We are pleased to have Michael Lees as our Guest Blogger of the month. Michael campaigns tirelessly to inform parents, teachers and support staff about asbestos in schools. His campaign website gives guidance on how to improve the management of asbestos in schools. It aims to encourage openness in the UK Government’s policy towards asbestos in schools.
Article by Michael Lees – September 2014 – http://www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk
The Government is presently undertaking a review of its asbestos policy for schools and its report is imminent. There are far reaching implications, both financially and for the future safety of children and staff in our schools. The review is a positive step forward. But if it is to fulfil its potential the Government must honestly and openly examine all the evidence. In particular they must reconsider their policy of leaving asbestos in place and managing it.
More than 75% of schools contain asbestos and most remains in place because of Government policy for schools that “Asbestos which is in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed or damaged is better left in place and managed until the end of the life of the building as this presents less risk of exposure to the occupants than the process of removing it.”
However the school estate has not been properly maintained and is generally in a poor condition because of long term under funding. As the buildings have deteriorated then so has the asbestos. Of particular concern is AIB that is in places accessible to children. Over the years AIB panels lining corridors have been be hit by bags and bashed by boisterous pupils. AIB ceiling tiles in gyms have been hit by balls and panels under desks kicked by the pupil’s feet. Although the visible face may be painted, the reverse face is not, so each hit or kick will release amosite fibres to be inhaled by the occupants.
AIB panels have been used extensively in many schools, and yet they remain in place. One reason is that the HSE risk algorithm does not adequately take into account the potential for fibre release from AIB that appears to be in good condition, and does not factor in the increased risks to children. Consequently, so long as the paint is intact then the AIB can be classed as low or medium risk, and the system of management can be just periodically monitoring – Whereas in reality the material is ‘High’ risk and should be treated as such.
The schools that periodically check their AIB and paint over scratches and small dents consider that they are complying with the Regulations as they are ‘managing’ their asbestos and maintaining it in good condition. When in reality it is likely that amosite fibres have been released over the course of many years.
The Asbestos in Schools Group has therefore proposed that the risk algorithm should be rewritten so that any asbestos accessible to children should be classed as ‘High’ risk, or at the very least ‘Medium’ risk and either enclosed, or preferably removed.
Caerphilly Council have set a fine example and taken the lead for other councils and schools to follow. They will remove AIB from the occupied areas of their schools to ensure that it can no longer be disturbed and damaged.
If asbestos is to remain in other schools then the system of management has to work, people have to be trained and there needs to be a system of ensuring that all schools achieve satisfactory standards. This is a particular problem in the 4,000 academies which have lost the expertise of their local authorities. The governing body is legally and financially responsible for their buildings and the safety of the occupants. They therefore need to be trained in asbestos awareness so that they understand the dangers of asbestos and can allocate proper resources. Headteachers in all school also have to be trained and so does every member of staff as they could potentially disturb asbestos and they supervise the pupils who certainly can. However the Government is against training governors and HSE have advised that teachers do not need training as, in their opinion, they do not disturb asbestos – which is manifestly wrong.
In a recent HSE report, 29% of 153 schools inspected outside local authority control had either enforcement action taken or received formal written advice on how to achieve acceptable standards. This demonstrates the poor standards in a significant proportion of schools and also the need for HSE inspections. A series of Parliamentary questions were tabled after the inspections to establish the Government’s future policy. In reply the Minister stated that “The HSE has no specific system in place to inspect the standards of asbestos management in schools.”If the Government requires schools to manage their asbestos they have to provide the resources so that they can, and then implement a system to ensure that they do.
It must be hoped that the policy review will acknowledge these flaws in present policies and implement long term strategic policies that will ensure the safety of school staff and future generations of children.
About Michael Lees
Michael Lees’ wife Gina was a nursery school teacher. She was exposed to asbestos at school and died of mesothelioma at the age of 51. It soon became clear in his investigation into his wife’s death that the lack of asbestos management and the resultant exposures of staff and pupils in schools is a national problem. In the twelve years since her death he has campaigned tirelessly to make schools safe from the dangers of asbestos.
His research has been extensive. He has investigated the widespread use of asbestos in schools, the failure of many schools to effectively manage their asbestos, and the increasing deaths of teachers and support staff from mesothelioma. He has highlighted the particular risk to children.
Michael works with the media to bring the issue to the public so that they are aware of the potential for their child or themselves being exposed to asbestos at school. He wants openness so that parents and teachers are able to assess whether asbestos in their school is being properly managed.
His web site www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk contains closely referenced research material that is extensively used by teachers, parents, solicitors, mesothelioma interest groups, the press and others.
He is one of the founder members of the Asbestos in Schools Group (AiS), which has drawn together organisations and individuals with expertise and an interest in the issue. They speak with a common voice to achieve their overall aim to make schools safe from the dangers of asbestos.
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