HOUSE OF COMMONS DWP SELECT COMMITTEE INQUIRY FINAL REPORT PUBLISHED ON THE HEALTH AND SAFETY EXECUTIVE’S APPROACH TO ASBESTOS MANAGEMENT
It was reported in LTB 425/2021 dated 7 October 2021 that the Department for Work and Pensions, House of Commons Select Committee of MPs had launched an inquiry into how the Health and Safety Executive manages the continued presence of asbestos in UK buildings.
Background to the Inquiry:
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 DWP 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.
Next Steps – HSE Asbestos Regulations Review:
The inquiry has examined 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 and final report will now feed into the Health and Safety Executive’s asbestos regulations review. 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.
Trade Union Response:
The inquiry and Select Committee’s final report have been welcomed by the CWU, TUC and all UK trade unions who collectively have adopted a policy of seeking ultimate removal of asbestos from UK buildings. The Select Committee have supported the Trade Union position on eradication by calling on the Government to agree a 40-year deadline for all asbestos to be removed from all public and commercial buildings.
The UK Trade Unions have called upon the Government to firstly, bring the UK Health & Safety regime for the management of asbestos up to the highest international standards, strengthen compliance and enforcement, secondly ensure 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 as soon as possible.
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 submitted evidence to the Inquiry in line with Union policy. The TUC, many other trade unions, the Asbestos Victims Support Forum, and charities like ‘Action Mesothelioma’ and ‘Mesothelioma UK’ also made submissions, sharing the Unions aims of raising awareness and seeking the eradication of asbestos and asbestos-related diseases.
House of Commons Dept. of Work and Pensions Select CommitteeMembers:
The Work and Pensions Committee is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the policies, expenditure and administration of the Department for Work and Pensions and its associated public bodies. Current membership: –
Stephen Timms MP (Labour, East Ham) (Chair)
Debbie Abrahams MP (Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth)
Shaun Bailey MP (Conservative, West Bromwich West)
Siobhan Baillie MP (Conservative, Stroud)
Neil Coyle MP (Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark)
Steve McCabe MP (Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak)
Nigel Mills MP (Conservative, Amber Valley)
Selaine Saxby MP (Conservative, North Devon)
Dr Ben Spencer MP (Conservative, Runnymede and Weybridge)
Chris Stephens MP (Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West)
Sir Desmond Swayne MP (Conservative, New Forest West)
House of Commons Dept. of Work and Pensions Select Committee Report Summary:
Asbestos-related illness is one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times. The importation, supply and use of asbestos was completely banned in the UK over 20 years ago but its legacy lives on. Asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has reported that there were over 5,000 asbestos-related deaths in 2019, including from cancers like mesothelioma. The heavy use of brown asbestos is thought to be a key reason why the UK has one of the highest mesothelioma rates in the world. The extreme exposures of the mid-to late twentieth century in sectors such as construction and shipbuilding may be behind us, but asbestos is still in around 300,000 non-domestic buildings according to HSE, and in many more homes.
Control of asbestos regulations
Managing and working with asbestos in non-domestic buildings is now regulated under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. The HSE, an executive non-departmental public body of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), has a key role in implementing these regulations and is currently reviewing whether they are meeting their intended objectives. It says it will use the findings from this inquiry to inform the review.
The asbestos risk today
Understanding the extent to which asbestos fibres are being released from the fabric of buildings remains an important task today. Analysis of fibres in lungs shows that the lifetime risk from mesothelioma—a disease strongly associated with past asbestos exposure—has reduced considerably for people whose working lives began after the mid-1980s when bans on asbestos started to be introduced. The most recent data from these studies shows a continuing decline in asbestos exposure but the case numbers are small and unreliable. We know relatively little about current exposure levels, but we heard worrying accounts of people who continue to be exposed to asbestos fibres. We think HSE should do more to gather a systematic picture of current exposure levels.
Taking a strategic approach
The current asbestos regulations say that asbestos that is in good condition, well-protected and unlikely to be disturbed, can be left in place in buildings. These buildings will not, however, last forever and a policy of waiting for materials containing asbestos to deteriorate before removing them is not sustainable in the long term. The TUC, CWU and other Unions, the ‘Airtight on Asbestos’ Campaign and other campaign organisations, have said a stronger and proactive programme of asbestos removal is required. Large-scale removal is not, however, without its own risk and uncertainty.
