Asbestos: Time to grasp the nettle
It is said that if you say something often enough and loud enough everyone believes it is true regardless of the facts. This is the case with asbestos. We have been told for decades that the safest way of managing asbestos in the workplace is to leave it where it is if it is undamaged. Yet is this true?
There are still millions of tonnes of this killer fibre in place and at least half a million workplaces contain some form of asbestos. In many cases it is not marked. This means that a huge number of workers are still being exposed inadvertently. A report from the HSE estimated that 1.3 million tradespeople are at risk of exposure and they could come into contact with asbestos, on average, more than 100 times a year. There have been a number of high profile prosecutions for exposure, but these are only the tip of the iceberg.
At the moment around 5,000 people die every year from past asbestos exposure. Over 2,500 of these are from mesothelioma, which can be caused by relatively low exposure. Most of the processes that led to heavy exposure had been banned by 1988 and the importation and use of asbestos was banned in 1999. This has led a lot of people to think the problem is over.
In fact for the past decade we have been told that the rate of mesothelioma is likely to peak shortly, but it keeps on rising. Hopefully it will peak soon, but the only way we can stop it killing workers 30 or 40 years from now, is to get rid of it once and for all.
This is a bold step. Asbestos must be removed safely and disposed of properly, otherwise you are creating an even bigger risk. There are a limited number of licensed contractors who can do the work. However, doing nothing is just irresponsible.
For this reason a new report from the all-party parliamentary group on safety and health is so important. They are calling for new legislation requiring all employers to address the issue by, first of all doing a full survey of asbestos no later than 2022, and then ensuring the removal of all asbestos by 2035. In the case of public buildings and educational establishments, this should be done by 2028.
This echoes a call from the TUC General Council earlier this year and we will be 100% behind the campaign. If we do nothing then it is future generations that will pay. We need to act now.