We #StandWithUkraine, find out how to help here.
Last updated: 30.04.19

Banned in 1999 but killing thousands in 2019; why is asbestos still an issue?

It’s now been two decades since the import and use of asbestos was banned in the United Kingdom, and yet according to the Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, we’re still seeing around 5000 people die as a direct result of the harmful material each year. Why is this still happening, and what can be done to prevent these deaths?

The risks of asbestos

Asbestos is the name given to a naturally occurring group of minerals, recognisable for their fibrous appearance, widely used in construction throughout the 20th century because of the insulation properties they bring. Asbestos can be found in hundreds of thousands, and potentially millions, of buildings in this country, particularly in insulating boards, roofing, and some types of spray coverings.

When inhaled, asbestos can have serious health implications. The fibres cause significant damage and scarring to the lungs, which over time can result in all manner of illnesses, including cancer and heart failure. The risks of prolonged exposure cannot be overstated, though it’s important to be aware that simply coming into contact with asbestos fires for a short duration is unlikely to cause a problem.

A danger decades in the making

The effects of working with or being exposed to asbestos often do not manifest themselves for decades, which is one of the main reasons we’re still seeing so many deaths. The ban simply came too late for many people, who are just now being diagnosed with cancers such as mesothelioma. These people will most often have been those working with the material, whether in mining, manufacture, or using the product in construction.

Unfortunately, this is not to say that all of the deaths can be put down to pre-ban activities, and while the trend may well decline in the coming years, asbestos still remains a risk. In the report put out by IOSH, it was revealed that 135 companies were ordered to stop work because they weren’t meeting their safety obligations, and another 130 had to be warned that their operational safety needed to improve. At the most severe end of the scale, around 30 companies were given fines and even some individuals given prison sentences because of their callous approach to activities involving asbestos.

IOSH’s chief executive Bev Messinger said: “Thousands die in Britain every year from cancers like mesothelioma, while many more are diagnosed with it. We must also consider the families of these people, who watch their loved ones suffer. All this is preventable through good occupational safety and health. It is time for organisations to wake up and realise how dangerous asbestos is. There are no excuses.”

What’s being done?

Currently, the law mandates that those who work with asbestos (generally during construction works) are appropriately trained, and in many cases they will have to be licensed contractors. This is to ensure that the risk can be properly assessed, and hazards avoided. When handled correctly, asbestos-containing products are no risk, and can often be left in-situ. As stated by Messinger, there is no reason for us to see future deaths as a result of asbestos other than those that are unfortunately too late.

Those that may come into contact with asbestos through their course of work should have at least some basic understanding and awareness of the risk, even if they’re not licensed for most of the tasks associated with it. It is after all often the case that asbestos is disturbed unexpectedly during construction or DIY projects. This is why the HSE places a large focus on asbestos awareness.

At Virtual College, we recognise the danger asbestos represents, and are pleased to be able to offer a course in asbestos awareness. This course will help to demonstrate to the Health and Safety that you and your workers have had appropriate training, but more importantly, it covers all of the essential information needed to know how to be safe while working.

Related resources