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A SECONDARY headteacher is facing a Health and Safety Executive investigation after unwittingly exposing his pupils to asbestos.

The head ordered a group of pupils to throw old ceiling panels on to a skip after finding them in undergrowth at the back of the school. But unbeknown to him they were full of asbestos. It was only after the skip had been loaded that a member of staff revealed how dangerous the panels were.

The incident is yet another reminder that schools must not be complacent about asbestos. Vast quantities have been removed in the past 10 years, but much remains, mainly in small pockets. Under new regulations, introduced by the HSE at the end of 2002, many governing bodies and heads will be required to take steps to trace and deal with any residual asbestos. They will only be relieved of this obligation if the local education authority retained responsibility for repairs and maintenance.

Whoever has the duty must:

* Take reasonable steps to find asbestos and assess its condition;

* Presume that materials do contain asbestos unless there is strong evidence that they do not;

* Record the place and condition of the material and assess the risk;

* Prepare and implement a plan to manage the risk;

* Provide information about the asbestos to anyone who is liable to disturb it.

Heads, in consultation with their advisers, should instigate periodic surveys. They should, for example, ask heads of department to look around their areas and report any concerns. All staff will probably need some training in detecting potential problems.

The sort of hazards to look out for are:

* Poor pipe-lagging;

* Old insulating board or materials;

* Damaged ceiling tiles;

* Tiles and panels in rarely-opened cupboards.

Schools should also be aware that some concrete contains asbestos, and damaged concrete can be lethal. It is better if all potential problems are reported and dealt with, even if this leads to "false alarms". Where schools have been negligent or reckless, prosecutions could follow. But this is not a threat if schools take the issue seriously and use the 18-month lead-in period to develop and implement suitable management strategies by May 2004.

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