Asbestos Inquiry – House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee of MPs Inquiry into the Health and Safety Executive’s Approach to Asbestos Management – CWU Response:
The Department for Work and Pensions House of Commons Select Committee of MPs has launched an inquiry into how the Health and Safety Executive manages the continued presence of asbestos in UK buildings.
Despite the importation, supply and use of asbestos being banned in the UK since 24th of November 1999, twenty-two years later this toxic mineral still plagues public health, being linked to multiple diseases. Asbestos remains the largest single cause of work-related fatalities, with more than 5,000 deaths each year from diseases including Mesothelioma, Lung Cancer and Asbestosis.
Vast quantities of asbestos remain inside public and private buildings throughout the UK because asbestos was used heavily in construction up until the 1980’s where it remains in-situ. The UK today remains a storehouse of asbestos. There are six million tonnes of asbestos in the UK, most of which can be found in over 1.5 million buildings across our public estate, including our hospitals and schools. This means that many people are still exposed to the potential dangers of asbestos on a daily basis. While workers are no longer manufacturing or installing asbestos, the substance continues to be the UK’s number one occupational killer, causing more than 5,000 deaths a year.
The Select Committee raised concerns last year with the Government about the UK’s policy on managing asbestos in buildings, following the publication of a report by ‘think tank Respublica’. In response, the Minister for Employment confirmed that the HSE would be reviewing the effectiveness of the regulations for managing asbestos.
This inquiry will examine the current risks posed by asbestos in the workplace, the actions taken by HSE to mitigate them and how its approach compares to those taken in other countries. The results of the inquiry will feed into the Health and Safety Executive’s asbestos regulations review.
The inquiry has been welcomed by the CWU, TUC and all UK trade unions who collectively have adopted a policy of seeking ultimate removal of asbestos.
Despite being banned for more than 20 years, the impact of asbestos is still devastating lives. Thousands of people die from asbestos-related illness every year. With the UK death rate from asbestos-related illness the highest in the world, there are serious concerns about how the material is being dealt with compared with how it is managed in other countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands and France. The HSE is rightly looking into how asbestos can be handled more safely and the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee’s inquiry aims to help to make sure monitoring and regulations are as effective and safe as they can possibly be.
Evidence has pointed to there being widespread non-compliance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 in the UK and a lack of information on the full extent of how much harm asbestos is causing. The UK has some of the weakest standards in Europe, while also having some of the highest Mesothelioma rates and there is widespread non-compliance with asbestos control law.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) requires a ‘duty holder’ to ‘manage the risk of asbestos exposure in public buildings’. These ‘duty holders’ are responsible for identifying the location and condition of asbestos. When it is disturbed or removed, air monitoring takes place to ensure the concentration of airborne asbestos fibres are at a ‘safe’ level, before the building is repopulated. Concerns about the risk, and cost, of removing asbestos has led the HSE to affirm that it is generally safer to leave asbestos in-situ than to remove it, provided it is in a ‘good condition’. However, perpetually maintaining asbestos, which degrades over time becomes more of a threat.
Shockingly UK nurses and teachers are 3 and 5 times more likely to develop Mesothelioma because of the asbestos in the buildings in which they work.
The Government should firstly, bring the UK Health & Safety regime for the management of asbestos up to the highest international standards, as currently practiced in Germany, the Netherlands and France. Secondly, strengthen compliance, ensuring buildings are safe through sensitive air monitoring when the buildings are in use. Thirdly, establish a central register of all asbestos currently in place in buildings across the UK identifying location, type and condition. Finally, initiate a planned, phased, controlled removal of all asbestos containing materials.
Asbestos, far from being yesterday’s problem, is a real and present threat to potentially thousands of lives for many generations to come. The European Parliament has called for the removal of asbestos from all European public buildings by 2028 but the UK has made no such commitment. The goal of the CWU, TUC and UK trade unions is to seek the total eradication of asbestos from UK buildings rather than the current approach of managing asbestos ‘in-situ.’ The CWU has submitted evidence in line with Union policy. The TUC, many other trade unions, the Asbestos Victims Support Forum, and charities like ‘ActionMeso’ and ‘Mesothelioma UK’ will be submitting evidence and share the Unions aims of raising awareness and seeking the eradication of asbestos and asbestos-related diseases. A copy of the CWU submission is attached.
Further information on the inquiry is available at:- https://www.btog.org/news/work-and-pension-select-committees-inquiry-into-the-hses-management-of-asbestos/
The Inquiry Terms of Reference – The Select Committee has invited views on the following questions:
- What are the current risks posed by asbestos in the workplace? Which groups of workers are most at risk?
- How effective is the current legislative and regulatory framework for the management of asbestos?
- How does HSE’s approach to managing asbestos compare to the approach taken in other countries? Are there lessons that the UK could learn from best practice elsewhere?
- How does HSE measure and report its progress in mitigating the risks of asbestos?
- Does HSE keep adequate records of asbestos in public buildings?
- Is HSE making best use of available technology and systems to monitor the safety of asbestos which remains in buildings?
- Does HSE commit adequate resources to asbestos management in line with the level of risk?
- How robust is the available data about the risks and impact of asbestos in the workplace? What gaps in evidence need to be filled?
- Is HSE drawing on a wide body of international and national regulatory and industry expertise to inform its approach to the management of asbestos safety in buildings?
- How effectively does HSE engage with external stakeholders and experts about its approach to the regulation of asbestos?
National Health, Safety & Environment Officer