The hidden killer
11 May 2020
As the death rate from asbestos-related diseases continues to rise, Craig Evans looks at the part training can take in mitigating the risk.
IT IS estimated that there are 18,000 new cases of self-reported breathing or lung problems caused or made worse by work related activities annually1.
Diseases (including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis) caused by the airborne fibre asbestos are responsible for killing more than 5,000 people per year2 - more than the number of people killed in road traffic accidents.
Asbestos is a highly toxic mineral that was used extensively in construction for over a hundred years prior to its ban in 1999. Ithas the ability to break down into microscopically thin fibres. These fibres are so small they can remain airborne for days after they were initially disturbed.
Despite its ban, it is estimated that even now there are six million tonnes of asbestos in the UK, in as many as 1.5 million UK buildings and the death rate from asbestos-related diseases continues to rise.
It is this that led to the establishment of the UK Asbestos Training Association (UKATA) in 2008. A leading authority on asbestos training and not for profit association, UKATA has campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of the necessity of asbestos training.
The illnesses associated with asbestos typically have a long latency period (15 - 60 years), meaning that the effects of exposure are often not known for years until the victim develops health problems.
Asbestos that is well maintained and undisturbed presents no immediate risk to health – it is when the fibres are disturbed and become airborne that they can have fatal implications.
Risk and responsibility
Correct training on how to identify potential asbestos hazards in buildings can mitigate the risk of asbestos. Legislation is in place to ensure employers of people who are liable to disturb asbestos during their normal work – electricians, builders, heating and ventilation engineers, etc, receive the correct level of information, instruction and training so that they can work safely and competently without risk to themselves or others.
However, within the construction industry self-employed tradespeople in particular can be overlooked, with many viewing the asbestos health risk as negligible or as something that will never happen to them. The harsh reality is that asbestos kills 20 tradespeople in the UK every week – a fifth of all asbestos deaths.
Craig Evans, UKATA chief operating officer explained: “The harsh reality is that anybody working in the 1.5 million UK buildings that contain the invisible killer may be at risk of coming into contact with disturbed airborne fibres.”
Since 2001 more than 200 teachers have died from asbestos-related cancer3 and 90% of NHS Trusts say that asbestos is present in their buildings4.
In 2017 a 44-year-old doctor, Dr Mags Portman was diagnosed with mesothelioma. She tragically died in 2019 from the disease which she believed she contracted whilst working as a junior doctor at a hospital in Lanarkshire 20 years ago. When it was demolished in 2009, hundreds of tonnes of asbestos were discovered in buildings at the site.
Craig explained, “When we use or work in public sector buildings such as schools, hospitals and government buildings, we assume a level of safety. However, seven million tonnes of asbestos were imported to the UK during the 20th century and used widely across both residential and commercial properties. Realistically, we have no idea how much of that remains in place today, which is why asbestos training is critical.”
Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR) 2012 specifically requires the duty holder of non-domestic premises to be aware of any asbestos containing materials (ACMs) on the premises. They are required, by the regulations, to review and keep up-to-date records of said materials, assess and manage the risks of the materials and provide the necessary information regarding the materials to those liable to work on or disturb them.
Craig added: “It’s important that all people using and working in buildings constructed before 1999 are aware of the potential asbestos risks.”
While the majority of people coming into contact with asbestos do so during their profession, it can actually be the lives of their family and friends they put at risk, like mesothelioma sufferer and prominent Mesothelioma UK campaigner Mavis Nye. Mavis was unwittingly served a death sentence through her husband’s work.
Prevention and control measures
“Undertaking officially recognised asbestos training should be the first step in ensuring the safety of yourself and others where asbestos is concerned. Once you’ve done this training you will view asbestos in a very different light,” explained Craig.
He added: “It horrifies me that there are videos on YouTube instructing people how to remove asbestos ‘safely’ from a property. Anyone who uses these as instructional videos should be made aware that they are most definitely not an adequate alternative to recognised training courses”
According to the HSE, above the neck protection, including Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE), should be used when other controls are impractical, when other controls are being put in place or when there is short term or infrequent exposure. The concentration of asbestos fibres in the air should always have been reduced to a minimum before using RPE. It is a last line of defence. As such, it must be used correctly.
