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An apprentice working at the school was not informed about asbestos

The Ministry of Education promises to do more to tackle asbestos problems in schools, with stricter controls on its detection and removal.

Builders and a director say the whole system could be better (and safer) for everyone.

A WorkSafe report on Maihiihi School’s asbestos contact in 2022 is one example.

“The apprentice demolished the wall behind the old sink, removed it and threw it in a container,” the notification obtained under the OIA said.

“Ministry of Education workers have arrived and found broken asbestos all over the place.

“The school closed on Monday after they found out and won’t reopen for at least a few weeks.”

Ōtorohanga builder Paul Rattray, now retired, recalled the unpleasant surprise at Maihiihi.

“Someone called me and said, ‘Hey, do you realize you have asbestos here? They have to close the school.’

“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He had no idea.”

Although the WorkSafe notice said the survey report had identified asbestos, Rattray said that did not cover the area where the apprentice was removing the wall – luckily he was wearing demolition PPE, including a mask.

“When he exposed the asbestos it was in a very bad state because it had been broken up and holes had been formed in it by previous tradesmen who had laid cables and pipes etc,” he said.

“If we had known there was asbestos in that wall, we would have taken the right precautions.

“Yes, they didn’t inform us. My apprentice didn’t know because he had never passed that way before.”

The school was closed and the asbestos removed.

Christchurch licensed builder John Mowat experiences similar situations many times on earthquake rescue work.

He said schools needed better pre-demolition asbestos surveys that went beyond the standard and to use surveyors who were better trained on where asbestos is hiding.

“Sometimes it’s just three tests – one on the wall, one on the ceiling, one on the floor – and you move on to the next room. They don’t do all the walls, just one. It’s not exhaustive,” Mowat said.

Taking a closer look and knowing where to look could help prevent big problems later, he said.

One disincentive, however, was that at $100 per hole drilled, it would all add up, he added.

On Thursday, the Ministry told RNZ it was now in the process of creating standardized reporting templates for asbestos surveys, “detailing how we wish to collect asbestos survey data and what information we need”.

It said it was not aware of any schools or their contractors breaching Worksafe’s statutory notification requirements.

Under the Schools of Tomorrow’s decentralized governance model, schools were not required to report asbestos findings or problems to the ministry.

Authorities acknowledge that asbestos was likely to be present in any school building built or renovated before the year 2000.

“Given the age of school buildings across the country, asbestos or asbestos-containing materials may be present in many schools,” the ministry’s head of property, Sam Fowler, said in a statement.

“We don’t have a national view on how many schools contain asbestos,” he added.

Poor moving jobs at some schools

Another surprise asbestos discovery came at Auckland’s Glenavon School, where it turned a simple renovation into a nightmare.

But at least Glenavon and Maihiihi, further south, got a good moving job in the end, while ministry documents show a “considerable” number of other schools got a bad moving job.

Glenavon headteacher John Hunte, exhausted by what he has faced, said the ministry needed to “swing into action”.

“It is not an ideal situation and when it comes to asbestos or other complex projects, the ministry should be involved from the beginning, knowing the history, the school, the risk and potential danger, and they should swoop in and take over.”

Building contractor Dedan Percy said he was burned on the Glenavon job by an inadequate system to ensure everyone knew what they were doing, and he hoped things would change.

“Things like asbestos need to be treated with a lot more respect in terms of how it’s handled, how it’s managed and the right people need to be appointed,” Percy said.

The ministry’s statements to RNZ make clear that the Schools of Tomorrow model still places much of the responsibility on schools, including having their own asbestos management plan and making the right decision from the beginning about what to do if found. .

The ministry offered a planning process, however, “taking steps to isolate any risk areas is a key part of the schools’ PCBU’s responsibilities,” Fowler said.

“School boards and principals should ensure that all asbestos in schools is identified and, if so, any risks arising from asbestos are managed to eliminate or minimize exposure.”

The ministry sometimes took the lead on asbestos or provided support and advice if necessary, he said.