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The recent news that nearly 700 schools have been referred to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after failing to provide evidence to the Department for Education (DfE) that they were managing asbestos in line with legal requirements has sent shockwaves across the UK.
Official statistics estimate that around 90% of school buildings in England contain asbestos. In Wales, the BBC has previously reported that there are 1,514 schools with asbestos, amounting to some 85% of all Welsh schools.
The most common uses of asbestos in school buildings were:
- insulation lagging around pipework, boilers and ducts
- spray coatings for fire protection and insulation on concrete walls, ceilings and steelwork
- asbestos cement products on walls, ceilings and corrugated roofs
- insulation boards and protective mats in laboratories and other areas with heating equipment
This is a huge concern for the tens of thousands of teachers, administrative staff, pupils and contractors in local authority funded schools whose lives could potentially be at risk due to exposure to the deadly asbestos dust and fibres that are released when asbestos is disturbed or damaged.
Alarmingly, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that since 2001, at least 305 teaching and education professionals have died after being diagnosed with mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
A case in point is dedicated primary school teacher Sue Stephens, who very sadly died of mesothelioma in 2016. Sue had worked as a teacher in schools in Buckinghamshire for 30 years when she was diagnosed with the disease in 2014.
Her daughter Lucie Stephens has been campaigning about the presence of asbestos in schools ever since to raise awareness of the dangers and to call on the Government to implement the phased removal of all asbestos from schools in the UK.
Lucie explained that before her Mum died, Sue’s main concern was that she couldn’t protect her pupils because she hadn’t known about the existence of asbestos in the schools where she taught.
In 2017, a National Education Union (NEU) survey of members found that of the 46% of respondents who had been told their school contained asbestos, half had not been told where it was. And nearly 75% of those who had been told where asbestos was located, said it was in fully accessible locations, such as floors, ceilings, and window frames.
At Novum Law, we’ve helped many people who’ve suffered due to exposure to asbestos in schools, including the family of an art teacher who died prematurely of asbestos-related lung cancer caused by years of pinning her pupils' artwork to classroom walls.
Phill Gower, specialist asbestos disease lawyer at Novum Law’s Cardiff office says:
“How many more teachers need to die before something is done about this ticking timebomb in our schools? More needs to be done to raise awareness of the presence of asbestos in schools and urgent action needs to be taken to eradicate this deadly substance. What’s hugely worrying is that the HSE, which lacks resources following years of budget cuts, is likely to struggle to fully investigate the schools due to the sheer number involved. Dangerous asbestos conditions are entirely preventable, it’s vital the Government does something to prevent more people dying needlessly.”
Lucie Stephens is campaigning for the Government to release the names of all schools with asbestos and is raising funds to build a website to make the information accessible to the general public. The DfE has, so far, refused to release those names on the grounds it would deter schools from sharing information with it in the future.
To sign Lucie’s petition visit: http://ow.ly/KHX050vbG4Z.
If you or a family member has been affected by exposure to asbestos in a school or any other workplace setting, you should contact our expert team of specialist asbestos disease solicitors. Call 0800 884 0777 or email email@example.com.