HSE has been slow to invest in research to understand better the costs and benefits of more wholesale removal of asbestos and options for its safer removal. This is becoming a more urgent task. The likely dramatic increase in retrofitting of buildings in response to net zero ambitions means that more asbestos-containing material will be disturbed in the coming decades, thus changing the cost-benefit analysis. Simple reliance on a set of regulations which devolve asbestos management to individual duty-holders—the building owners or managers responsible for maintenance—will not be good enough. A pan-government and ‘system-wide’ strategy is needed for the long-term removal of asbestos, founded on strong evidence of what is best from a scientific, epidemiological, and behavioural point of view.
The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Chloe Smith, told us on 2 February that the Government has “a clearly stated goal” that “it is right to—over time and in the safest way—work towards there no longer being asbestos in non-domestic buildings.”2 Sarah Albon, Chief Executive of HSE, also said that “we should look to remove it”.3 We agree with this ambition but greatly regret that neither HSE nor the Government has articulated a clear and comprehensive strategy for achieving this. There is no written down, fully developed, and long-term plan to match the Government’s goal, one that is founded on an analysis of costs and benefits and integrates with wider government policy. Moreover, the Government has so far failed to signal its intent by setting a clear timeframe for the removal of most, if not all, asbestos.
The Select Committee recommends that a deadline now be set for the removal of asbestos from non-domestic buildings within 40 years. The Government and HSE should develop and publish a strategic plan to achieve this, focusing on removing the highest risk asbestos first, and the early removal from the highest risk settings including schools. This plan should, in the first instance, commit to improving urgently the evidence base for safe asbestos removal and disposal, considering relative costs and benefits. It should integrate with—and take full account of—proposals for the upgrading of the built environment linked to net zero targets and wider waste management strategies.
Compliance with the duty to manage asbestos
In the meantime, the Select Committee heard that HSE is not doing enough to monitor compliance with the current asbestos regulations. HSE collects some data from its inspections, but these cover a tiny fraction of the non-domestic premises that contain asbestos. HSE said that its recent inspection results showed that four out of five construction firms were fully complying with the regulations. Other data we heard is, however, less positive. For example, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health told us that of 500 construction workers responding to its survey, a third had never checked the asbestos register—a key source of information on the location of asbestos—before starting work on a new site. Industry experts told us that there was a real gap in knowledge about asbestos regulations compliance. A central register of information on asbestos in buildings could help to shed light on the true level of compliance and could contribute to a more effective risk-based and targeted enforcement regime. It would also provide important background data to support a longer-term strategic approach to managing the asbestos legacy. The Select Committee recommends that HSE works with others in government to develop a central digital register of asbestos in all non-domestic buildings. In the first instance, the concept of a central register could be tested using asbestos data from public buildings such as schools and hospitals.
HSE Enforcement, Asbestos Inspections and Funding
HSE experienced a near halving of its government funding, in real terms, between 2010/11 and 2019/20. This was partly mitigated by changes which enable HSE to recover some costs from people and organisations found to be in breach of the law. Nonetheless, it is not entirely surprising that HSE asbestos enforcement activity has reduced in recent years. What is surprising, however, is that the level of decline is much greater than for HSE’s enforcement work overall. HSE says that part of the recent reduction in asbestos enforcement activity stems from it diverting fully trained inspectors to help train new inspectors. It says that it expects to increase the number of asbestos-related inspections in 2022/23. This is welcome but now needs to be sustained over the longer term. The Select Committee recommends that HSE commits to a sustained increase in inspection and enforcement activity. Repeating then Select Committee’s recommendation from June 2020, the Government and DWP should ensure that it provides adequate funding to HSE to support this increased programme of work over the medium term.
The direction of travel in Europe is towards tighter regulation of asbestos and lower exposure limits for workers. HSE has said that European proposals may not necessarily be grounded in the real-world experience of asbestos exposure. It also told the Select Committee that part of the problem in Great Britain is that asbestos is so widespread. The Select Committee’s concern is that an asbestos regulatory policy which prioritises only that which is immediately practical risks tolerating poorer health standards and higher costs over the longer-term. HSE should ensure that its current review of the Control of Asbestos Regulations includes a thorough written assessment of moves towards more stringent asbestos occupational exposure limits in Europe.
