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Occupational hazards - March 2022

08 February 2022

Asbestos may be banned in dozens of countries, but it is still all around us and presents a significant hazard to anyone who may be exposed to it, says Ruth Wilkinson.

IT IS estimated that at least 5,000 people die every year in Britain alone from an asbestos-related cancer caused by exposure at work. The global toll is well into the hundreds of thousands. 

People who die this year from such a disease or are becoming ill will most likely have been exposed many years – or even decades – ago such is the long latency period between exposure and onset of symptoms. However, it is also estimated that 125 million people are exposed to asbestos at work every year, so any thoughts that it does not still present a problem are very wide of the mark.

It is with this threat in mind that in England, the Government’s Work and Pensions Committee has been holding an inquiry into the effectiveness of existing asbestos management regulations. And I was pleased to be able to represent the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) at an inquiry hearing late last year as a witness.

In addition to supplying evidence at this hearing, IOSH has also entered a written submission to the inquiry, in which we have called for stronger measures on asbestos management and awareness, including a collective effort by policy makers, government, regulators, employers and worker representatives.

Among the inquiry’s proposed measures we were in favour of is the introduction of a national digital register of asbestos in non-domestic buildings, though we were clear that should this be approved it would need clear processes in place for data gathering, use, dissemination, and so on. We highlighted the current lack of awareness with some workers and would therefore like to see improved training for employees in how to deal with asbestos, clearer guidance around working with asbestos and more awareness raising about the dangers it poses.

To take the last point, why do we want more awareness? It would be easy to presume that there is widespread knowledge about asbestos. After all, everyone knows about it, don’t they?

Our survey of tradespeople in 2018, conducted as we launched the asbestos phase of our No Time to Lose occupational cancer campaign, suggests otherwise.

Around a third of respondents (32 per cent) said they had never checked an asbestos register before starting work on a new site, with 15 per cent of these not knowing about the requirements for a register. Meanwhile, 18 per cent said that if they found asbestos, they would either be unsure or have no idea what to do.

So, we can see that there is a worrying lack of knowledge about asbestos among a group of workers most likely to come into contact with it. 

This, however, doesn’t just relate to England or the rest of the UK. Asbestos is a global problem, as shown by the estimates of the number of people being exposed to it. In many countries, its use remains legal. 

It is likely, therefore, that in 20 to 30 years from now many of the people who come into contact with asbestos this year will be suffering the terrible effects of related cancers like mesothelioma. That is why we continue to promote urgent action on tackling exposure to asbestos as more can be done now to prevent such suffering and at IOSH we have also been updating our guidance on managing asbestos exposure risks, which is part of our No Time to Lose materials.

One aspect of the inquiry in England has been the approach to ‘managing asbestos in situ’. It is widely regarded that if asbestos containing materials aren’t disturbed, damaged or broken up, and as such in good condition with no exposure to the fibre, they don’t pose a risk of harm. 

In our submission, we considered the risk-based approach associated with ‘in situ’ management, and we also considered the risks and impacts of removal through to disposal and said that if the asbestos containing materials are in good condition and not going to be disturbed or damaged, then it is best to leave it and monitor it. This last point is crucial. Duty holders must recognise the full extent of their responsibilities and particularly the duty to manage, as the management, regular reviews and monitoring of asbestos containing materials are essential. 

But there are some occasions when it is not best practice to leave the asbestos in situ, even if it’s in good condition. For example, if it is located along corridor walls or corners where there is the possibility of it being struck and damaged by trolleys and other items then consideration may be given as to whether leaving it in situ is the best move – though removal also brings about risk.

When dealing with asbestos and deciding on what the best thing to do with it is, we would always recommend consulting with specialists. 

It is a problem that isn’t going to go away so we must continue to manage it very carefully. Lives depend on it.

Ruth Wilkinson is head of health and safety at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. For more information, visit www.iosh.com