The use of asbestos in buildings was banned in 1999 and you would have hoped that 20 years later it no longer remains a serious threat to public health. However, it seems that this is, in fact, not the case - and there are buildings all over the country that still have this material very much in evidence.
A new report from think-tank ResPublica considers the potential for harm that this substance poses by being present, particularly in public buildings like schools and hospitals. Did you know, for example, that many vital public buildings around the country still have high levels of asbestos on their premises?
And did you know that school children in the UK breathe up to ten times more airborne particles than those in Germany? There are apparently six million tonnes of asbestos spread across 1.5 million buildings in this country… all of which are very sobering facts indeed.
What exactly is asbestos?
There are three different types of asbestos still found in buildings today - Chrysotile (white), Amosite (brown) and Crocidolite (blue). All of them have their own varying levels of risk, but all three pose significant risks to public health.
Asbestos itself is a naturally occurring mineral with fibres that can be pulled to form a fluffy consistency, soft and flexible but resistant to electricity, heat and corrosion. These render it very useful as a material but also means it is highly toxic.
It’s an excellent insulator and can be used in plastic, cement, paper, cloth and so on - but when someone breathes in or ingests asbestos dust, the fibres become trapped in their body forever. These trapped fibres then go on to cause scarring and inflammation, before causing serious damage to the cells of the body.
Where is asbestos found?
Figures from the Education and Skills Funding Agency suggest that up to 80 per cent of all schools in this country contain asbestos somewhere, while hospitals also contain large amounts of the material.
Universities are also a growing cause for concern, with a recent Freedom of Information request made by Stephenson Solicitors to 106 higher education facilities in England revealing that around 74 per cent of the buildings surveyed had asbestos.
But privately-owned businesses also contain large quantities of asbestos, including factors, dockyards and domestic premises. Construction sites are similarly affected, even though the material was banned almost 20 years ago. But it’s schools and hospitals that pose the most concentrated health risk to teachers, nurses, pupils and patients.
Asbestos exposure in the workplace
Some industries have higher levels of risk where asbestos exposure is concerned, such as shipbuilding and railway engineering, as well as the construction sector.
Men who worked in the building sector when asbestos was used as a material extensively are now among those considered to be most at risk of developing mesothelioma, cancer of the lining that covers the majority of the organs in the body.
Analysis of the jobs on the HSE’s register of death certificates shows that mortality rates as a result of this kind of cancer among gas fitters, plumbers, electricians and carpenters are generally higher than among other occupations.
However, it seems that the idea of asbestos being a historical health risk ignores the evidence that indicates we are now experiencing a second wave of deaths among those in new as well as more traditional jobs.
For instance, there have been nearly 300 recorded mesothelioma deaths among teachers since 1980, people who have been and continue to be subjected to chronic low-level exposure to asbestos through working in certain buildings.
All employers have to ensure that anyone who could potentially disturb asbestos through their work, or those who supervise these staff members, has the appropriate level of information, instruction and training so they can work safely and without risk.
The HSE explains that there are three main levels - asbestos awareness, non-licensable work with asbestos and licensable work with asbestos.
It’s important to note that attending a training course won’t immediately make someone competent to work with this material and the knowledge and skill will have to be developed over time through the implementation and consolidation of skills learnt on said training course, but also on the job, as well as instruction and assessment.
This is meant to give both employees and supervisors the information required to help them avoid any work that could potentially disturb asbestos.
It will not help tradesmen or self-employed contractors with any work that involves asbestos-containing materials. If someone is planning a job that will cause a disturbance, ensure that further information, instruction and training is carried out.
Asbestos awareness training should cover the likes of the properties of the material, its effects on health, the types and uses of it in buildings and plants, general procedures on how to deal with an emergency and how to avoid the risk of exposure.
Workers with jobs which may result in disturbing materials containing asbestos will need the relevant information, equipment and training to do this work safely. Jobs could include, for example, drilling holes in asbestos materials, laying cables where undamaged asbestos materials can be found and cleaning or repairing asbestos cement sheet roofing or cladding.
Employers should also ensure that staff members carrying out this kind of work have or have seen copies of the risk assessments, copies of the plans of work and details and results of air monitoring, including results for similar jobs.
Licensable work with asbestos
Where higher risk asbestos-containing materials are concerned, the majority of the work has to be carried out by a licensed contractor. Only competent tradespeople and managers can undertake licensed asbestos work and must be provided with suitable information, instruction and training, as well as protective equipment like an appropriate respiratory kit.
The ResPublica report goes on to conclude that the asbestos ban in this country has certainly saved many lives in the last two decades but there are still “clear and present dangers” to the general public because of asbestos in-situ.
This is primarily down to the sheer amount of the material that can still be found in our built environment. “Owing to the quantity of asbestos imported and used in the construction of UK public buildings, the task of managing this material demands a strong response from the government. Unfortunately, we find this to be absent in the current health and safety regime,” it was observed.
This regime assumes that asbestos is safe unless it is disturbed and the preferred policy position is to prioritise management in-situ instead of systematic phased removal.
As such, the report authors recommend that the government brings this regime up to the highest international standards, looking to Germany, the Netherlands and France for inspiration in this regard. A central register of all asbestos in public buildings around the UK should also be established to identify the precise location, type and condition.
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