DWP Select Committee Conclusions and recommendations
- Asbestos-related illness is one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times. Extensive use of asbestos in the twentieth century accounts for many thousands of deaths. The extreme exposures of the mid- to late twentieth century may be behind us, but its legacy lives on. Asbestos remains in many of our buildings. The current five-yearly statutory review of the asbestos regulations is an opportune moment for us to assess whether the regulatory framework—and HSE’s contribution to this—is working as effectively as it might. (Paragraph 14)
- The Select Committeerecommend that HSE and Government use the conclusions and recommendations from our report to inform both its immediate post implementation review of the asbestos regulations and its longer-term approach to asbestos management. (Paragraph 15)
The asbestos risk today
- Progress made since the gradual imposition of restrictions on the use of asbestos and its eventual ban in 1999 are no reason for complacency. Understanding the extent to which asbestos fibres are still being released from the fabric of buildings remains vital and requires different methods of analysis. Past measurement of fibres in lungs has shown that the lifetime risk from mesothelioma is substantially lower for people born in the late 1960s. For people born in the late 1980s, the risks appear even lower, but the numbers sampled are small and patterns of exposure may be subject to wide variation over time and between people. (Paragraph 29)
- Recent HSE data on the relative risk of mesothelioma deaths shows elevated rates for women whose last occupation was education and teaching. However, limitations in death certificate information means that the earlier occupational history of these people—which may be key to understanding the cause of their disease—is not known. Moreover, the long latency period before asbestos-related illness develops means that HSE data on relative occupational risk tells us little about asbestos exposures in work settings today. We know relatively little about current levels but, worryingly, we heard accounts from several sources of recent exposures in the workplace and in the home. Our view is that HSE’s efforts to develop the evidence on current asbestos exposure levels in non-domestic buildings are relatively piecemeal. A more structured approach to collecting data and assessing current exposure levels is needed. (Paragraph 30)
- The Select Committeerecommends that HSE develops and implements a robust research framework for the systematic measurement of current asbestos exposures in non-domestic buildings, using a range of measurement and sampling techniques and informed by international experiences and approaches. It should ensure that adequate consideration is given to exposure measurement in schools and other public buildings. We recommend that HSE publishes its framework by October 2022 and produces findings at frequent intervals thereafter. (Paragraph 31)
- The Select Committee also recommends that the Government investigates opportunities to improve the occupational information recorded on death certificates. (Paragraph 32)
A strategic approach to asbestos management
- Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, asbestos-containing materials that are in good condition and are unlikely to be disturbed can be left in place by building duty-holders. Buildings containing asbestos will not last forever and, as HSE acknowledges, we do not know how long some of these materials, left undisturbed, remain undamaged. Some, including the TUC, CWU and others have called for a stronger programme of asbestos removal. They argue that a policy of management in situ was always a temporary solution and that accidental disturbances by contractors and others will always happen. They believe that the current regime gives unscrupulous duty-holders too much flexibility to turn a blind eye when confronted with the cost of asbestos removal. (Paragraph 49)
- Wholesale removal is not, however, without its own risk and uncertainty. Despite this, HSE has been slow to invest in research to better understand the costs and benefits of removal and to evaluate options for safer removal. This is becoming a more urgent task. The likely dramatic increase in retrofitting of buildings in response to net zero ambitions means that more asbestos-containing material will be disturbed in the coming decades, thus changing the cost-benefit analysis. Simple reliance on a set of regulations which devolve asbestos management to individual duty-holders will not be good enough. There is a need for a cross-government and ‘system-wide’ strategy for the long-term removal of asbestos, founded on strong evidence of what is best from a scientific, epidemiological, financial, and behavioural point of view. (Paragraph 50)
- The Minister and HSE told us that their goal was to see asbestos gradually and safely removed from GB’s buildings. We agree with its ambition but greatly regret that neither HSE nor the Government has articulated a clear and comprehensive strategy for achieving this. There is no written down, fully developed, and long-term plan to match the Government’s goal, one that is founded on an analysis of costs and benefits and integrates with wider government policy. Moreover, the Government has so far failed to signal its intent by setting a clear timeframe for the removal of most, if not all, asbestos. (Paragraph 51)
