RAAC in schools and other public buildings: The immediate concerns and how the presence of asbestos could have long-term safety implications
Many will have seen the headlines in the last few days about the issues surrounding RAAC concrete that is forcing more than 100 schools and colleges to fully or partially shut buildings across the country.
Understandably, the news has created great concern among school leaders and parents, not to mention anxiety caused to pupils. However, there’s a wider concern that other public buildings such as hospitals, courts and universities could well be affected.
Here we set out what needs to be done to protect people and the other hidden dangers and considerations as a result of RAAC being disturbed.
What is RAAC?
RAAC – or reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete - is a lightweight material that was mostly used for flat roofing between the 1950s and 1990s. However, the material was also used for floors and walls. It was cheaper than concrete but the average lifespan was approximately 30 years.
When exposed to moisture, the structural behaviour can differ considerably from concrete. This creates a direct risk to young people, children, teachers, parents, and other users of our schools. RAAC can decay, rust, and weaken.
RAAC often has a “bubbly appearance”:
The Health and Safety Executive has reportedly stated that RAAC is now beyond its lifespan and may “collapse with little or no notice”.
The immediate impact on schools
Headteachers and local authorities have a lot to consider. There are legal duties to employees, visitors, and of course the young people and children in their care.
Schools and local authorities could find themselves liable for injury to pupils should parts of buildings containing RAAC concrete collapse. They must also ensure that safe working practices are put in place for any workers who are going to undertake the removal process. This means that closing schools at risk may well unfortunately be necessary.
However, all this comes at a time of many schools facing budget restrictions. Identifying and analysing are the easier parts of a risk management process. What’s required next is to control the risks. It’s this part that generally impacts the budgets.
The longer-term impact and why the removal of RAAC could mean a risk of asbestos exposure
A lot of buildings are going to need to be investigated and the government is facing pressure for these schools to remain open to prevent any further disruption to children’s education.
However, there’s another substance that will likely slow the process down; asbestos. Indeed, it's not just schools that are facing a potential issue with RAAC concrete, but other public buildings such as hospitals and courts.
Asbestos and public buildings special report
In April, Irwin Mitchell produced a special report on asbestos which calculated more than 87,000 public buildings contained asbestos with schools being the largest category affected and making up almost a quarter of the total number.
The charity Mesothelioma UK is calling time on asbestos and asking the government to create a central register and set a timeframe for the safe removal of asbestos with a priority being given to high-risk settings such as schools and hospitals. The charity is asking people to sign a parliamentary petition and need nearly 1,000 more signatures before the government will respond to its petition.
All public buildings are required to maintain asbestos registers but a report by the Health and Safety Executive in July revealed that a third of the schools it inspected in over a year had been warned of “non-compliance” in their legal duty to manage asbestos effectively and 7% had significant enough failings in their systems which meant enforcement action was required to address them.
The report also highlighted that inspectors had found that there were no up-to-date surveys showing the location of asbestos in the building and it’s condition was not being monitored properly. This requirement has become even more pressing given the potential extensive building work that may need to take place because of RAAC.
Risks to life
If workers removing RAAC are unaware of asbestos being present in the building for example, in a ceiling cavity, or a wall panel, they could be exposed to asbestos dust which in later years may can cause serious asbestos diseases such as mesothelioma, which is life-limiting.
RAAC highlights what we already knew, no amount of asbestos is risk free or safe.
What is clear is that the general public and anxious parents are arguably now more alert to the risks of RAAC than ever before.
While it’s helpful that action is now being taken, the government must ensure that the necessary funding is made available to mitigate any immediate risks connected to RAAC and thereafter invest in the school estate, including to manage the longer-term impact of asbestos in schools.
In the meantime, if there is any doubt at all, children must be prevented from entering or getting close to a building that either has or may have significant RAAC material present and which is vulnerable to collapse.
Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people following an accident in a public building or after exposure to asbestos at our dedicated personal injury section.