The family of a teacher who died of cancer due to asbestos exposure at her school has won a settlement, prompting warnings that staff and pupils remain at risk in older buildings.
Hazel Healey worked in St Gabriel’s school between 1971 and 1980, and died aged 73 in May 2022 after she was diagnosed with mesothelioma – which is nearly always caused by asbestos exposure – in October 2020.
Rochdale council failed to investigate whether St Gabriel’s school contained lethal asbestos during a government audit of the material because it determined no schools in the borough posed a risk.
The council initially denied liability, until lawyers instructed by Healey uncovered documents proving the school contained asbestos, forcing the council to settle in December.
Leigh Day partner Steven Dickens said: “The issue of asbestos in schools has repeatedly been ignored and kicked into the long grass by successive governments. Cases such as this highlight the human cost of the mistakes made decades ago.
“Until the government fully audits the stock of school buildings nationwide, and takes proactive steps to prevent exposure to asbestos still present in those buildings, cases like this cannot be prevented.”
In September 1974, St Gabriel’s Victorian school was replaced by a new building and Healey prepared her new classroom in the summer before. In her legal claim, Healey said she believed the tradesmen working above the suspended ceiling were disturbing asbestos, and she breathed in the dust.
Leigh Day sent freedom of information (FoI) requests to Rochdale borough council for information about St Gabriel’s and, although many records had been destroyed, the limited material left suggested significant amounts of asbestos had been removed since Healey left the school.
Healey’s son Michael wants to use his mother’s case to raise awareness of asbestos in schools. “My mother’s diagnosis came as a complete shock to her and to all her family. Her health deteriorated very quickly it was devastating for all of us,” he said.
Dickens said such cases are becoming more frequent, and his firm has successfully obtained settlements for other families who have died from cancer due to asbestos exposure, including recently from Surrey county council.
He added that councils such as Rochdale needed to improve their record-keeping to ensure there was no confusion over whether buildings contained asbestos, given there are about 2,500 mesothelioma deaths a year, nearly all of which are caused by asbestos exposure.
Hayley Dunn, business leadership specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said asbestos still posed a risk to teachers and pupils in 80% of UK schools, since many were built from the 1940s to the 1970s.
“The only long-term solution to eliminating the risk posed by asbestos is to remove it completely. ASCL, along with other education unions, has pressed the government repeatedly to fund and implement a programme of phased removal but the government’s policy is to manage rather than remove the risk. We believe this response is inadequate and that it must show a greater sense of urgency over this issue.”
Rochdale council said: “Although the use of asbestos was banned in 1999 it remains in thousands of buildings across the UK. We take health and safety very seriously and comply with all the relevant laws relating to asbestos.
“While we do not comment on individual cases, historic claims can be difficult to investigate and on occasion, where appropriate, steps are taken to limit disruption to claimants or their families. We recognise the impact this will have had on Hazel’s family and would like to extend our deepest sympathies to them.”
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