Asbestos is a soft fibrous mineral that was used for over 150 years as a fire-retardant building material in the construction of commercial, industrial and public buildings until the late twentieth century, and can still be found in many workplaces. Sadly, as we mark International Workers’ Memorial Day, we now know that asbestos is the biggest killer in the workplace, with over 5,000 asbestos-related deaths every year. There is no safe level of exposure, and all types of asbestos are dangerous.
Blue (crocidolite) and brown (amosite) asbestos were banned in the UK in 1985, and white (chrysotile) asbestos was banned in 1999.
Asbestos is a serious health risk if its fibres are inhaled. These fibres can remain in the lungs or settle in the lung linings and the chest cavity for long periods. This can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, an incurable cancer of the lining of the lungs and stomach linked to asbestos exposure. It takes between 10 and 60 years for the disease to develop following exposure to asbestos. It can also cause other asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis or fibrosis (scarring of the lungs).
Unlike many other fatal diseases, it is predicted that the number of asbestos-related deaths will significantly increase each year.
You might think that exposure to asbestos is an industrial hazard from the past, but asbestos and asbestos containing materials (ACMs) can be found in most residential or industrial buildings that were either built or refurbished before the year 2000.
The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) says that a total of 1.8 million workers are likely to encounter asbestos at higher than “background concentrations” – in other words, they disturb asbestos as part of their work.
Management of asbestos in the workplace
All workplaces (except where it is certain there is no asbestos) should have an asbestos register displayed in a prominent position and accessible to all staff.
However, asbestos is not always well-managed in buildings. Exposure incidents occur regularly, sometimes leading to prosecutions, but long term, low-level exposure may not be noticed.
Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 requires employers in all workplaces to be aware of any asbestos in their properties and to manage it in such a way as not to put anyone at risk.
What can we do to protect ourselves?
A culture of management openness is essential, so the most important thing is to ask questions.
- Does the building contain asbestos?
- If so, what condition is it in, and where is it located? Ask for details to be displayed prominently.
- How is it being managed? Ask to see a copy of the asbestos management plan. It is a legal requirement to have a plan setting out how risks will be managed.
- How are people who might work on or damage the asbestos in the building(s) being warned?
- Are checks made to ensure management systems to prevent exposure to asbestos are working and continue to do so?
Asbestos victims support groups
In 2005, a number of asbestos victims’ support groups established the Asbestos Victims Support Groups’ Forum UK, which is open to all not-for-profit organisations or registered charities that provide free and independent support to people with asbestos-related diseases. You can contact them for specific individual support.
The forum is also calling for Cape Intermediate Holdings (formerly Cape PLC) – which was one of the largest asbestos companies in the world, with mining interests in South Africa as well as factories in the UK – to donate £10 million to fund mesothelioma research. You can sign the petition here.