Union asbestos committee urges release of report

The Joint Union Asbestos Committee has written to the minister for schools, David Law, calling for a report from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into asbestos contamination at Cwncarn High School to be released.

The unions have also highlighted the guidance produced by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) on the dangers of asbestos exposure from warm heating systems.

UNISON played a leading role in the production of this advice, which is necessary because the Department of Education refuses to issue any guidance or warnings to school, despite the overwhelming evidence.

In April, Caerphilly Council took the decision to spend £1m on the removal of asbestos materials and contamination from Cwmcarn High School to make it safe for reoccupation.

The school was closed in October 2012 following a report that identified significant amounts of asbestos insulating board in places vulnerable to damage by the occupants, and brown asbestos fibres in classrooms and the stairwell.

Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) tests confirmed that brown asbestos fibres were being released from the warm air cabinet heaters. However the HSL report also gave the conflicting impression that there was minimal potential for the release of asbestos fibres, and the HSE has publicly declared that “the school is essentially uncontaminated”.

A senior HSE director later gave evidence to the education select committee that “it is perfectly safe to reopen that school”.

However, the evidence and opinion from two further asbestos consultancy firms and an independent assessor is that the school is unsafe to reopen until extensive asbestos remedial work has been completed.

In its letter, the JUAC says that “there has been a lack of transparency surrounding the HSE investigation which has been carried out. A number of public decisions and statements have been made by HSE, the Department for Education (DfE) and the Minister, Mr David Laws MP, based on the HSE report of that investigation, but the HSE has now advised that they do not intend to make the report public”.

And the letter continues: “Due to the serious and controversial nature of these decisions and statements and in the interests of transparency, we are writing to you to require the publication of the HSE report of its investigation.”

The committee says that “the way that HSE has treated this incident has sent completely the wrong message to other schools about the standards of asbestos management that they consider to be acceptable.

“The types of heaters at Cwmcarn were one of the most popular forms of school heaters and, if in a similar condition, they potentially present a risk to children and staff in other schools. This should be brought to the attention of the schools by issuing a proper warning about such issues.”