Asbestos: Time to get rid of it
Asbestos is the biggest cause of workplace deaths. This year 5,000 people are likely to die prematurely as a result of asbestos exposure. This is around three times the number of road accident deaths. Most of those who die do so as a result of mesothelioma, a kind of cancer that can be caused by very low levels of exposure. Tragically it is always fatal.
Almost all of the people who are dying today were exposed to asbestos decades ago, so asbestos is now often seen as being a problem of the past as its importation and use have been banned since 1999.That is not the case. The dangers of asbestos are still with us. Asbestos-containing materials can be found in around half a million non-domestic premises (and probably around a million domestic ones).
This means that people are still being exposed to asbestos. It is often people who are working in maintenance, refurbishment or demolition, but people can, and do, become exposed simply by working in a building with asbestos, as fibres can become dislodged and breathed in.
Asbestos is present in a range of different forms including lagging on pipes and boilers; sprayed asbestos on pipes and in voids; asbestos cement in the form of roofing, wall cladding, guttering, pipes, water tanks and corrugated sheets, insulating boards, tiling, textured wall coatings, toilet cisterns and asbestos ropes and cloth. Often it is either hidden or has not been identified as asbestos. As a result it can be found in factories, homes, schools, shops, hospitals, offices, restaurants etc.
The official advice from the HSE is that asbestos-containing products can be left in place and just managed, provided they are in good condition and not likely to be disturbed during the normal use of the building, has been the generally accepted practice in the past, but was always seen as a temporary measure. Yet over 15 years after the introduction of a ban on its use, the vast majority of asbestos is still in place and poses a major hazard to both workers and the wider public.
It is extremely unlikely that asbestos is never going to be disturbed if it is left in place for decades. There can be few cupboards, boilers, wall panels and pipes that have had no work done on them since the 1970s, when asbestos use was at its peak. There is therefore considerable doubt that most of the asbestos that is to be found in buildings is going to lie undisturbed for the next twenty years, let alone the next hundred.
That is why the TUC thinks that the Government should pass legislation requiring all employers to safely remove all asbestos in their workplace, a view shared by the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health. But while we lobby for this, union health and safety representatives can press their employer to remove existing asbestos rather than just “managing” it.
So long as asbestos is present there is a risk. Although the law only requires that asbestos is “managed”, for unions that is not enough. We know from the huge number of people still being exposed that asbestos is not properly managed. It is not just a problem in factories or construction: hospitals, schools, shops and offices are among those where workers have died from this killer dust and almost any type of workplace could pose a risk if asbestos is there. That is why union health and safety representatives should call for an agreed plan to safely remove and dispose of all asbestos within the workplace.
The TUC has published a guide to workplace representatives on how to negotiate to get rid of this killer dust once and for all.
There is no place for complacency. It is not only your members that are risk, it is anyone who enters the premises, or who in years to come has to work on refurbishing or demolishing the building. Remember that your workplace could be one of those that the HSE estimates puts 1.3 million tradespeople at risk from asbestos. By ensuring that it is safely removed and disposed of, we can protect our members, and anyone working in the building in the future.