Today there are stringent standards that building materials have to comply with in order for them to enter the construction supply chain. However, whilst the dangers associated with the inhalation of asbestos fibres have been known for many years, asbestos wasn't finally banned completely in the UK until 1999, meaning that the substance remains in significant quantities within many of Britain's buildings. Here James Dodgson, commercial director for Asbestos at SOCOTEC, discusses the importance of asbestos management within the UK's education sector.
During the 20th century, the United Kingdom was the biggest global user of asbestos based materials. Although the mineral has not legally made its way into buildings since its ban in 1999, there are still thousands of tonnes of the fibres located within properties in Britain and any building built before 2000 could contain asbestos, including many schools and academies.
Asbestos containing materials (ACMs)
Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) include:
- asbestos lagging used as thermal insulation on pipes and boilers
- sprayed asbestos used for thermal insulation, fire protection, partitioning and ducts
- asbestos-insulating board (AIB) used for fire protection, thermal insulation, partitioning and ducts
- some ceiling tiles
- floor tiles
- cement roofing and guttering
- textured coatings
A report in 2015 by the Royal Institute of British Architects concluded that of the 29,000 schools in Britain, 80% of the stock was beyond its shelf life and 75% contain asbestos. Similarly, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) put this figure at around 90 per cent prompting the Department for Education to issue updated guidance on the management of asbestos in schools. The document aimed to make sure school leaders, governors, local authorities and academy trusts understand their obligations in relation to asbestos management in schools, helping them remain compliant with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.
According to the guidance schools should take the following steps to manage the asbestos
- Have a management survey of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in the school
- Assess the risks associated with ACMs in the school
- Devise a plan for managing asbestos in the school
- Make sure staff, visitors and contractors know the risks and precautions they need to take
- Keep the management of asbestos in the school under review
However, according to a 2017 Education Funding Agency (EFA) study, despite this guidance being available thousands of schools are still not following proper asbestos safety guidelines, with an estimated 20% still not fully compliant with asbestos regulations.
Indeed, an NUT survey carried out in March 2017 found that nearly 50% of respondents had not even been told whether their school is one of the 86% which do contain asbestos. Of the 46% who had been told that their school contains asbestos, half had not been told where it was located, so they were not able to take steps to avoid disturbing it.
If managed carefully, asbestos in a school does not pose a risk to building occupants. However, any disturbance of the fibres has the potential to endanger lives. With school buildings around the country due to be upgraded or refurbished under under the second phase of the government's flagship priority school building programme, managing asbestos across these properties needs to remain a priority for duty-holders.
Within the guidance, duty holders are defined as the people responsible for maintenance and/or repair of the school, typically the employer. For community schools, this is usually the local authority and for academies it may be the school governors. Within all school buildings, these people must understand that they have the legal responsibility to locate and assess the risk posed by asbestos as well as develop a risk management plan.
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