Have Your Say - Top Risks for Schools in 2024

Managing the Risks of Asbestos in Your School


Although all Australian states and territories have made substantial investments in removing asbestos from public buildings, including a direct focus on schools, many still contain asbestos or asbestos-containing materials (ACM). Ahead of this year’s National Asbestos Awareness Week (20-26 November 2023), we are exploring this often-hidden hazard to help schools understand what it is, what the risks are, and what can be done to prevent it from harming your staff and students.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a term for six types of natural fibrous minerals. It is known for its excellent thermal and electrical insulation properties, strong fire resistance, and, in modern times, as an affordable construction material. While asbestos was used heavily in construction across the globe in the twentieth century, there is evidence that it has been used since the Stone Age to strengthen ceramic pots.

Asbestos is found in two forms, friable and non-friable (bonded asbestos). The fibres in friable asbestos are generally quite loose and can be crumbled into a fine dust or powder with light pressure. Conversely, non-friable asbestos products usually contain a bonding compound (such as cement) mixed with asbestos. The fibres of bonded asbestos are held in place and are unlikely to be released into the air unless disturbed (for example, through weathering, impacts or cutting).

Our use of asbestos in Australia peaked in the 1970s before its manufacture, importation and installation was gradually phased out from the 1980s. On 31 December 2003 a comprehensive ban on asbestos came into effect nationwide. Until that point, Australia had maintained one of the highest rates of asbestos use per-capita in the world for almost five decades. Despite extensive efforts to remove asbestos across Australia, an estimated 6.2 million tonnes of legacy asbestos remains in Australian schools, aged care facilities, homes and other built environments.


Why Is Asbestos an Issue?

Asbestos does not pose a significant health risk when left undisturbed, however, breathing asbestos fibres that have become airborne can cause a range of diseases (most commonly asbestosis and mesothelioma). These diseases can take decades to develop after exposure. Individuals that have been heavily exposed to asbestos fibres are at the greatest risk of developing these diseases, though individuals that were only briefly exposed are also susceptible. Unfortunately, Australia has one of the highest rates of asbestos-related diseases in the world, due to our high per-capita exposure rates in the past.


When Are Schools at Risk?

Buildings constructed after the 2003 ban should not contain any asbestos. For buildings constructed before the ban, asbestos can be found in a number of locations, most commonly:

  • walls and ceilings
  • cement sheets (or “fibro”)
  • roofing and gutters
  • downpipes
  • vinyl floor tiles
  • fire-retardant and insulation materials.

As mentioned, asbestos is at its most dangerous when damaged or disturbed. Without a record of what asbestos is present on school premises or having proper procedures in place to detect asbestos, staff and students can inadvertently disturb or cause damage to ACM, risking exposure. Common situations where students and staff are more likely to be exposed to asbestos fibres include:

  • during any renovations or maintenance work (even where minor)
  • during and after natural disasters such as fire, floods or severe storms
  • accidental incidents (such as a heavy object dislodging an ACM rooftile, breaking it)
  • vandalism (such as carving initials into a wall)
  • where bonded ACM has not been maintained and is now releasing fibres due to weathering.


What Are Your Obligations?

Asbestos is regulated in each state and territory by their respective workplace health and safety legislation. While there are some differences between jurisdictions, all schools must eliminate or reduce the risk of exposure to asbestos or ACM as far as reasonably practicable. To do this, all schools that have (or may have) asbestos or ACM on their premises must:

  • identify any asbestos or ACM located on their premises
  • develop and maintain an Asbestos Register to record information on identified or suspected asbestos (including the location, type, condition and risk of exposure)
  • take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent exposure to staff and students once asbestos or ACM has been identified or is suspected
  • ensure that any work involving asbestos or ACM (including minor renovations or maintenance work) is completed by a person with the necessary experience, qualifications or licence
  • provide relevant training to any staff that may conduct work that could impact asbestos or ACM
  • notify the relevant authority (e.g. SafeWork) if an exposure incident occurs or where demolition work is planned.

Most jurisdictions also require (or otherwise suggest) that schools develop and maintain an Asbestos Management Plan to document the steps taken to manage identified asbestos and ACM (including control measures and procedures for the safe management of refurbishments and demolition).


What Steps Can Your School Take?

Schools can take the following steps to prepare for and reduce the risk of asbestos exposure to staff and students:

  • conduct regular audits of school buildings and equipment to determine the current condition of any known asbestos, as well as identify any potential asbestos that may have been previously undiscovered
  • regularly update their asbestos register and asbestos management plan and make them available to all staff and contractors working in areas containing asbestos
  • implement appropriate control measures to prevent or minimise the risk of known asbestos from being disturbed (this may include sealing, enclosing or isolating the asbestos). These control measures should be developed following consultation with staff.
  • clearly label or signpost known asbestos in the school, particularly in high traffic areas
  • ensure that students and staff are aware of the risks of asbestos
  • plan and prepare appropriately for any repair, maintenance, or removal work that may involve asbestos (including undertaking any work outside of staffed hours)
  • ensure that any person required to work on asbestos is appropriately qualified or licensed
  • respond promptly to any incidents or emergencies that may involve asbestos
  • monitor the health of any staff that have, or may have, been exposed to asbestos.

Despite a nationwide ban in 2003, Australians are still at risk of significant health impacts from inhaling asbestos fibres from buildings and equipment constructed before then. Schools should consider a long-term plan to safely remove and replace all ACM on their premises with safer alternatives; until then, schools should ensure that appropriate measures are taken, and procedures are in place, to reduce the risk of asbestos to all staff and students.

More information on asbestos safety and National Asbestos Awareness Week can be found on the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency website.

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About the Author

Sean Higgins

Sean is a Legal Content Consultant at Ideagen CompliSpace. Sean was involved in private practice as a Solicitor in both Queensland and New South Wales before joining Ideagen CompliSpace in 2023. He holds a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) from Queensland University of Technology.

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