It is estimated that more than 1.5 million workplace properties still contain some form of asbestos. Certainly, asbestos is present in many educational establishments, though staff are often unaware of its presence until repairs or renovations occur.
Exposure to and inhalation of asbestos can lead to serious and terminal related diseases. The British Lung Foundation reports that 2,000 people are diagnosed with the asbestos-related disease, mesothelioma, every year in the UK. The number of deaths from mesothelioma is expected to peak at 2,450 between 2011 and 2015.
As part of its health and safety training for reps ATL is showing parts of a DVD, Mesothelioma: the human face of an asbestos epidemic, to further raise awareness of the issue.
Warning on use of World War II gas masks
The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC), of which ATL is a member has issued a warning over WWII gas masks, which must not be warn as asbestos fibres can be inhaled.
Education Select Committee
On March 13 2013, the Education Select Committee looked at the issue of asbestos in schools. JUAC were called to give evidence to this and was represented by the chair, Julie Winn. Witnesses from the Health and Safety Executive were also questioned as were leading academics and campaigners. The Department for Education was represented by school's minister David Laws.
JUAC's submission highlighted, among other things:
- the need for a review of asbestos in schools
- the phased removal of asbestos instead of the current policy of managing asbestos in situ
- pro-active inspections of workplaces to be carried out to assess the standards of asbestos management in all schools, including free schools and academies.
Warning on warm air heating systems
In October 2012, Cwmcarn School in Wales was closed after asbestos fibres were found in warm air cabinet heaters. Despite previous warnings on the heaters as far back as 1981, recommending that such heaters should be sealed or preferably have the asbestos panels removed, the Department of Education have said that they will not be issuing any further guidance on the matter.
This has resulted in JUAC taking the step of issuing their own guidance on such heating systems.
JUAC believes it is vital that schools have checks carried by professional asbestos consultants to see whether they have warm air cabinet heaters and whether these contain asbestos. And if they do, the heaters must be made safe.
National Audit of Asbestos in Schools
JUAC continues to campaign for a national audit of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in UK schools and for a risk assessment of the standards of asbestos management. Only once this information has been collated can the UK Government allocate proportionate resources and target those schools most at risk. The long-term aim is the phased removal of all asbestos from UK schools and colleges.
As a response to the incident at Cwmcarn School, the Right to Know campaign has been started. Backed by ATL, the campaign calls for a national online register of asbestos in schools to be created in Wales.
All-Party Parliamentary Group report
Published in January 2012, a report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health, investigates the scale of the asbestos issue and makes recommendations about stopping this time-bomb in our schools.
The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) recently wrote to the Press Complaints Commission to complain about an article in the Daily Mail, which made several false claims about the harmful nature of asbestos in schools.
The article, entitled 'the great asbestos hysteria', wrongly claimed that the risks from white asbestos products were 'insignificant', and that the risk of lung cancer caused by white asbestos was 'arguably zero'.
What you can do
- Health and safety reps and members should find out about your employers' asbestos policy and if asbestos is present in your workplace. For more detailed information on what is legally required by employers in relation to asbestos, see our sections on the control of asbestos and exposure to asbestos.
- ATL keeps a record of members who may have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace - complete this online form.
- Find out more about other occupational health standards across UK workplaces.
- Read our press release 'End the deadly asbestos gamble - Protect children and staff by removing asbestos from our schools'.
- Sign the 38 Degrees petition to prevent more deaths from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma.
Elizabeth Bradford, the teacher who talks about her mesothelioma in ATL's campaign video, died as a result of the illness in November 2008.
Family friend Michael Less said: "Elizabeth was very brave for she knew that she would die and yet because she wanted people to be aware of the terrible consequences of asbestos exposure she did everything she could to publicise the risks, and in particular the inherent dangers of asbestos in schools."
"I am certain that she would want as many people as possible to hear her powerful message."