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Managing asbestos in schools - Frequently asked questions

What is asbestos?

Asbestos was a building material used extensively in Great Britain from the 1950s through to the 1990s.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

Serious, often fatal diseases can be caused when asbestos fibres are released from materials, becoming airborne and inhaled. On average, there is a 30–40 year latency period between exposure to asbestos fibres and the onset of disease. For

Where is asbestos found in schools?

Many schools, built before 2000, will contain some form of asbestos. Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) include:

  • asbestos lagging used as thermal insulation on pipes and boilers
  • sprayed asbestos used for thermal insulation, fire protection, partitioning and ducts
  • asbestos-insulating board (AIB) used for fire protection, thermal insulation, partitioning and ducts
  • some ceiling tiles
  • floor tiles
  • cement roofing and guttering
  • textured coatings

Who’s at risk from asbestos in schools?

The most likely way ACMs will create a risk in schools is when they are disturbed or damaged through maintenance, repair or construction activities. School caretakers are a particular group at risk due to the nature of their work, eg drilling and fixing, and other contractors may be at risk while undertaking maintenance or installation work. If asbestos is disturbed during such work, there is a risk that fibres will be released and create risk to others in the school.

Asbestos that is in good condition and unlikely to be damaged or disturbed is not a significant risk to health as long as it is properly managed. This means that teachers and pupils are unlikely to be at risk in the course of their normal activities. However, they should not undertake activities that damage ACMs, such as pinning or tacking work to insulation board or ceiling tiles.

Who’s responsible for managing asbestos in schools?

Anyone who has responsibility for the maintenance and/or repair of non-domestic premises, including schools, is a ‘dutyholder’ as defined in Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. For the majority of schools, the dutyholder will be the employer.

Who the employer is varies with the type of school. For community schools, community special schools, voluntary-controlled schools, maintained nursery schools and pupil referral units, the employer is the local authority. For academies, free schools, voluntary-aided and foundation schools, it will be the school governors. For independent schools, it may be the proprietor, governors or trustees.

In situations where budgets for building management are delegated to schools by the local authority, the duty to manage asbestos will be shared between schools and the local authority. The authority’s written scheme for the financing of maintained schools will set out the categories of work that will either be financed from the delegated school budget share (revenue repairs and maintenance) or remain the responsibility of the local authority (capital expenditure). Both parties will therefore have ‘dutyholder’ responsibilities for the repair and maintenance of the premises.

What is the ‘duty to manage’ asbestos?

Dutyholders should know whether their premises contain asbestos, where it is and what condition it is in. Then they should ensure that they manage it properly.

They must assess and manage the risks from asbestos to employees and others. They must also ensure that anyone who is likely to work on, or disturb, asbestos is provided with information about its location and condition.

What does the dutyholder have to do in practice in a school?

The dutyholder’s responsibilities include:

  • keeping an up-to-date record of the location and condition of ACMs in the school
  • assessing the risks from any ACMs in the school
  • making plans to manage the risks from ACMs in the school
  • putting those plans into action

Those most at risk of disturbing ACMs are tradespeople, caretakers, etc. The school’s plan needs to contain provisions to ensure that information about the location and condition of ACMs is given to anyone who might disturb these materials.  The dutyholder should also ensure that staff likely to disturb asbestos are suitably trained.

What is the role of school staff?

Most staff are not directly involved in managing the buildings or in carrying out repair or maintenance work. However, staff still need to be made aware of the potential hazards. All staff should be instructed not to disturb or damage ACMs, for example by pinning work to walls. They should also report damage to school fixtures or fittings that could lead to the release of asbestos fibres, eg damage to ceiling or floor tiles, or to column seals in system-built schools. 

What do dutyholders need to know about using contractors?

Dutyholders need to check that any contractors likely to disturb asbestos are trained and competent for that work. Licensed contractors must be used for most work with asbestos insulation, AIB and asbestos coatings.

Those responsible for managing asbestos on the school premises have a key role in briefing contractors, whether procured through the local authority, or directly procured by the school. They should ensure that contractors are provided with all recorded information on the location and condition of ACMs. 

I have been told that asbestos is present in my child’s school - should I be concerned?

A large number of schools and other public buildings contain asbestos – often in the fabric of the building. Its presence alone should not cause concern provided it is managed properly. There are strict legal duties on schools to manage asbestos containing materials (ACMs). Where HSE has undertaken inspections of schools it has found that most have good standards for managing asbestos in their buildings. However, if you are concerned that your school might be one of a minority that are not doing all they should to manage asbestos, then take a look at HSE’s asbestos management checklist for schools or the other advice on this website – if you still have concerns seek reassurance from the school or where relevant the local authority.

Does a school have to close if it thinks it has an asbestos problem?

