Local authorities must ‘take responsibility’ to investigate asbestos threat in schools

Date published: 12 July 2019

Industrial disease law experts who represent the family of a primary school teacher who died from an asbestos related cancer have welcomed a move that will force almost 700 schools across the country to report on a presence of the deadly dust within their premises.

The announcement that the Department for Education has referred 676 state-funded schools and academies in England to the Health and Safety Executive has been prompted by a failure to provide evidence to the governing body that they were ‘managing asbestos in line with regulatory requirements’.

The move comes amidst concerns that local authority funded schools are playing ‘fast and loose’ with the lives of thousands of staff, students and contractors who are at risk of unsafe exposure, and follows a freedom of information request has further revealed that around 90% of schools in England contains the deadly fibres which, if disturbed, can prove deadly.

But news that the HSE will struggle to inspect the number of schools involved has prompted leading industrial law experts to call on each local authority to ‘take responsibility’ for its own investigations.

National law firm Simpson Millar represents Lucie Stephens, who started to campaign about asbestos in schools after her mother, Sue, died of Mesothelioma, an asbestos related cancer, in 2016 after working as a primary school teacher for 30 years.

An inquest revealed that she died from an industrial disease, and that she was exposed during her time as a teacher in schools in Buckinghamshire.

Helen Grady, an industrial disease solicitor at Simpson Millar, said: “The fact that many school buildings across England contain asbestos is not new news, but it is extremely concerning to learn that such a large number have failed in their duty to report on how they were managing the presence of the fibres.

“The case of Sue Stephens, who sadly passed away after battling Mesothelioma in 2016, is truly devasting, as she was never aware that she was being exposed to the deadly dust, so wasn’t able to protect herself.

 “The risks of asbestos have been known for many decades now and it is incomprehensible that still we are receiving reports that action has not been taken to remove it, or at the very least secure it.

“Children and staff are potentially being exposed, unbeknown to them, and until action is taken the local councils are playing fast and loose with the safety of thousands.

“Whilst we welcome the inspections that will now take place, the HSE have already said that they will struggle with the sheer volume of schools involved. It is therefore imperative that the local authorities do more to take responsibility for their own investigations as a matter of urgency.”

Figures from the Office for National Statistics estimate that since 2001, a least 305 teaching and education professionals have died from Mesothelioma, with campaigners and unions saying that asbestos in schools is often poorly managed.

A spokesperson for Rochdale Borough Council said: “Alongside our schools we take asbestos incredibly seriously and we make sure that our schools adhere to our health and safety requirements and they work with our property services team to have regular reviews to safely manage any issues.”

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