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Welsh local authorities told to report on asbestos in schools

The unexpected closure last Friday of a school in Caerphilly, owing to worries about asbestos levels, has prompted the Wales Education minister to seek confirmation from all local authorities in the principality that they are managing asbestos in schools in accordance with their legal duties.

Cwmcarn High School, which caters for more than 900 pupils, shut on 12 October after a structural report identified the presence of asbestos. The school is expected to reopen, in part, by the end of this week.

Local authorities and schools’ governing bodies in’ Wales have a legal responsibility to maintain up-to date records on the location and condition of asbestos-containing materials and a duty to ensure that appropriate management plans are in place to outline how the associated risks will be managed.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “In light of the current situation, the minister has asked his department to write to all local authorities in Wales to request confirmation that they are undertaking their statutory duties in accordance with current legislation, and asks that existing plans for the management of asbestos in schools are reviewed accordingly.” ¨The leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams, has demanded the Welsh Government conduct a national audit of asbestos in schools. Many school buildings in Wales were built between the 1940s and 1980s, when asbestos was used extensively.

The HSE’s current advice states that if asbestos is not disturbed or damaged, then it is safer to leave it in situ, with robust processes in place to contain and monitor it, but Williams pointed out that even acts such as sticking a drawing pin into a wall could potentially disturb dangerous fibres.

She said: “Britain imported hundreds of thousands of tons of asbestos in the last century, and we do not know the extent of its use in our schools, nor how secure it is in school buildings. The welfare of the pupils, teachers and staff at our schools is paramount and I want the Welsh Government to conduct an audit of situation right across Wales.”

Commenting on the closure of Cwmcarn High School, Simon Ellis, a partner and specialist asbestos compensation lawyer at Hugh James solicitors, said: “I’m increasingly concerned at the growing incidence of this type of situation, especially in public buildings such as schools. I would call on local authorities to be more vigilant in identifying asbestos in schools and taking the appropriate steps to protect the health of the pupils and staff.”

But Williams believes the issue needs direction from central government. She said: “The Welsh Government will try to shift the responsibility on to local authorities and schools; however, they do not have sufficient resources or skills to take the lead on this. It’s time for the Welsh Government to take responsibility so that our teachers and pupils can have the confidence that they are teaching and learning in safe surroundings.”

In February this year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health reported that more than 75 per cent of Britain’s 33,600 schools contain asbestos, and urged the Government to embark on the phased removal of asbestos from all schools.

In 2010, an HSE survey of local-authority managed schools found that 72 per cent of councils in England were managing asbestos in schools in accordance with the appropriate procedures.

In relation to Cwmcarn High School, an HSE spokesperson told SHP: “We are investigating the circumstances and will be reviewing the asbestos surveys, monitoring and test results to assess compliance with duties under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.”

The HSE is also intending to carry out a series of inspections of 150 school premises in England, Scotland and Wales in the independent sector during 2013/14.

Added the spokesperson: “The aim of these visits will be to ensure that duty-holders understand the precautions necessary to protect tradespeople from exposure to asbestos during building and refurbishment work and to ensure that such work does not expose the occupants of schools to asbestos. This builds on the sample of inspections carried out in 2010/11.”

The HSE has also supported the Department for Education in the development of an “˜asbestos in schools’ Web-based training resource, which will soon be available’ online.

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