Page last updated at 01:46 GMT, Monday, 22 February 2010

Asbestos danger 'in many schools'

Asbestos testers visit a school
Asbestos becomes dangerous when disturbed

Some British schools are not meeting a legal duty to protect their pupils from potentially deadly asbestos, a snapshot survey of 16 schools suggests.

The report by the Asbestos Training and Consultancy Association said none of the 16 schools was meeting health and safety rules on managing the substance.

Teaching unions want a full audit of the danger from asbestos, which can cause a lethal form of cancer.

The government's policy is for schools to leave asbestos in place.

The substance should be managed rather than removed, it advises.

But many schools lack the resources to manage it safely, the Asbestos Training and Consultancy Association (Atac) says.

Teachers, support staff and pupils have been exposed
John O'Sullivan
Atac chairman

The association says asbestos had been damaged in more than half of the schools it visited for this study.

Experts say that it is when asbestos is damaged or disturbed that it can be dangerous.

Though small, the survey reflects earlier research on the way schools deal with the potentially deadly material.

About 75% of Britain's schools are thought to contain asbestos and 178 teachers are known to have died from asbestos-related illnesses, says the report.

The study follows a questionnaire sent out by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Health and Safety Executive in 2009.

As a result of that, 34 local authorities are now being investigated by the HSE, the report adds.

'Decisive steps'

Atac chairman John O'Sullivan said: "Numerous incidents have taken place where asbestos fibres have been released, the schools contaminated and teachers, support staff and pupils have been exposed.

"The increasing numbers of mesothelioma deaths amongst teachers and support staff is testament that the policy of management has failed."

The main teaching unions are renewing their calls for a widespread audit of asbestos danger in schools.

Association of Teachers and Lecturers general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said the government should set up an independent body to monitor and provide advice on asbestos in schools and remove it.

National Union of Teachers general secretary Christine Blower said the survey showed "decisive steps are desperately needed" and that asbestos should be eradicated from all schools.

And Chris Keates, head of the NASUWT teaching union, said local authorities and governing bodies were not taking issues linked to asbestos seriously enough and were failing to comply with their statutory responsibilities.

Philip Parkin, head of the Voice union for educational professionals, said its own research revealed that staff in many schools were unaware of the dangers of asbestos.

Expert advice

Schools Minister Iain Wright said the government would be producing guidance on asbestos management for head teachers, governors and local authorities. Training would also be offered.

Government building programmes meant out-dated building were being replaced.

He added: "The health and welfare of pupils and staff is absolutely paramount.

"By law, tough, robust processes must be in place in schools to carefully monitor asbestos. All local authorities and school employers must fully comply - no ifs or buts.

"The Health and Safety Executive's expert advice is to remove damaged or disturbed asbestos in existing buildings but it is safer to leave undisturbed or undamaged asbestos in place and carefully manage it.

"The HSE will not hesitate to take action in areas which are not coming up to scratch.

"We and HSE have surveyed every single local authority over the last year to assess their asbestos management and ensure that they are fulfilling their legal duties - the first ever such audit."

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