A primary school in Ipswich has remained closed this week after asbestos was disturbed by builders. Head teacher, Jenny Barr, decided to postpone the start of term under health and safety grounds but hopes to reopen in a week, once the situation has been brought under control.
Her decision appears to have received mixed reviews from parents, some of whom have struggled in relation to child care, but many have offered their support to the head in putting the children’s health and safety first.
Managing asbestos in schools
Asbestos in educational buildings has long been a topic of debate, with various arguments being put forward on how to manage the risk of exposure. The government’s approach is to regularly monitor its condition on-site, which has received much criticism – campaign groups are constantly pushing for a more proactive approach in tackling the issue.
It is believed that around 86% of schools in the UK contain asbestos in some form. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health wants an Eradication Bill introduced which would effectively rid UK workplaces of asbestos by 2035 (and by 2028 for schools and other educational establishments).
The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) says that staff and pupils are at great risk because the asbestos in place is now disintegrating, posing an increased danger of inhalation.
So how else might the asbestos situation in our schools be improved?
Asbestos awareness training for school staff
In light of the sheer amount of asbestos in school buildings, a strong argument exists for school teachers, support staff and caretakers to receive asbestos training. This would help them understand the implications of being exposed to asbestos at work, and also protect vulnerable children.
Asbestos awareness courses are taken by many self-employed tradespeople, with all firms being legally obliged to provide this type of training if they employ workers who could encounter asbestos during their working day
It is quite rare for other sectors to consider this type of training, however, even though asbestos is present in numerous hospitals, libraries, museums, and other non-domestic buildings.
What is covered in the training?
Aspects of the course include:
- How to identify asbestos
- Health and safety risks
- Emergency procedures
- Where it might be located
- Asbestos management
An asbestos emergency
Specialist contractors were called in to the school in Ipswich to deal with the emergency. One concerned parent said, “Obviously the school wouldn’t have closed if it wasn’t necessary. It’s a major health issue for both teachers and pupils.”
Another parent touched on a major issue for the victims of asbestos exposure – the long latency period. Several decades can pass before victims begin to feel unwell, usually with shortness of breath or a chronic cough.
It is not unusual for fifty years or so to pass, by which time the disease has taken hold and is often at an advanced stage, making treatment options very limited.