However, nearly half of all RPE used does not offer the wearer adequate protection, largely due to it not fitting correctly. In addition to facial hair and lack of testing, incorrect storage/maintenance, and improper use are all reasons for ill-fitting RPE.
It is an employer’s responsibility to provide suitable RPE for employees that will be intentionally disturbing the fibres of asbestos containing materials during work activity. The RPE provided must be marked with a ‘CE’ symbol, signifying its compliance with the required standards in law. HSE-approved equipment that was made before 1 July 1995 may be used provided that it is suitable, properly maintained and performing correctly.
Craig explained, “If you work with asbestos then RPE face fit testing is crucial and why you should not be sharing equipment. Invest in your own correctly fitted RPE equipment - your life depends on it. Without a face fit test conducted by a competent person who is appropriately trained, qualified and experienced, it cannot be established whether or not RPE is suitable for the wearer. It’s important that an expert determines the fit rather than your own guess work.”
Mavis and Ray Nye
While Mavis didn’t work directly with asbestos, her husband did and unwittingly served her a death sentence.
She explained, “I’m just an ordinary woman who married at 18 and washed my husband’s clothes as he came home from work at the Chatham Dockyard as a Shipwright. I didn’t know the powder on Ray’s clothes was anything other than dust brought home from work. I shook his clothes and then put them in the washing machine. Forty-eight years later I find I have mesothelioma and a death sentence of three months.
“Suffering from mesothelioma, I wish we could take asbestos out of our lives or the closest to zero that could be humanly achieved… I had my exposure from washing my husband’s work clothing, and many people have suffered and are going to suffer from asbestos as a result of unintended exposure.”
Mavis’ husband Ray explains: “I am often asked the question how I feel knowing that I have given my wife a death sentence. That question sounds ominous but refers to the fact that I probably have. I am guilty of giving Mavis mesothelioma. It is a terminal cancer, caused only by contact with asbestos.
“In the dockyard asbestos was used on the ships. It was required for safety reasons and naval ships were built around asbestos.
“It was almost everywhere onboard ships. Almost all the inboard pipes were lagged with it. The boiler rooms could not function without it. It was everywhere. During refits and repair work, it was removed, then replaced. The waste asbestos was allowed to settle where it fell to be removed later by gangs of labourers. During its removal it created an inevitable dust cloud which one walked through constantly or simply worked amongst it.
“Those poor labourers removing it would descend on board with their brooms and shovels and begin sweeping it into piles and shoveling it into buckets ready to be dumped ashore, usually beside the gangplanks or on the dockside.
“It was piled up in heaps, left on barrows, dumped outside of workshops… No-one took any notice – it was part of everyday life working in the yard. No one told us to be careful or that it was dangerous.
“When it came to break time and lunchtime this was almost exclusively spent on board ship where the air was permanently blown around creating a cloud of dust. The dust would settle on out outer clothes, on our overalls, in our hair and on our skin. There was no escaping it. When a sandwich or lunch box was opened it would settle on its contents, which we consumed, unaware because it was so fine it was barely visible.
“At lunchtimes some of us who had transport would leave the dockyard. I at that time had a motorcycle and I often used it to visit Mavis for a few minutes before dashing back to work again. I would remove my overalls and dash out. This killer asbestos dust would be in our hair on our skin and inevitably on our clothes and was unwittingly, easily transferred from me to Mavis.
“Once we were married, Mavis washed my clothes, increasing her exposure to the asbestos dust. This exposure continued for a further couple of years until I left the dockyard. But by that time, she had already breathed in this deadly dust.
“I had contaminated Mavis. I had laid the seeds of her later demise. This is where my guilt began. This is where the, ‘if only’ and ‘what if’ questions started. If I had never worked in the dockyard would she be free of it now? If we had been told of its dangers would I have chosen to leave the yard? If Mavis had never met me would she be ok today?
“So, to answer the initial question, how do I feel about the fact that it was me who has given her this sentence? Gutted, destroyed, sick and, yes, guilty.”
1 Labour Force Survey - https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/respiratory-diseases.pdf
2 HSE Statistics - https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/respiratory-diseases.pdf
3 FOI - Freedom of Information Request Reference No: 201607236 August 2016
Craig Evans is chief operating officer at UKATA. For more information, visit www.ukata.org.uk