Asbestos in our schools: ‘lives at risk’

Teaching leaders claim lives are being put at risk after it was revealed more than 90% of Lancashire schools contain asbestos.

Asbestoes warning sign
Asbestoes warning sign

Figures obtained after a Freedom of Information request reveal as many as 41 schools in the Burnley and Padiham area could be classed as being “at risk”, as well as a further 38 in Pendle and 22 in the Ribble Valley.

The main teaching unions are now calling for urgent action.

County health and safety officer Ian Watkinson branded the figures “a scandal on a local and national scale.”

Asbestos was widely used as a building material in the 1960s and 70s and banned in the UK in 1999 once the health risks became apparent.

A spokesman for the Health and Safety Executive said asbestos could be managed safely if left undisturbed, but the latest findings have led to renewed calls to make schools safer.

At least 570 of the county’s 617 schools contain asbestos, according to data released following a Freedom of Information request.

The National Union of Teachers has been running a major campaign for more than a year to try to tackle the problem in the county and today national and county health and safety officer Ian Watkinson branded the figures “a scandal on a local and national scale”.

He said: “We have been campaigning about this on both national and local level.

“It is so important. Parents don’t know, nor do teachers, and most of it is much of it is not being managed properly.”

“Children, teachers and other school workers are being needlessly exposed to deadly asbestos fibres on a daily basis.”

Information held by the county council shows the highest number of schools known to contain asbestos are in Preston and Lancaster, which each have 66.

There are 41 in Burnley, 38 in Pendle, 50 in Chorley, 40 in South Ribble, 52 in West Lancs and 22 in the Ribble Valley. The county abides by national policy which means leaving asbestos in situ unless it becomes a problem.

Between September 2010 and February 2011 the county council paid out £421,322 in compensation and £63,500 in legal costs. Latest available figures, up to November 2013, show that five other claims are still outgoing.

The NUT said lives are being put at risk and Ian Watkinson said the teaching unions were working together and calling for urgent action by the Government.

The county said it was unable to specify how many incidents there had been involving the repair or removal of asbestos in recent years but said: “However, when asbestos is disturbed or deteriorates it becomes extremely unsafe and inhaling the dust and fibres can lead to serious illness decades later.”

County Coun Matthew Tomlinson, cabinet member for children, young people and schools, said: “As in all other councils around the country, most of Lancashire’s older schools contain some asbestos.

“Where it occurs, it is inspected regularly and does not represent any threat to staff, children or young people.

“As long as it is in good condition, well-sealed and not disturbed then it is far safer to leave it well alone.

“Our qualified asbestos surveyors inspect asbestos-containing materials at least once a year and sometimes more often depending on risk.

“We deal with any concerns immediately, although between inspections we do rely on schools telling us if they have noticed anything amiss, or if they have brought in their own workmen.

“If schools are undergoing building work or renovation, then an additional survey is carried out to identify the presence of any asbestos. If necessary, removal is carried out by a specialist firm.”

Following a national campaign by teaching unions the Government last week published the findings of its review of asbestos policy in schools,calling for better training and guidance.

It was described as “a step in the right direction, but no more.”