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Occupational hazards April 19

19 March 2019

Twenty years on from asbestos being banned in Britain, Craig Foyle explores how big an issue it remains and what organisations can do to protect workers

Make no mistake about it, asbestos is a killer. That is why it is banned in well over 60 countries, including Britain, where its use in new buildings has been illegal since late 1999.

So why are people still being exposed to it in workplaces around the country and the rest of the world?

Every year, 5,000 people die in Britain from an asbestos-related cancer caused by exposure at work. That is 13 people every day. The figure is much higher in other countries.

Not only is it the individuals who are diagnosed suffering, it is their families and friends who have to watch them suffer the terrible effects of cancers like mesothelioma. 

To make matters worse, these deaths are avoidable because no one should be exposed to asbestos in workplaces. 

It is likely that people who are suffering from mesothelioma now were exposed to asbestos 20 or more years ago because of the long latency of the disease. So, the majority of people would have been exposed before the UK ban came into force.

Does that mean, then, that in the not-too-distant future we won’t be seeing people suffer the damaging effects of asbestos? 

That’s highly unlikely. Hundreds of thousands of buildings in Britain alone – those built before 2000 – may still contain asbestos. 

It is in products including roofing, spray coatings, lagging, insulating boards, ropes, yarns and cloths. But asbestos fibres are invisible to the naked eye. When breathed in, they can stick into the lining of the lungs, causing serious illnesses over time, including fatal cancers like mesothelioma.

So, the risk of exposure is still there. 

Couple that with a lack of awareness about how to prevent exposure and it is very likely that we’ll continue to see people being diagnosed with mesothelioma in another two decades from now.

This lack of awareness was highlighted in a survey which IOSH commissioned ahead of the launch of the asbestos phase of its No Time to Lose campaign.

Of 500 tradespeople surveyed, 23 per cent said they had been exposed to asbestos, with only 27 per cent saying they haven’t been exposed. 

There was also an alarming lack of workers saying they check the asbestos register before starting work on a new site – with 15 per cent of respondents not even knowing there is a register.

And 18 per cent said that if they found asbestos, they would either be unsure or have no idea what to do.

These results are cause for great concern. I think the public at large are aware that asbestos is dangerous, but clearly those who are in the most at-risk categories aren’t aware how they should protect themselves.

It is crucial then that businesses do all they can to ensure workers are not exposed to it, to prevent them from becoming ill and dying from mesothelioma and other cancers in years to come.

Have a plan

All businesses should be aware of whether there is any asbestos in their premises. If it was built before 2000 then there is a chance it will contain it. 

Those that do contain it should have an asbestos management plan, which includes details such as where it is, who is responsible for managing it, and a schedule for monitoring the condition of the asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). 

Employees must not be asked to do any work which could disturb asbestos and must know exactly where it is located. Training should also be provided on how to work safely around ACMs.

If anyone believes they may have disturbed, or may be about to disturb, ACMs, they should take the following steps:

  • Stop work immediately

  • Move everyone away and ensure no one enters the area

  • Do not remove equipment or materials

  • Close, seal or lock off the area

  • Put up warning signs

  • Report it to your employer

No one should have their life cut short by work activities. As with fatalities from workplace accidents, deaths from exposure to asbestos are avoidable. 

Organisations can all play their part in ensuring workers do not have a death sentence like mesothelioma hanging over them.

More details can be found at www.notimetolose.org.uk

Craig Foyle is immediate past president of IOSH. For more information, visit www.iosh.co.uk.