year by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee showed that well over 300 primary and secondary school teachers died from mesothelioma in the UK between 1980 and 2015, along with dozens of other school staff including admin workers, nursery nurses, lunchtime helpers and teaching assistants. It’s almost impossible to know how many former pupils may have lost their lives in the same way after inhaling asbestos fibres while at school, since figures are only recorded by occupation.

Experts quoted by the HSE forecast that asbestos-related deaths will be 91,000 by 2050, with nearly 61,000 of those occurring from 2007 and later.

Head of Education at the union UNISON said: ““The cuts in schools budgets and the fragmentation of the school system have undermined how health and safety risks such as asbestos are managed.

“In addition, the cuts in the schools building programme mean that old, asbestos ridden and poorly maintained buildings continue to be used to teach our children putting them and staff at risk.”

‘Timebomb’

A 2015 study on asbestos in schools by the all-party parliamentary group on occupational health and safety said the issue was a ‘timebomb’. The Medical Research Council (MRC) reckoned that children attending schools completed before 1975 are likely to inhale some three million asbestos fibres during their years of education.

Nearly all of the 14,000 schools constructed between 1945 and 1975 contain the presence, the Guardian reported earlier this year.
“This is a ticking time bomb – few teachers and parents know there is asbestos in schools. The least we should do is make sure that information is available to them,” said Rachel Reeves MP, chair of the Asbestos in Schools group.

Council pay-outs

According to a BBC report from around this time last year, English local authorities have paid out at least £10m in compensation to those who grew ill after inhaling asbestos in school buildings. That amounts to more than dozens of councils settling claims from former staff or pupils.

East Sussex was the council which had paid out the most, spending nearly £1.3m between 2006 and 2016 on asbestos-related claims.

And while the government has said it is investing £23bn in improving school buildings, campaigners insist the presence of asbestos in schools continues to pose a grave health risk to those who use them.

In recent years, local authorities have also recorded almost 100 cases of significant asbestos disturbances, where lives have been endangered due to potential exposure. (The substance is only harmful when it is disturbed.)

More information is available from the Health & Safety Executive’s website:

http://www.hse.gov.uk/services/education/asbestos-faqs.htm

And here is another link, from the Education & Skills Funding Agency:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/650935/Managing_asbestos_in_your_school.pdf

Importance of an asbestos survey

The BBC also found no consistent approach to monitoring the existence of asbestos in English schools, with a number of councils reporting that they did not hold information about which of their schools might contain the hazardous substance. Equally, because some councils wouldn’t reveal how many asbestos-related claims it had settled, the final total of compensation could be in excess of the £10m mentioned above.

Clearly, the only way to really know whether any structure contains asbestos is to have a proper survey carried out. At Core Surveys, based in Fletching Common, East Sussex and Monmouthshire, South Wales, we undertake surveys nationwide. We’re specialists with extensive expertise in this field, conducting surveys, air monitoring and asbestos management services alongside awareness training.

Get in touch now for a free quote for your school.

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