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John Simkin

Teaching and Mesothelioma

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Recent research by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows that more than a dozen teachers die each year from asbestos-related disease. According to HSE figures, more than 140 education professionals died of mesothelioma between 1991 and 2000.

The reason for this is that 13,000 out of the UK’s 24,000 schools were built between 1945 and 1975 when asbestos was a common material in construction. When I was NUT rep for my school in the early 1980s I discovered that two of our caretakers became very ill with mesothelioma. Their doctors were convinced they had developed this disease at work. I carried out a survey of the school and discovered that we had damaged asbestos insulation board all over the building. The main problem was in the boy’s toilets where the asbestos board had been badly damaged over many years. This board was also used by teachers to display children’s work. It has been estimated that removing a single pin from asbestos board can release around 6,000 fibres.

I called a meeting of the whole staff and explained what I had discovered. As a result of this meeting I contacted the NUT. We then had a meeting with a representative of the local authority, the head teacher and the head of the regional NUT. The local authority said that they would remove the offending asbestos during the summer holidays. As this meeting took place in October, I said this was not good enough. Much to my surprise, the union representative went along with this plan. I replied that my members would not be willing to accept this solution and that I suspected that one of my members would probably resort to leaking the information to the local press. He then replied that the newspaper would never print this information. He argued that the government had an agreement with the media not to publicize “asbestos” stories. As he pointed out, so many public buildings, including hospitals, had been built with asbestos that the country could not afford to remove it all.

Sure enough, members of staff did leak it to the local papers. None of them published the story. I then called a meeting and suggested that we should go on strike to draw attention to the problem. At first there was general agreement to this idea. However, the senior deputy head (in fact, he virtually run the school), who was at the meeting, made a very aggressive and threatening speech, condemning the proposed action. The mood of the meeting then completely changed. People began to argue that maybe I had exaggerated the danger they were in. By the time the vote was taken, the majority had come to the conclusion that we should wait until the summer holidays to get the problem sorted out.

I think there were two main reasons for this change of mood. Clearly, they felt intimidated by the deputy head’s outburst. He had resorted to this tactic several times at staff meetings when teachers began to question the decisions being made by senior staff. Only a couple of staff were able to stand up to this behaviour. In all cases, they were late entrants to the profession and had developed their characters outside an academic environment. But probably more importantly, the teachers could not handle the idea that they might be at risk of developing mesothelioma. Psychologically, they found it easier to believe that they were totally safe in their working environment.

I became totally disillusioned with the way that the staff backed-down over this issue and when a few weeks later the LEA offered me a year off on full-pay to do a MA at Sussex University, I took it. It was clearly a move to get me out of the school. I thought I might as well accept as I was not going to get the backing I needed from fellow members of staff.

I often wonder how many members of staff eventually succumbed to mesothelioma. Also, what about the children in that and other schools that had asbestos in the classrooms and toilets. How many of them are now dying of this preventable disease?

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Diappointing that no one has responded to this thread. Are you all agreed that this is not an issue?

Of course not. Unfortunately we have very few full time school teachers using this forum. In fact on a day to day basis I think I am virtually the only one.

Asbestos is certainly an issue in this school. The Sports Hall roof is made of asbestos and asbestos can be found in most of the walls in the main building.

We have had no cases to my knowledge of illness related this issue.

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Recent research by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows that more than a dozen teachers die each year from asbestos-related disease. According to HSE figures, more than 140 education professionals died of mesothelioma between 1991 and 2000.

The reason for this is that 13,000 out of the UK’s 24,000 schools were built between 1945 and 1975 when asbestos was a common material in construction. When I was NUT rep for my school in the early 1980s I discovered that two of our caretakers became very ill with mesothelioma. Their doctors were convinced they had developed this disease at work. I carried out a survey of the school and discovered that we had damaged asbestos insulation board all over the building. The main problem was in the boy’s toilets where the asbestos board had been badly damaged over many years. This board was also used by teachers to display children’s work. It has been estimated that removing a single pin from asbestos board can release around 6,000 fibres.

I called a meeting of the whole staff and explained what I had discovered. As a result of this meeting I contacted the NUT. We then had a meeting with a representative of the local authority, the head teacher and the head of the regional NUT. The local authority said that they would remove the offending asbestos during the summer holidays. As this meeting took place in October, I said this was not good enough. Much to my surprise, the union representative went along with this plan. I replied that my members would not be willing to accept this solution and that I suspected that one of my members would probably resort to leaking the information to the local press. He then replied that the newspaper would never print this information. He argued that the government had an agreement with the media not to publicize “asbestos” stories. As he pointed out, so many public buildings, including hospitals, had been built with asbestos that the country could not afford to remove it all.

Sure enough, members of staff did leak it to the local papers. None of them published the story. I then called a meeting and suggested that we should go on strike to draw attention to the problem. At first there was general agreement to this idea. However, the senior deputy head (in fact, he virtually run the school), who was at the meeting, made a very aggressive and threatening speech, condemning the proposed action. The mood of the meeting then completely changed. People began to argue that maybe I had exaggerated the danger they were in. By the time the vote was taken, the majority had come to the conclusion that we should wait until the summer holidays to get the problem sorted out.

I think there were two main reasons for this change of mood. Clearly, they felt intimidated by the deputy head’s outburst. He had resorted to this tactic several times at staff meetings when teachers began to question the decisions being made by senior staff. Only a couple of staff were able to stand up to this behaviour. In all cases, they were late entrants to the profession and had developed their characters outside an academic environment. But probably more importantly, the teachers could not handle the idea that they might be at risk of developing mesothelioma. Psychologically, they found it easier to believe that they were totally safe in their working environment.

I became totally disillusioned with the way that the staff backed-down over this issue and when a few weeks later the LEA offered me a year off on full-pay to do a MA at Sussex University, I took it. It was clearly a move to get me out of the school. I thought I might as well accept as I was not going to get the backing I needed from fellow members of staff.

I often wonder how many members of staff eventually succumbed to mesothelioma. Also, what about the children in that and other schools that had asbestos in the classrooms and toilets. How many of them are now dying of this preventable disease?

Hi, Guys

This was a huge problem and especially here in Southern California where we used asbestos

liberally in the building trades in the 1960s. Multi-millions have been set aside for victims/survivors who sue for relief, and it is working very well and unopposed.

Glad to know you are involved in warning people/victims.

Harry

suffer and sue for relief

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