Over the past few months, the Government’s Work and Pensions Committee has been carrying out an inquiry into the approach of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to asbestos management in buildings.
There are six million tonnes of asbestos in the UK, most of which can be found in more than 1.5 million buildings across our public estate, including our hospitals and schools. This means many people are still exposed to the potential dangers of asbestos on a daily basis.
Consequently, despite a complete ban on the use of asbestos in 1999, the UK’s hidden legacy of asbestos means the dangerous substance remains the UK’s largest single cause of work-related deaths.
More than 5,000 people die every year from diseases linked to asbestos, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
The Committee first raised concerns about the UK’s policy on asbestos management with the Government in 2020 following a report by the independent think tank Respublica.
Why is the HSE’s approach to asbestos management being looked at now?
The report concluded that while attempts to manage asbestos’ potential harm have been made, there remained clear and present dangers to the population from asbestos in-situ.
It said due to the sheer volume of asbestos in our built environment the task of managing this material demands a strong response from government but it found this to be ‘absent in the current health and safety regime’.
Respublica said understanding the true scale of the problem is difficult because there is no central database that identifies which buildings contain which type of asbestos, where – within these structures – asbestos is present, and what condition it is in.
It highlighted the current health and safety regime is based on the assumption that asbestos is safe unless disturbed. Asbestos management in-situ, rather than systematic phased removal, is therefore the preferred policy position, with responsibility falling on individual ‘duty holders’ to ensure health and safety regulations are complied with.
It added where asbestos in-situ is disturbed, there is a requirement to monitor for asbestos fibres released into the air. However, it found the UK’s air monitoring standards fall below those of other European countries, whose testing methods are up to one hundred times more sensitive in detecting dangerous airborne particles.
After the Committee raised its concerns about the UK’s asbestos management policy, the Minister for Employment confirmed the HSE would be reviewing the effectiveness of the regulations for managing asbestos.
What is the Government hoping to learn about the HSE’s approach to asbestos management?
The Committee’s inquiry is examining the current risks posed by asbestos in the workplace, the actions taken by the HSE to mitigate them and how the UK’s approach compares to those taken in other countries.
So far, the Committee has held three sessions where it has invited leading experts to give evidence.
It began by interviewing safety campaigners, representatives from charities and support groups and French, German and Dutch experts in asbestos management.
It later interviewed epidemiologists, occupational hygiene experts and representatives from the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and from asbestos industry associations such as the UK Asbestos Training Association (UKATA).
In the past few days, it held its final session where it interviewed the Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health Chloe Smith MP as well as the HSE’s chief executive and chief scientific officer.
The results of the inquiry will feed into the executive’s review and have yet to be published.
At Acorn we’re delighted this inquiry is taking place because despite the introduction of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 very little has changed in people’s attitudes towards asbestos in the past two decades.
What can we do to improve asbestos management?
As a result, some companies do a good job of managing their asbestos but week in week out we see the same issues we were seeing in 2002.
We still go to premises that have never had an asbestos management survey and don’t have an asbestos register – it’s as if they’re unaware of the past 20 years.
Environmental health officers go to premises for things like cleanliness and give premises hygiene ratings and we believe the same thing should happen with asbestos. There should be health and safety ratings for asbestos for businesses.
We’ve seen the HSE can do it. During Covid-19 they did lots of unannounced visits to premises to make sure businesses were complying with the law so it can be done.
Those type of inspections – along with a centralised asbestos database – is what the industry is lacking.
Really we need to push towards more active removal because if we don’t remove it’s always going to be around and someone somewhere will always be ignorant of the rules, choose to ignore them or do something stupid and they will end up damaging asbestos.
The only way to remove the risk completely is to remove asbestos so it’s something we need to look at.
However, in the meantime it’s important that we all take asbestos management seriously in our workplaces, homes, schools and public buildings.
To protect yourselves and others make sure the buildings you are in have an asbestos survey so you can identify if there is asbestos, where it is, what type it is and what condition it is in.
This is the first step to making sure everyone is kept safe and no one is prosecuted for breaching the law.
If you’re reading this and you don’t know where to start then have a conversation with us. We would rather have 100 conversations and get no work from them but know that have people have gone away more educated and aren’t going to be at risk anymore.
Acorn is a professional asbestos consultancy helping organisations deal with asbestos compliance using asbestos surveys, asbestos air testing, and asbestos removal management. Please call one of the team, or use the online form to obtain your free quotation. If you would like further information or advice on asbestos and asbestos training, contact the team on 0844 818 0895 or Contact Us