Asbestos: Manage or remove?

Written by: HTU | Published:

Three-quarters of all schools are thought to contain asbestos but opinion is split on whether removal or management is the best policy. Specialist Ian Guest offers some advice

The recent All-Party Parliamentary Group report once again highlighted the fact that 75 per cent of state schools could be exposing children, teachers and other staff to asbestos (MPs brand asbestos in schools a scandal, SecEd 308, February 9, 2012).

While established guidelines urge safe “management” of the material in schools, the MPs who authored the report are calling for total “removal”.

Asbestos is not a simple matter. Like most problems, the proper solution is not black and white and a number of factors come into play when deciding the right path.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with 4,000 people dying every year after it was extensively used as a building material from the 1950s until the mid-1980s. Aside from mesothelioma, which is always fatal, the fibre causes diseases which range from potentially fatal and debilitating lung cancer and asbestosis as well as other health problems such as diffuse pleural thickening (which affects the lungs).

Researchers in the US found that for every death of a teacher from asbestos-related diseases, nine children will die. Children are more vulnerable because they have longer than adults to develop diseases related to the material.


Asbestos is found in a variety of places though the most common are pipe lagging, asbestos insulating board (AIB), perforated AIB ceiling tiles, doors with AIB panel, cement wall cladding, and asbestos-containing floor tiles.

To find out if you have asbestos present in your school, the first stage is an asbestos survey. You should ensure that the contractor conducting the survey has all the relevant accreditations. UKAS accreditation (ISO-17020) for instance, is recommended, while any further quality accreditations such as ISO-9001 or “CHAS” should provide further peace of mind that the survey is of the highest quality. You should also ask for details of the surveyor’s laboratory testing samples.

Assess the risk

If the survey finds asbestos, it moves to the risk assessment stage. This is where it starts to get a little more complicated. The first factor of risk is the condition of the asbestos and where it is located. There is obviously a much greater risk if the asbestos is found in the sports hall than in the basement. Both carry a risk of course, but in a sports hall there is a much greater chance of it being disturbed and a far greater number of people who need to be made aware of its presence and location to prevent potential disturbance.

Action plan

Once you have assessed the risk, the next step is to decide the plan of action – to remove or to manage. While the natural instinct might always be towards removal, it should be remembered that asbestos is dangerous only when it is inhaled. The removal of asbestos, by its very nature, can cause fibres that were previously in a “safe” state to be released to the atmosphere, where they are unsafe. Therefore, if the asbestos is in good condition and is not likely to be damaged, worked on or disturbed it is usually safer to manage it. But if the asbestos is in poor condition or is likely to be damaged or disturbed, the decision is whether to repair, seal, enclose or remove it.

Managing asbestos

If management is advised as the safer option, it is the building manager (usually the headteacher) who is responsible for ensuring everyone who needs to know about the asbestos is effectively informed of its presence.

For compliance with Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR2006), a method must be employed that will ensure anyone in-house or who comes to carry out work on the premises does not start before they are given the relevant information on any asbestos present.

Combined with a permit-to-work system, the most advisable method is to use a web portal to keep a record of where the asbestos is, and any further details needed. Keeping a record online means that all the details are fully accessible 24/7 and that all records can easily be kept up-to-date. The web portal details should be supplied well before work begins so that the correct precautions can be taken.

Some damaged asbestos can be made safe by repairing it and either sealing or enclosing it to prevent further damage. If this can be done safely, the area should be marked and its location recorded. Everybody carrying out work on site, whether it would appear to be in areas of asbestos or not, must be given the online records of the asbestos threat.

You can never be too careful with asbestos. You never know, especially with cabling work for example, what exact areas the work will affect, so the information must be provided whether it seems relevant or not.


If it is likely asbestos could be disturbed during routine maintenance or every day use of the building, it should be removed unless it can be totally sealed or protected. All work, whether removal or management, must be carried out by an accredited contractor.

When it comes to disposal, asbestos waste is subject to waste management controls set out in regulations including the Hazardous Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2005 and the Special Waste Amendment (Scotland) Regulations 2004. The waste, which should be double-bagged in heavy duty polythene bags and clearly labelled, can only be disposed of at a site licensed to receive it (your local authority has a list).

Asbestos, sadly, is a major challenge, to which there is no simple solution. Tragically for some, awareness has come too late. But while the solution is not simple, with the correct professional approach, the risks can be managed.

• Ian Guest is managing director of Assist Facilities Management, a UKAS-accredited asbestos management company.

• For more primary education advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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