Hidden Risks of Asbestos in Schools

20 September 2018

For many schools, asbestos is a hidden hazard, subsumed by other more important issues critical to the day-to-day functioning of a school. But the recent discovery of non-friable asbestos in garden beds at two schools in the Australian Capital Territory has brought the hidden risk of asbestos front of mind for many schools, especially older schools where the building material may be common.

What is Asbestos?

As we stated in our previous School Governance article, asbestos is a term for a group of six naturally occurring mineral fibres which was first used for fireproofing, soundproofing and insulation however came to be used in manufacturing for various building products due to its strength, flexibility and affordability.

Asbestos can be found in either friable or non-friable form. Friable asbestos products are generally quite soft and loose and can be crumbled into fine material or dust with very light pressure. These products usually contain high levels of asbestos, which is loosely held in the product so that the asbestos fibres are easily released into the air. Non-friable asbestos (or bonded asbestos) products are usually made from a bonding compound (such as cement) mixed with a small proportion of asbestos. Bonded asbestos products are solid and rigid - asbestos fibres are tightly bound and are not normally released into the air.

Asbestos only becomes a potential health risk when fibres are suspended in the air and breathed into the lungs. Once fibres are lodged deep in the lungs, the fibres can lodge in lung tissue and cause inflammation, scarring and some more serious asbestos-related diseases (such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma), which usually take many years, if not decades, to develop. There is no known safe exposure level to asbestos fibres.

Work Health and Safety for Asbestos

Health and safety issues associated with the use and handling of asbestos is regulated in the ACT primarily through the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (ACT) and associated regulations. The Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 (ACT) sets out a framework for the management of asbestos materials in workplaces such as schools, including:

  • training of staff at risk of encountering asbestos
  • notifications to WorkSafe ACT of asbestos removal
  • health monitoring for staff
  • naturally occurring asbestos
  • stricter requirements for the removal of asbestos
  • national licensing and competency standards for licensed asbestos removalists and assessors.

The ACT also has some specific requirements in relation to the management of asbestos in addition to those in other states or territories including:

  • requiring all asbestos removal work to be carried out by a licensed asbestos removalist (removing the exception in the national model regulations for non-friable asbestos removal not exceeding 10 square metres)
  • creating an exception to the prohibition on work involving asbestos when the work is only "minor or routine maintenance work, or other minor work"
  • replacing references to "competent person" with "licensed asbestos assessor" to clarify that all asbestos assessment, clearance inspections and air monitoring must be provided by a licensed asbestos assessor
  • requiring that a person with management or control of a workplace must assume asbestos is present if an approved warning sign is present (this will be the case if the premises is known to have contained loose fill asbestos).

Asbestos is quite common in the ACT after what is known as 'Mr Fluffy'. This refers to the commonly used name for the loose fill asbestos insulation installed by D. Jansen & Co. Pty Ltd and its successor firms between 1968 and 1978-79 in Canberra and, it is believed, the surrounding region. After Mr Fluffy, it was essential for the ACT to put in place stricter requirements for removal of asbestos due to its prevalence.

Obligations for Schools in Managing Asbestos

All 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 for people likely to be affected by asbestos-related activities, such as employees, students, contractors, visitors, and neighbours.

Handling Asbestos in Schools

Asbestos is still present in many schools, particularly if the buildings were built, or renovated, in the period before the 1990s. For any school buildings that were built before the 1980s it is even more likely that products containing asbestos have been used in the buildings, so, if any renovations or refurbishments to the buildings are to now occur, schools need to be aware of obligations regarding asbestos for any building work to continue.

The most probable location of asbestos in school buildings could include:

  • thermal insulation
  • fibro cement sheeting
  • vinyl floor coverings and adhesives
  • electrical switchboards
  • insulators and fittings
  • many types of textiles.

"There is an ongoing obligation on a school to identify the location and condition of all asbestos or suspected asbestos on the premises. This inspection must be done by a "licensed asbestos assessor" in the ACT. In the case of the two schools mentioned earlier, a final report was handed down by the assessor which tested 55 samples in one of the school's garden beds. The source of the asbestos was confirmed as having come from a recycling plant with the majority of the non-friable asbestos having been discovered during landscaping at the schools."

The assessor's report provides schools with the basis for planning the measures which need to be taken to prevent the risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibres. At a minimum, schools should consider:

  • clearly identifying and labelling the presence and location of asbestos and making this known and available to all staff and contractors through an asbestos register
  • ensuring appropriate training and instruction of staff who may come into contact with asbestos on the premises, including maintenance and cleaning staff
  • having clear and specific asbestos management plans in place where any building works have the potential to disturb asbestos-containing materials (schools should assume the presence of asbestos if unsure)
  • regularly monitoring the health of staff potentially exposed to asbestos and regularly inspecting asbestos locations, and updating the asbestos register accordingly.

Schools should consider having a longer-term plan to safely remove and replace all asbestos containing materials in the school outside of school hours or in school holidays, in line with their assessment of the condition of those materials.

Lauren Osbich

Lauren is a Content Development and Legal Research Consultant at CompliSpace. She has over ten years of experience in legal research and legal publishing, working nationally across Australia. She studied at Macquarie University completing a Bachelor of Laws with an Honours in English, followed by being admitted as a solicitor of the NSW Supreme Court. Lauren is also passionate about giving back to the community through the not for profit sector as well as donating time to mentor and coach young lawyers in their professional development and finding time to also be a member of a not for profit Board.