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It’s asbestos, not just RAAC, that schools need to be concerned about

Publication: Midlothian View

In this opinion piece, Nick Garland, founder of Assure360, a company with experience in health and safety management, implementing competence and compliance systems for the asbestos and construction industries, speaks about the risk of asbestos in schools.

Asbestos in Schools | Photo by Assure 360 | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

The announcement from the UK government that multiple schools will have to close or partially close due to the long-known presence of RAAC has further ramifications. Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, or RAAC, was used extensively in public buildings between the 1950s and the 1990s; for those of you who know your asbestos prohibition dates – this is the ‘heyday’ of asbestos use.

Asbestos is frequently hidden in the structure of the building and can take weeks of planning and careful removal to find and address. In buildings of this vintage, such an issue will be highly likely. This additional delay could extend the school closures, potentially to months. But that is not even the main issue – the urgency of the RAAC question might lead schools to overlook the asbestos question entirely.

The recent Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee report (April 22) highlighted the specific risk of asbestos in schools. ResPublica has recently stated that 80% of schools contain asbestos. The recent study paper by the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants (NORAC) and the Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association (ATaC) has similar figures, with 78% of the buildings they looked at having contained asbestos.

Following the select committee report, the HSE visited 421 schools to inspect their compliance with the regulations. 140 were considered to be falling short and received letters from the HSE instructing them on improvements that were needed in their management of asbestos. Of these, 27 received improvement notices (legal instruction for mandatory specific improvements), and one a prohibition notice (not to enter their boiler room until asbestos was removed). Whilst 33% non-compliance will not be a surprise to the industry, it should be seen as a worryingly high figure.

The Cliff Edge

I recently wrote about the cliff edge the country is heading towards in the race to net zero and the lifespan of system-built buildings – deadlines a few years off. Now, there is another ultra-urgent deadline – repair or replacement of these RAAC structures so the schools can re-open. That is an awful lot of construction work that needs to be done immediately on buildings with clear potential to contain asbestos. The pressing and very public urgency to fix the RAAC problem might overwhelm other considerations – and in particular, the asbestos risk.

HSE’s recent findings confirm what has been long suspected, that the model of manage-in-situ is not working well in schools. If the asbestos risk is overlooked now and not factored into the emergency, this latest crisis could be made even worse.

 Assure360 is a subject matter expert on Asbestos.