- The Select Committeerecommends that a deadline now be set for the removal of asbestos from non-domestic buildings, within 40 years. The Government and HSE should develop and publish a strategic plan to achieve this, focusing on removing the highest risk asbestos first, and the early removal from the highest risk settings including schools. This plan should, in the first instance, commit to improving urgently the evidence around safer asbestos removal and disposal, considering relative costs and benefits. It should integrate with—and take full account of—proposals for the upgrading of the built environment linked to net zero targets and wider waste management strategies. (Paragraph 52)
- The Select Committee is unconvinced that a significant further expansion in the use of air monitoring for the routine measurement of asbestos fibres is needed. Clearly, such monitoring is an important component both in assessing sites following asbestos removal work and, potentially, in informing management decisions where, for example, asbestos-containing material is damaged or obscured. It also has an important role as part of any systematic and carefully sampled research programme measuring fibre release. Nevertheless, for routine operational purposes, the balance of opinion we have heard is that regular visual inspection should continue to be the priority. (Paragraph 62)
- The Select Committeerecommends HSE work with others in the UK and devolved governments to continue to review and share the evidence relating to routine, environmental, air monitoring of asbestos fibres. We ask that HSE writes to us in 12 months’ time with an update on Government’s latest assessment of these developments. (Paragraph 63)
- Information about asbestos within buildings is often poorly communicated to users and contractors by duty-holders. Surveys and management plans which include critical information on asbestos are not always maintained as living and accessible documents. Opportunities to exploit digital technologies to improve communications on asbestos risks are being missed. (Paragraph 66)
- The Select Committeerecommends that HSE strengthens its work with, and guidance to, duty-holders to make clear their obligations to communicate asbestos information and risks to building contractors and users. We also recommend that HSE works with others in Government to sponsor improvements in how information on asbestos in buildings is communicated and used, drawing on lessons from the use of digital technologies in building management and in the health response to the pandemic. (Paragraph 67)
- Whether building duty-holders are complying with the requirements of the Control of Asbestos Regulations is largely unknown. HSE collects some data from its programme of inspections, but these cover a tiny fraction of the non-domestic premises that contain asbestos. HSE doubts whether a central register of information on asbestos would give it better compliance data. Our view is that the exercise of reporting data centrally will, in some cases, cause duty-holders to commission surveys and update records of asbestos in their premises if they know their data is being shared centrally and may be subject to external review. The resulting database would offer a sampling frame for enforcement activity and could be analysed to inform a risk-based and targeted enforcement approach. It would also provide important background data to support a longer-term strategic approach to managing the asbestos legacy. We acknowledge, however, that it would be for others in government, such as the Government Digital Service, to lead on developing a central register and the concept would need careful testing. (Paragraph 82)
- The Select Committeerecommends that HSE works with others in government to develop a central digital register of asbestos in non-domestic buildings, describing its location and type. In the first instance, the concept of a central register could be tested using asbestos data from public buildings such as schools and hospitals. In the meantime, we also recommend that HSE conducts research which complements its inspection programme to identify the extent to which duty-holders are, in fact, complying with their obligations under the asbestos regulations. (Paragraph 83)
HSE’s enforcement and campaigning
- HSE has experienced significant cuts in government funding. Lower grant funding has been partly mitigated by the introduction of its fee for intervention ‘cost recovery’ model but this cannot be used to target inspections of licensed asbestos removal work. It is not surprising, therefore, that HSE’s asbestos enforcement activity has reduced in recent years. However, the scale of decline is remarkable when compared with HSE’s enforcement activity overall, despite no specific and compelling evidence that compliance with the asbestos regulations has improved dramatically during this time. HSE accepts that part of the recent reduction in asbestos enforcement work stems from having to divert experienced inspectors to support the training of new recruits which reduced capacity. It says that it expects to increase the number of asbestos inspections in 2022/23. This is welcome but needs to be sustained over the longer term, not least because fulfilment of the Government’s net zero ambitions presents considerable asbestos exposure risks as buildings are updated. (Paragraph 94)
- The Select Committeerecommends that HSE commits to a sustained increase in inspection and enforcement activity targeting compliance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations. Repeating our recommendation from June 2020, the Government and DWP should ensure that it provides adequate funding to HSE to support this increased programme of work over the medium term. HSE should also identify wider lessons from its planned inspection programme for duty-holders in 2022/23, considering whether it needs to specify minimum knowledge, training or other requirements for people performing this critical role. (Paragraph 95)
