‘The tragic cost of under-investment’: asbestos blamed for 150 deaths of school and hospital workers in England | Schools
Fresh concerns have been raised about the amount of asbestos remaining in dilapidated schools and hospitals, after new analysis found that almost 150 health and education workers were recorded as dying from cancer related to the material in recent years.
According to official data, there have been 147 deaths among health and education workers since 2017. Experts believe the figure is likely to be a significant underestimate because of the way someone’s profession is recorded on death certificates.
Some 94 education professionals and 53 healthcare professionals in England died of mesothelioma, according to an analysis of death certificate data recorded by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Mesothelioma is a form of cancer usually linked to prolonged exposure to asbestos.
It comes amid growing complaints from within the NHS and among headteachers over the state of hospital and school buildings, with concerns that the budgets for both have been relentlessly squeezed since the austerity drive beginning in 2010.
The figures were supplied by the ONS after a request by the Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson, who has been examining the state of school buildings. Of the 94 education professionals, 39 worked in primary and nursery schools, 21 in secondary schools and 21 in further and higher education institutions. The remaining 13 include special educational needs staff, senior education professionals and Ofsted inspectors.
Among the 53 healthcare professionals to have died, 36 were nurses or midwives, two were therapists and 15 were classed as “medical professionals” which includes a range of professions, such as doctors, psychologists and radiographers.
The government is already under pressure from Labour and other parties to release secret data relating to the state of school buildings. The Observer revealed last year that internal government documents suggested some school buildings were a “risk to life” due to their disrepair.
It follows a decision by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) last year to launch a programme of inspections across Great Britain into how schools are managing the risks from asbestos. Attempts are being made by scientists to launch studies into the ongoing effects of asbestos on teachers and students. Statisticians have detected a rate of mesothelioma deaths that “borders on statistical significance” among teachers born between 1955 and 1974. Unions are planning to work with Professor Julian Peto, who has studied the issue for many years.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, called for a major programme of investment in school buildings. “Capital spending on school buildings has collapsed since 2010, with a decline by 50% in real terms,” he said.
“This simply stokes up problems for the future and fails to address the widespread asbestos in schools, which should have been dealt with years ago. It is a catalogue of neglect which must be addressed urgently with a new focus on retrofitting education buildings to make them safe and sustainable.”
Wilson said the continuing issue with asbestos could still be leading to unnecessary deaths. “These devastating figures show the tragic human cost of years of under-investment in our school and hospital buildings,” she said. “No teacher or nurse should have to put their health at risk when they turn up to work each day.
“The government should be acting urgently to identify and remove asbestos from high-risk areas such as corridors and stairwells. Instead, schools are having to skip routine maintenance to balance the books. Each crumbling school and hospital stands as a concrete sign of years of Conservative neglect of our public services.”
Jon Richards, Unison’s assistant general secretary, said: “Too many school and hospital buildings are riddled with asbestos. But the absence of a national register means the true picture is obscured. Extra government funding for more safety inspections is a must, as is speeding up the removal programme. Public buildings need to be free of the fatal fibres.
“The solution is a properly funded building programme. Pupils, patients and staff should no longer have to put up with unsafe, unpleasant surroundings. This would help kickstart the much-needed economic recovery too.”
Ministers, the HSE and experts have said that simply removing all asbestos may not be the safest solution to the issue, as disturbing the material can lead to the greatest exposure.
A government spokesperson said: “We take the health and safety of those who work in the public sector incredibly seriously. All local authorities, governing bodies and academy trusts should have robust plans in place to manage asbestos in school buildings effectively. To support schools, we have allocated over £15bn for essential maintenance and improvements, including the removal of asbestos, and are also rebuilding or significantly refurbishing 500 buildings over the next decade.
“On top of this, we provided £4.2bn capital last financial year for the NHS to support local priorities, including to maintain and refurbish their premises – plus a further £8.4bn will be available over this and the next financial year.”