Up until the late 1970s and the early 1980s, one of the most popular building materials in Australia was “fibro”. Fibro houses and buildings can be seen throughout Australia, particularly in areas where there was a large amount of construction in the years following the Second World War.
“Fibro” is actually a short-hand name for asbestos cement. The full name is”fibrolite” but when most people speak of”fibro”, they are not speaking of”fibrolite”, they are speaking of asbestos building materials generally.
In addition to its use as an ingredient in building materials, asbestos was also an ingredient in insulation. Asbestos is well known for its fire retardant properties and its resultant ability to insulate against heat.
Asbestos building materials might have been used in the construction of many schools prior to the late 1970s or early 1980s. Because very small amounts of asbestos have been known to cause the life threatening cancer, mesothelioma, schools need to be aware of the presence of asbestos and the dangers that might arise.
One obvious source of asbestos is in the building materials and insulation used in the buildings themselves as well as air conditioning ducts. Another less well-known source of asbestos is land fill. If the school used land fill to build up ovals or other facilities in the past, that landfill might have contained asbestos. Both can be sources of exposure for staff, students or any other person visiting the school site.
As employers, schools will obviously maintain workers’ compensation policies. These policies should be kept up to date and be checked to ensure they cover liabilities for asbestos risks. Further, schools should check their public liability policies to ensure that they have coverage for persons other than staff (e.g. students and visitors) who might develop an asbestos-related disease as a result of exposure at the school.
Lastly, schools should maintain a register of any known asbestos materials on site. The school might already hold a register of asbestos for OHS purposes but it would be wise to check the register and ensure that it is current.
Asbestos regulation should form part of the risk management strategies from all schools.