Page last updated at 16:39 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 17:39 UK

Asbestos 'causing teacher deaths'

Healthy chest, lungs and heart
Mesothelioma kills around 1.800 people a year

Asbestos must be removed from schools to prevent the risk of cancer to pupils and teachers, a teaching union says.

228 teachers died from asbestos-related diseases between 1991 and 2005, Health and Safety Executive figures show.

The annual conference of the NASUWT teaching union agreed the government must work towards removing asbestos in all schools to halt new cancer cases.

The government says schools should know where asbestos is located and local authorities should audit schools.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, also criticised schools and colleges, saying some were not taking their responsibility towards staff and pupils seriously.

'Collateral damage'

Carole Hagedorn, a foreign languages teacher from Essex, told the conference about her shock at being diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestos-related cancer.

"When, at the beginning of my career, I went into classrooms to teach Year 8s the perfect tense, I did not expect it to end with an industrial disease," she said.

She underwent 18 weeks of chemotherapy.

"I am understandably unhappy that the lack of proper asbestos control will end my life prematurely, like some sort of collateral damage or natural wastage in the education game," she said.

Hank Roberts, a teacher from Brent, accused the government of "deliberate and knowing murder" for failing to remove asbestos from schools.

He said: "If you know people will die as a result of your inaction when you could act, how is that not murder?"

He said it was "not common" for schools to clearly label where asbestos was located.

A cancer of mesothelial cells which cover the outer surface of the lungs and, less commonly, the abdomen
Most cases caused by exposure to asbestos
The tiny fibres which make up asbestos are breathed in and irritate the lining of the lung, causing cell damage

"This information should be made freely available to staff - and they should know what condition the asbestos is in," he went on.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families said the health and welfare of pupils and staff was "absolutely paramount".

"By law, tough, robust processes must be in place in schools to carefully monitor asbestos, which we and the HSE continually assess.

"It is unacceptable for local authorities and school employers not to fully comply with the statutory guidance issued."

The DCSF said the Health and Safety Executive gave expert advice on asbestos control - and it advises that it is safer to carefully manage undisturbed and undamaged asbestos, rather than remove it.

The government now requires all local authorities to carry out regular surveys of the condition of school buildings, and report any asbestos.

An authority must take further action where it identifies asbestos which has been disturbed or damaged, or is likely to be and cannot be protected.

But teachers say it is not sufficient to take action only after asbestos could become harmful.

'No safe level'

The HSE - which regulates health and safety in England, Wales and Scotland - records the last known profession of every person who dies of asbestos-related cancer.

A spokesman said that the link between working in a school or college and the disease could not be established in every case, because a person could have come into contact with asbestos fibres in another location or previous profession.

He also said HSE studies had shown teachers were no more at risk than other workers.

Government advice to schools says they must:

  • Know if their building contains asbestos and what condition it is in
  • Inform anybody who may disturb the asbestos of where it is located
  • Refrain from pinning, stapling or tacking displays to walls and ceilings that might contain asbestos

Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, said: "Some schools and colleges are not taking health and safety issues like this seriously, and many local authorities are failing to comply with their statutory responsibilities.

"We welcome the fact that the Department for Children, Schools and Families is now requiring local authorities to provide information on the audits they should have conducted of asbestos in schools."

New regulations introduced by the HSE in 2006 prohibit the importation, supply and use of all forms of asbestos.

Many schools in England are now being refurbished as part of the government's Building Schools for the Future programme.

The DCSF said there were strict requirements for asbestos surveys of buildings to be carried out to identify any asbestos.

"All major refurbishments carried out under BSF would normally include removal of all asbestos," a spokesman said.

"Any asbestos that is likely to deteriorate or to be damaged or disturbed would be removed as part of the BSF programme, in line with the HSE's advice."

A Freedom of Information request recently revealed that 300 schools in Wales could also be affected by asbestos, and a recent BBC investigation revealed it was in 90% of schools in the south east of England.

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