It has recently been reported that a Lancashire private school has been fined £100,000 because one of its employees has contracted a lung disease due to exposure to high levels of silica dust over a period of many years. The stonemason had contracted silicosis. Silicosis is a form of occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of silica dust. It causes scarring and disease of the lungs. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing and fever.
As many system built schools were built between 1945 and 1980 there may be many risks when working on them today, and exposure to silica dust is only one of them. Many of these buildings had been designed as large estates with a large range of materials used in their original constructions. Asbestos was one of these materials. Many of these buildings would have been constructed with asbestos containing materials (ACM) which was used in structural columns and metal casings of buildings. Asbestos is found in many public buildings and is relatively harmless if work around it and exposure to it is managed properly. Problems can arise when workers or habitants are exposed to levels harmful to their health. The Health and Safety Executive and the Department of Education work together to ensure that the correct systems are in place so any asbestos hazard is controlled. Local authorities have responsibility for schools as do the school directors themselves. There is a legal requirement under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, whereby there is ‘duty to manage asbestos’ in non-domestic premises. Asbestos management systems must be also in place under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. There are duties on employers to ensure their employees in these establishments are protected from exposure to asbestos. This includes the management of repair and maintenance around asbestos suspect materials, and managing this risk so that exposure is at a harmless level. Effective management of asbestos in schools is an ongoing concern for local authorities and duty holders.
School authorities must by law, provide a comprehensive overview of system built premises within their estate. If unsure of where the asbestos levels are and it’s locations within their buildings, duty holders must undertake an assessment of their buildings. ’System built’ schools is a well known method of how schools were built in the education sector in the UK and survey inspections should be aware of the associated issues with asbestos in the construction of these buildings. It is important to ensure that everyone involved in asbestos management is fully trained and competent. Responsible persons can include maintenance staff, engineers, head teachers, bursars, contractors and care takers. Site personnel and contractors must all be briefed in the risks and possible hazards of working with asbestos and act accordingly if they suspect an exposure. All individuals must be trained to a sufficient standard of competency to be able to do the job safely. As per the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, the duty holder of all premises must have plans in place and measures necessary to manage the risks from ACM’s.
Schools must ensure that:
- A recent survey has been done on the site
- Refurbishment work undertaken should be added to all site records
- Site personnel should understand surveys and associated registers so any asbestos related risks are evident
- All personnel handling asbestos should be competent