Asbestos in schools 'a ticking time bomb' as councils settle claims totalling £10m

Article

02 December, 2016

A recent report, following a Freedom of Information Act request, suggested that asbestos could be present in at least 12,600 maintained schools in England alone. The report was based on data collected from 135 Local Authorities across the country which outlined that Local Authorities had paid out in excess of £10m over the last decade in settlement of asbestos related personal injury claims. The report revealed the highest total of just below £1,300,000 paid by East Sussex County Council.

Of the Local Authorities questioned as part of the investigation, 13 did not hold any information as to whether there was a presence of asbestos in schools maintained by them, and 10 Authorities declined to disclose information regarding asbestos related cases which they were party to.

The report however, did not take into account those schools which have obtained Academy or Free school status, meaning that there could be thousands more schools within which asbestos is present.

This is particularly concerning to note, given the potentially fatal effects of inhalation. Inhalation of the tiny fibres can cause asbestosis and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung, is said to kill around 5,000 people per year. The National Union of Teachers claims that an estimated 200 - 300 adults die every year as a result of childhood exposure to asbestos whilst at school.

The material, which was banned in 1999 as a result of health risk, was principally used in construction due to its durability. It is fireproof and possesses insulating characteristics. The risk of inhalation only presents itself if the material is disturbed, as the fibres are released into the surrounding air which is referred to as 'asbestos dust'.

The DfE published statutory guidance in 2015 which contained updated safety in schools advice in relation to asbestos management.

Rachel Reeves MP, chair of the group 'Asbestos in schools' referred to the issue as a 'ticking time bomb' and noted that 'very few teachers and parents know that asbestos is present in schools'.

The DfE has reiterated its plans to invest '£23bn in school buildings by 2021' and remained firm, stating that 'the health and safety of children in schools is vital'.

Education Secretary Justine Greening commented that the DfE is taking a proactive approach to the issue, claiming that 'in an overwhelming number of cases asbestos is removed from school sites' although she did admit that in some cases asbestos has remained in situ on the advice of experts.

This issue highlights the importance of taking a proactive approach in ensuring a safe environment for pupils. Particularly for those Academies and Free Schools which have inherited buildings constructed prior to the 1999 ban, having converted from a maintained school, as such Free Schools and/or Academies will in most cases inherit claims liability via a TUPE transfer.

Is enough being done in order to manage the risk of asbestos related claims?

If you require any further advice then please contact a member of the Education & HR team on 01772 2200022.

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