HSE expects schools to manage the risks from asbestos containing materials (ACMs) on an on-going basis. Temporary closure of a building may be needed where building work has created unforeseen problems – or perhaps led to structural damage. What is important is that the focus is on preventing exposure in the first place. Anyone with responsibility for maintenance and repair in schools, or any other work premises, has a legal duty to manage the risks arising from asbestos. This means taking steps to identify whether asbestos is present in buildings, assessing its condition and managing the risks to ensure that people are not exposed to asbestos fibres. The school should have sensible plans that are kept up to date and acted upon.

Should parents be told about asbestos in their children’s school?

Health and safety legislation does not require schools to inform parents about the presence of asbestos in their children’s school. Some schools do provide parents with information to assure them that effective management arrangements are in place. The management arrangements at the school should prevent disturbance of asbestos containing materials – but if these arrangements fail and there is an accidental release of asbestos fibres, then it is important that those affected are informed. HSE’s website includes simple guidance for those who may have been inadvertently exposed to asbestos.

What about pupils – can they damage asbestos?

The likelihood of pupils disturbing asbestos containing materials (ACMs) during unsupervised or unruly activities does need to be considered as part of the schools management arrangements. Any vulnerable or exposed panels should be identified and protected or removed. These are the types of issues that should be included in the schools asbestos management plan as they are part of the essential precautions that ensure that normal school activities do not disturb or damage ACMs.

The most likely way that ACMs in schools will be disturbed or damaged is through maintenance, repair or construction activities. This includes even seemingly innocuous jobs such as installing telephone or computer cabling where access behind wall panels and to ceiling voids is often needed. Incidents of contamination have also resulted from refurbishment work that has not been properly managed. In these situations, it is those directly involved in the work who have the highest risk of exposure to asbestos fibres – and regulations are in place to ensure this type of work is carried out properly.

Is asbestos in heating systems particularly dangerous?

Air movement over asbestos products in heating systems does not generally create detectable airborne fibre levels. However maintenance work on heaters which contain asbestos may create direct physical disturbance of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) and a local release of fibres. Maintenance work like this can be easily managed to ensure that neither maintenance workers nor those using the school are exposed to fibres.

What are the risks if a roof void is contaminated with waste asbestos material?

Ceiling voids can be contaminated from the original installation of the asbestos containing materials (ACMs) – or where remedial work has not been carried out to the required standards. This means roof voids may contain debris from original installation of ACMs, and this can include off-cuts and waste pieces of Asbestos Insulation Board (AIB). Provided the waste material is left undisturbed it does not present a risk elsewhere in the buildings.

The precautions to manage any ACMs in the roof void and to prevent disturbance should be set out within the school’s asbestos management plan. Any work involving voids above ceilings does need to be carefully managed. Accessing contaminated roof voids without appropriate decontamination procedures can disturb asbestos fibres that may have remained undisturbed for many years – creating risks to those entering the roof voids and risking spreading wider contamination to other parts of the building. Therefore voids above asbestos ceiling tiles should be assumed to be contaminated and all access and work properly controlled. .Any roof voids where work is carried out should be thoroughly cleaned on completion of any work.

Why do different testing methods for asbestos fibres appear to give different results?

HSE provides guidance on a system of air sampling that is used to ensure worker protection - most typically after asbestos removal work. It is designed to be used as part of a rigorous system to provide reassurance that a work environment has been properly cleaned. The analysis that is recommended provides quick results but it does not differentiate between asbestos fibres and other sorts of fibres that may be present eg clothing fibres. Some laboratories, like HSL, are able to conduct more sophisticated analysis of the samples using electron microscopy to more accurately determine whether asbestos fibres are present. This analysis takes longer and is much more expensive – and is more typically used as part of research activities.

What types of monitoring and testing are necessary for asbestos in school?

The condition of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) can be monitored effectively by visual inspection and checking for any signs of damage. If there is no visible damage - for example no signs of visible debris, dust or asbestos material in poor condition - then the potential for release, spread and exposure is extremely low. Regular inspections and checks by the duty holder of the condition of ACMs are what are needed. This inspection approach should also check materials which are in place to protect or seal hidden ACMs. If these protective materials are damaged then remedial action on these materials will be necessary.

In the absence of visible damage or evidence of asbestos debris left from previous uncontrolled work, the concentrations of asbestos fibres in the air are likely to very low and around the realistic limits of detection using the currently available measurement methods. Airborne sampling is not normally needed.

I know how important it is to manage asbestos in my school – where can I get straightforward advice about what I need to do?

You can use the guidance for schools on HSE’s website. It provides clear advice and links to further sources of information. It explains the risks, and the action that is necessary – and what the law actually requires.

HSE guidance

HSE has developed an interactive, web-based tool to help small businesses understand the duty to manage requirements. This e-tool is also a useful resource for schools.

Further information

Updated 2014-09-10