- HSE promotes understanding of the dangers of asbestos, technical knowledge exchange and compliance with the asbestos regulations through its participation in domestic and international networks. HSE has also previously invested in significant campaigns targeting those occupations most likely to be exposed to asbestos. Campaigns such as ‘Hidden Killer’ were widely regarded as successful. However, HSE has invested less in this behavioural work in recent years, seemingly because of a lack of resources. Witnesses also described an absence of similar interventions targeting duty-holders. For those campaigning activities that do continue—through social media for example—HSE cannot say with certainty what their long-term impact is. (Paragraph 101)
- HSE should commit to investing more in sustained campaigning work across a range of media, using multiple interventions and synchronising with the development of its wider strategy for asbestos management. It should employ robust evaluation methods to test what messages and which methods achieve the greatest impact on the behaviours of duty-holders and tradespeople. (Paragraph 102)
Regulating the asbestos industry
- Currently in Great Britain, some asbestos removal work does not need to be undertaken by a licensed contractor but some of this will still need to be notified to HSE before work starts. The three-way categorisation of work is confusing and of questionable value. Reducing the number of categories and requiring a greater proportion of asbestos removal to be done by licensed contractors—possibly by further tightening the control limit on expected asbestos fibre exposures or reducing the types and conditions of asbestos materials that are exempted from licensed work—could lead to fewer accidental exposures and better disposal practices. There is, however, a risk that extending the requirement to use licensed contractors could have unintended consequences and any changes will need to be considered carefully. HSE should use its five-yearly review of the asbestos regulations to assess the merits of the current categorisation of asbestos works. (Paragraph 111)
- The Select Committeerecommends that HSE considers how it could consolidate, tighten, and simplify the current categorisation of asbestos works as part of its 2022 statutory review of the Control of Asbestos Regulations. Its review should carefully assess the net behavioural impacts and costs of any changes. (Paragraph 112)
- Asbestos surveyors have an important role in helping duty-holders to identify and manage asbestos in premises. We have heard concerns about the variable quality of surveys. It is not clear to us why the regulatory and quality requirements for asbestos surveyors should be less stringent than for analysts who must be UKAS-accredited. (Paragraph 120)
- Despite their requirement to be accredited, the work of analysts continues to be compromised by regulatory arrangements which allow licensed asbestos contractors to commission their own analysts to check their work. We heard disturbing accounts from several sources that the current model undermines the independence of this critical quality check. Witnesses told us that one simple way of improving standards would be to make it a requirement for the building owner or client to employ the analyst in all circumstances. (Paragraph 121)
- The Select Committeerecommends that HSE makes it mandatory for all people conducting asbestos surveys to be accredited by a recognised accreditation body. We also recommend that HSE assesses the impact of making it a legal requirement for building owners or occupiers to commission accredited asbestos analysts to check asbestos work done on their premises and, by extension, making it illegal for asbestos removal contractors to do so. (Paragraph 122)
- HSE has an important role in monitoring international developments in approaches to managing asbestos risk, assessing the balance of evidence, and commissioning its own research to understand workplace patterns of asbestos exposure and behaviour. The direction of travel in Europe is towards tighter regulation of asbestos and lower exposure limits which rely on greater use of electron microscopy techniques. These changes may have practical and financial consequences for the way asbestos is managed, including when and how it should be removed. HSE has said that developments in Europe may not necessarily be grounded in the real-world experience of asbestos exposure and a more pragmatic approach is warranted. It also told us that part of the problem in Great Britain is that asbestos is so widespread. Our concern is that an asbestos regulatory policy which prioritises only that which is immediately practical risks tolerating poorer health standards and higher costs over the longer-term. (Paragraph 127)
- The Select Committeerecommends HSE ensures its current review of the Control of Asbestos Regulations includes a thorough written assessment of moves towards more stringent asbestos occupational exposure limits in Europe. It should carefully consider their application to the GB context, taking full account of costs and benefits. It should ensure that the extent of the asbestos legacy in Great Britain is not seen as reason to tolerate poorer health standards. (Paragraph 128)
Full Final Copy of the House of Commons DWP Select Committee Inquiry Final Report Published on The Health and Safety Executive’s Approach to Asbestos Management.
National Health, Safety & Environment Officer