The concealed risks of asbestos: are staff and students exposed?
The presence of uncontrolled and previously unidentified asbestos has been revealed in several incidents in schools across Australia.
Last month, there was an incident at a school in Tasmania where asbestos was discovered in ‘in fill’ building material at a government primary school. The Tasmanian Education Department confirmed that land fill from the Tasmanian Parliament Square site was being used in the upgrade of the school.
In September 2015, following a fire in a NSW school it was revealed that asbestos may have been present in the older-style classroom demountables. In November, asbestos was discovered in a Melbourne school playground, after a child was found playing with fragments of asbestos-containing cement sheeting; it was not certain how the fragments got there in the first place. A similar incident was reported in July 2016 in a Perth school, with children found crushing up asbestos fragments to make ‘fairy dust’.
In December 2015, a safety alert was issued after rock samples in science education kits purchased by 24 Northern Territory schools were found to contain asbestos. In March, a Queensland teacher was diagnosed with cancer after working with equipment made from asbestos; suggestions were that this was not an isolated incident. And in mid-September, ‘background’ levels of asbestos were found on materials used in the development of a Hobart primary school.
While each incident is unique, all indicate that the risks of asbestos are alive and well in schools, with many not taking appropriate precautions to identify, manage and remove materials containing asbestos. Or, as in the case of the Tasmanian school, schools are subject to government controlled building-works where asbestos is used without the school’s knowledge.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a term for a group of six naturally occurring mineral fibres, three of which were mined in Australia.
Asbestos and Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) were first used for fireproofing, soundproofing and insulation in the 1800s, but became used in manufacturing various building products in either friable or non-friable form until the 1990s. Due to versatility, strength, flexibility and affordability as a building material, it was widely used across many industries.
While mining asbestos was progressively banned, only 5% of the asbestos used in Australia was mined, with the majority being imported. While importation is now banned in Australia, its use in production in other parts of the world remains widespread, and there are inconsistencies in what amounts to ‘asbestos free’ material. As a result, inadvertent importation continues.
Asbestos is still present in our built environment, in many government, residential, and commercial buildings – including schools.
What are the health risks?
Asbestos is a known carcinogen and becomes a potential health risk if fibres are suspended in the air and breathed into the lungs. Once lodged in the lung tissue, they can cause inflammation, scarring, and can eventually develop into a range asbestos-related diseases including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis; symptoms usually do not appear until 20-30 years after first becoming exposed.
The risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases increases with the number of fibres inhaled, the length of time exposed, and the frequency of exposure. Asbestos fibres are not visible to the naked eye, but because they are very light they remain airborne for a significant period of time, and can be carried great distances.
The type of asbestos most commonly found in building is bonded asbestos, occurring where asbestos is mixed into cement and other bonding materials. Examples include asbestos cement sheets and moulded products, bitumen waterproofing, and vinyl floor tiles. When they’re in good condition, they do not normally release any fibres : as long as they are well-maintained and appropriate safety precautions are used when they are disturbed, they do not normally present a risk to health.
When does exposure occur?
ACMs can be categorised into two categories: friable and non-friable.
As mentioned above, non-friable asbestos, usually in the form of bonded asbestos containing materials (ACM) , cannot be be crumbled or reduced to powder by hand pressure if it is in good condition, however, when non-friable ACMs are damaged or weathered, they may become friable.
Friable asbestos products (such as spray-on insulation, pipe lagging and fire-retardant material), are loose, dry, and capable of being crumbled into fine material or dust with very light pressure. If disturbed, friable ACMs become dangerous, as they are very likely to release asbestos fibres into the air during normal use or simply as a result of ageing. Once in the air, the fibres can be inhaled and pose serious health risks.
What are your obligations?
Public schools are directed to have asbestos registers and asbestos management plans by their governing Education Departments. The Departments also produce guidelines on how to manage asbestos, such as this guide from the Tasmanian Education Department.
In addition to their duty of care to students, non-government schools in all states and territories must comply with workplace health and safety legislation, regulations, and usually a Code of Practice, all specifically relating to the obligations of employers and owners of premises to manage the risk of exposure to asbestos to people likely to be affected by asbestos-related activities, such as employees, students, contractors, visitors, and neighbours.
What can be done?
In the first instance a school must identify the location and condition of all asbestos or suspected asbestos on the premises. This inspection must be conducted by a “competent person” (this definition varies between States and Territories), and the information must be entered in an asbestos register.
This provides the basis for planning the measures which need to be taken to prevent the risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibres. As a guide, the following steps should be considered as a minimum:
- clearly identify/label the presence and location of asbestos and make this known and available to all staff and contractors;
- ensure appropriate training and instruction to not only staff who may come into contact with asbestos on the premises (especially maintenance and cleaning staff, but also science teachers in relation to geological samples) but also contractors;
- prevent workers using certain equipment on ACM (such as powered drills, high pressure hoses);
- assume the presence of asbestos where there is uncertainty or organise for a sample to be taken;
- have regular inspections to ascertain the condition of asbestos on the premises and update the asbestos register accordingly;
- have clear and specific plans in place if any maintenance, refurbishment or demolition works in the school have the potential to affect asbestos containing materials (this may include notifying neighbours);
- separate any asbestos-related work from other work areas and have emergency evacuation plans in place should there be any uncontrolled asbestos fibres are released;
- monitor the health of any employees who may have been exposed to asbestos; and
- use registered asbestos removalists for removing asbestos; note that the minimum amount of asbestos which requires a registered removalist varies between States and Territories.
Schools should consider having a longer-term plan to remove and replace all asbestos containing materials in the school in line with their assessment of the condition of those materials.
Australia has the highest reported per capita incidence of asbestos-related disease globally, including the highest incidence of mesothelioma , an incurable cancer of the lung lining. Schools must take the risk seriously and take immediate and ongoing action to minimise the risk of exposure to students, staff, and others affected by their activities.
Want to learn more?
Schools seeking more information on the risks posed by asbestos in their state/territory should consult Asbestos Awareness.
For more guidance on asbestos management, please consult the following links:
How does your school manage the risks of exposure to asbestos?
About the author
Kieran Seed is a School Governance Reporter. He can be contacted here.