Asbestos victim facing death: heed my warning

17th April 2009 at 01:00
She urges removal of material from schools and says heads lack training to evaluate risk

A former teacher who is dying of cancer triggered by exposure to asbestos has called for the urgent removal of the lethal substance from all schools in order to protect the health of staff and children.

Teachers and pupils are unaware of the dangers of contracting incurable diseases, such as mesothelioma, from even limited exposure to asbestos, Carole Hagedorn warned the annual conference of the NASUWT teachers' union.

Mrs Hagedorn taught foreign languages in secondary schools in London, Hampshire and Essex for more than 30 years before being forced to retire due to ill-health following her diagnosis last June.

"Being diagnosed came as a complete shock," she told The TES. "You do not imagine that you are going to go into a school to teach children and come out with an industrial disease.

"Teachers are not aware of the amount of asbestos in schools and how dangerous exposure can be. I want to see it all removed.

"Too much responsibility is being given to headteachers to manage asbestos, and they simply do not have the expertise."

Mrs Hagedorn's comments came as the conference in Bournemouth was due to debate a motion calling for all asbestos to be removed from schools by 2012.

Mrs Hagedorn warned that the long gestation period of mesothelioma, which can be decades, meant there were potentially high numbers of staff and children who had already unknowingly been exposed.

She said that programmes such as Building Schools for the Future, which were intended to refurbish all secondaries, provided an excellent opportunity for asbestos removal, but that there were currently no rules that asbestos must be removed.

"The usual life expectancy is between three and 18 months after diagnosis," said Mrs Hagedorn. "I can't do much to help myself at this stage, but I'm campaigning because I want other people to understand the dangers."

Meanwhile, a case against a village primary over asbestos regulation breaches has been dropped.

David Dibb, head of Westonzoyland Primary, near Bridgwater in Somerset, faced a crown court trial and a potential unlimited fine after his school was contaminated while being refurbished in 2007.

Mr Dibb, who has been on leave for the past 18 months, is believed to be only the second head to face asbestos charges. Phillip Robinson, former head of Silverhill Primary in Derby, was cleared in November 2006.

Mr Dibb's solicitor, Tony Miles, said his client was "delighted" that the case had been dropped.

"Mr Dibb has found the last 18 months very stressful indeed, but he was always confident that his name would be cleared and is very pleased at the prospect of resuming his career," said Mr Miles.

"He is a hard working, honourable and caring headteacher who has greatly valued the support of his friends, colleagues and parents from the school."

But despite the charges being dropped, Mr Dibb is still facing the possibility of disciplinary action from his local authority, which is carrying out its own investigation of the incident.

Mr Dibb, although never suspended from work, is not expected to return to school until at least June when Somerset County Council's investigation has been finished.

The Health and Safety Executive withdrew its charges at Taunton Crown Court following criticism of the case by the judge, but it did not rule out bringing future cases against heads.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has warned that the growth of health and safety legislation is making heads increasingly vulnerable.

HSE figures show that 182 people working in education in Britain died from mesothelioma between 1980 and 2000, although the actual figure is likely to be higher because work-related deaths are only recorded if the victim is below the age of 74.

Built-in duty

As the "owner, occupier or manager" of school premises, heads have a duty - along with local authorities and, potentially, governors - to find out if asbestos is present in their schools; to manage this risk; and, crucially, if refurbishment work is being carried out by builders, to inform them of the possible presence of asbestos.

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