All party committee demands fresh approach to asbestos management
This article distils the Committee’s main recommendations and considers what this means for relevant stakeholders.
In its report “The Health and Safety Executive’s [HSE] approach to asbestos management”, published on 21 April 2022, the Work and Pensions Committee makes a number of recommendations as to how asbestos — currently present in 300,000 non-domestic buildings — should be managed in future years.
Although the UK’s asbestos legacy has been well chronicled, it continues, even 23 years after asbestos was outlawed, to exert a heavy burden on the health of the population. The HSE estimates that past asbestos exposure is still responsible for 5,000 deaths per annum — principally due to the fatal cancer mesothelioma but also due to (asbestos induced) lung cancer and asbestosis. Construction workers born in the 1940’s who worked through the period 1960 to 1975, which saw the peak use of amosite (brown asbestos), is the sector most at elevated risk of developing mesothelioma. Carpenters have a 1 in 17 risk with electricians, plumbers, painters and decorators having a 1 in 50 risk.
This heightened level of risk is not merely confined to construction workers, the Committee noting that former female primary school teachers have “one of the highest prevalence of mesothelioma as an occupational group”. Here, the risk is thought to result from the use of asbestos in the construction of schools in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The risk to immediate past and present teachers is deemed to be uncertain due to the absence of reliable scientific data and research.
The current approach
Although the use of all types of asbestos was banned in 1999, asbestos remains highly prevalent in non-domestic buildings in the UK — current estimates are that it is present in varying quantities in over 300,000 buildings.
The HSE’s current approach to the management of asbestos has been guided by the scientific experts such as Professor Peto, which has been to leave asbestos untouched provided it is in good condition, well-protected and unlikely to be disturbed.
The Asbestos Regulations 2012 provide the statutory framework which governs how work with asbestos containing material is carried out.
The main recommendations
Having taken detailed evidence from a variety of experts and organisations, the Committee has recommended that the HSE take a fresh approach to asbestos management, calling for a “pan-government and system wide strategy over the long term removal of asbestos founded on strong evidence of what is best from a scientific, epidemiological and behavioural point of view”.
Describing the HSE as “slow to invest in research to better understand the cost benefit of wholesale removal of asbestos in buildings”, the Committee recognised the future dramatic increase in the retro fitting of buildings to meet the net-zero challenge is likely to increase the risk of asbestos being disturbed. Its main recommendations are:
- For the HSE/government to set a deadline of 40 years for the removal of asbestos from all non-domestic buildings.
- To develop and publish a strategic plan to prioritise the removal of asbestos from buildings with the highest risk first — in settings including schools and hospitals.
- The creation of a central digital register of asbestos present in non-domestic buildings, targeting schools and hospitals.
- A greater number of HSE inspections — the committee noting that whilst 907 inspections of work carried out by licensed asbestos removal contractors was achieved in 2019/2020, this was 40 % fewer than in 2012/2013. The Committee was also clearly unimpressed with the fall in the number of improvement notices issued — 60 % over the same period. In context, the report recognises that the HSE’S funding from central government had been reduced by 50%.
Having also heard evidence both from the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) that of the 500 construction workers they surveyed, 1/3rd of workers admitted that they never checked a Buildings Asbestos Register before commencing work and also from industry experts that revealed a real gap in knowledge about compliance with the Asbestos Regulations, the Committee also calls for a sustained campaign to improve the behaviours of employees and employers alike.
Finally, the Committee has asked that the HSE’s current review of the existing 2012 Asbestos Regulations should include a thorough assessment and evaluation of European moves to more stringent occupational exposure limits.
The Committee’s far-reaching recommendations are likely to be welcomed by asbestos victims support groups, public sector employees and trade unions, which have long campaigned for the removal of asbestos in non-domestic buildings — even if an end date of 40 years hence will be insufficient to prevent thousands more from asbestos’s deadly legacy.
Contextually, it should be noted that the removal of asbestos from buildings presents a challenge which is more nuanced than a simple binary decision of “yes/no”. Removal brings with it risks of exposure and therefore to health. It needs to be carried out rigidly in accordance with the statutory regulations.
What we do expect to see in the interim is a greater number of HSE inspections, the introduction of lower occupational exposure limits and more rigid enforcement, whether by improvement notices or the criminal prosecution of asbestos contractors who pay lip service to the current Regulations.
Last month saw the imprisonment of two directors of the asbestos management company, Ensure, for terms of 10 months and 15 months respectively having entered guilty pleas for breaching Section 2 (i) and Section 3 (i) of the Health and Safety at Work Act  by reason of “irregularities” found in asbestos surveys and clearance certificates which exposed workers to risk.
We should expect more of the same in the coming months and years.
For more information on asbestos claims, contact our occupational disease lawyers.