HSE: Unfit for Purpose
Following on from a TV program Britains crumbling schools1 broadcast on the BBC last month, an article on the website of the World Socialist on January 29th asserted that: Schools in the UK are not fit for purpose, and many pose a critical risk to life. While the shocking deterioration of multiple aspects of the educational infrastructure is wide-ranging most of the media focus in recent months has been on problems stemming from the use of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC). In the vast majority of cases, addressing the structural instability posed by the presence of RAAC material in schools risks disturbing asbestos.2
For decades, asbestos-containing products were used in the construction of British schools; the majority of schools still contain significant amounts of this toxic material.3 Evidence collected by asbestos victims campaigners, trade unionists and official government bodies documenting the occurrence of mesothelioma the signature cancer associated with exposure to asbestos amongst female school teachers has routinely been dismissed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
In written evidence to a Parliamentary Committee in December 2021, epidemiologist Professor Julian Peto categorically stated that: There is no evidence that teachers born since 1955 are at greater risk [of mesothelioma] than other people.4 Within two years, he had reversed his position reporting to a seminar held on November 28, 2023 at the London School Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that:
the mesothelioma death rate in female teachers is now 40% higher than in other women (111 deaths versus 79.5 expected overall; 19 versus 12.3 expected in teachers born since 1955). , an increase in asbestos exposure to children since the 1980s is suggested by the recent increase in annual mesothelioma deaths in Britain below age 40 (2.7 per year 2008-2017, 6.3 per year 2018-2021).5
Although Professor Peto may have changed his mind, no such shift in the HSEs policy has been observed. Summing up the intransigence of the UK agency tasked with safeguarding occupational health and safety, mesothelioma widower Michael Lees said:
In my knowledge, for the last twenty-four years, the HSE have consistently made public statements that schoolteachers deaths from mesothelioma are statistically insignificant. They have also claimed that children are at no greater risk from asbestos exposure than adults. They have therefore advised successive governments that schools are safe and that their policy of leaving the asbestos in place and managing it is working.
All of this was contrary to expert opinion and growing evidence that their advice and policy was manifestly wrong. Because of their conduct, teachers, support staff and former pupils have been exposed to asbestos in schools and have subsequently died.
Contrary to public statements made by HSE, Professor Peto has always stated that children are more vulnerable to the dangers of asbestos than adults. He gave evidence to the Education Select Committee that 200 to 300 former pupils could be dying each year because of their asbestos exposures at school. For many years, in private, HSE statisticians have also acknowledged that too many school teachers are dying in a profession where there should be very little, or no, asbestos exposure.
This latest evidence adds to the overwhelming evidence that the lethal levels of asbestos exposures of children, teachers and support staff continued long after the schools were built. Evidence shows that those exposures continue to this very day from building and maintenance work and from common classroom activities.
All these deaths were preventable, but because of HSE advice and policy they have occurred and will continue long into the future. If this carnage is to be stopped then this latest evidence must be heeded. There must be a step change in government policy. The most dangerous asbestos materials must be identified, and a policy of progressive removal adopted. Only then will our schools be safe.
The HSEs approach to asbestos management has been a dismal and tragic failure. The findings of a Parliamentary Committee which were published in 2022 were highly critical albeit in tempered language suitable for a government publication of the HSE, including its: failure to to monitor compliance with the current asbestos regulation; reluctance to invest in research to understand better the costs and benefits of more wholesale removal of asbestos and options for its safer removal; and reliance on a set of regulations which devolve asbestos management to individual dutyholders 6
While asbestos protections are increasing in EU countries, it seems that in the UK the only change is for the worse. As our schools continue to age, asbestos-containing products within them deteriorate and the likelihood of carcinogenic fibers becoming airborne grows. The final price for the HSEs negligence will be paid by the children, teachers and school staff who contract mesothelioma in the decades to come.
February 2, 2024
1 Panorama. Britains crumbling schools. January 22, 2024.
2 Public Accounts Committee. Report: Unacceptable and alarming: Deteriorating school buildings prompt urgent warnings. November 19, 2023.
3 Hansard. Asbestos in Schools. February 7, 2012.
All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health and Safety. Asbestos in Schools. The Need For Action. Undated.
4 Peto, J. Written evidence from Prof Julian Peto. Conclusions from our studies on mesothelioma risk in relation to asbestos lung burden and occupational history. December, 2021.
5 Peto, J. Current mesothelioma risks from asbestos in British schools. November 28, 2023.
This abstract is not online.
6 Work and Pensions Committee. The Health and Safety Executives approach to asbestos management. April 21, 2022.