Sunday Times joins NASUWT’s and Work & Pensions Committee’s call for urgent prioritisation of asbestos removal in schools

The last official figures published by the Department for Education (DfE) in 2019, showed that asbestos is present in four out of five schools (81%) in England. The Joint Unions Asbestos Committee (JUAC) estimate that 1,000 school staff in Great Britain have already died from mesothelioma between 1980-2017, and up to 9,000 former pupils may also have died from mesothelioma during the same period.

Last week the National Audit Office estimated that as many as 24,000 school buildings were beyond their initial design life, and of particular risk were 13,800 “system-built” blocks constructed between 1940 and 1980. Many of these contain asbestos.

Asbestos is the UK’s biggest workplace killer, with more than 5,000 people a year dying from diseases caused by it, mostly mesothelioma.

Peter McGettrick, Chairman of British Safety Council said:

“This is not something we can ignore anymore. The Select Committee was right when it stated that we should remove asbestos from all our public and commercial buildings, and that a national register should be set up, as has been done in other European countries.”

In the National Education Union’s figures quoted by the Sunday Times, about 400 former teachers have died from the disease since 1980, 300 of them since 2001. However, two thirds of deaths from mesothelioma occur over 75 years, the age after which it is not necessary to state a person’s occupation on their death certificate. So, this figure is likely to be an underestimate.

Nobody knows how many children were exposed to asbestos, adds the report. With symptoms taking up to 40 years to develop, it can be hard to pinpoint the exposure.

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Sir Stephen Timms, chairman of the Commons work and pensions committee, who led the inquiry into asbestos last year, said:

The Government must significantly increase investment in building and refurbishing schools, not least to remove the deadly asbestos that is present in four out of five schools in England.

Setting a 40 year deadline for removing all workplace asbestos and creating a central digital register of all asbestos in non-domestic buildings, are the first crucial steps in addressing the problem.  The government should work towards removing the highest risk asbestos first, including from the crumbling schools estate.

 When you mention asbestos to most people, they tend to think it was a problem of the past that’s been dealt with. When you tell them it’s still all around us, they’re surprised. When you tell them it’s the UK’s biggest work-related killer, they’re shocked. And when you tell them it’s in most of our schools, they tend to become worried.

Professor Kevin Bampton, chief executive of the British Occupational Hygiene Society, said:

A tragedy is unfolding as we watch. We are currently sowing the seeds of a spike in cancer that will hit us in 30 to 40 years if we don’t act now. There is a perception that asbestos is a thing of the past, but it isn’t.

Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary, added:

It is a national tragedy that more and more school teachers are dying from Mesothelioma, the deadly asbestos lung cancer. Asbestos exposure continues to be the biggest cause of work-related deaths in the UK.

Around 5,000 people are dying each year from asbestos cancers linked to work exposure, including from mesothelioma. The latest HSE data shows that the number of female teachers dying from mesothelioma is increasing.

Asbestos is one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times and it is a national disgrace that the UK has one of the highest mesothelioma mortality rates in the world.

The Sunday Times has also launched a campaign urging the phased removal of asbestos in schools and hospitals, quoting one health and safety leader as calling the situation an ‘unfolding tragedy.’

The call, part of a five-point action plan, comes after the Work and Pensions Committee made the same recommendation, which was rejected by the government last year.

The Sunday Times’ five-point plan

1. Draw up a national strategy for the planned removal of all asbestos over the next 40 years, including identifying properties most in need of urgent action and clear guidance on the safe disposal of asbestos.

2. Create a national register of properties which contain asbestos and where it can be found. Owners of all non-domestic properties should be forced to comply with the rules for registration.

3. Develop an app, or digital register, that can be accessed by anyone renovating a property for free to discover if there is asbestos.

4. Introduce regular reporting of air quality around buildings that contain asbestos to monitor fibres.

5. Set minimum standards of training for appointed duty holders who are responsible for monitoring asbestos on properties.