The use of asbestos is still permitted in most countries, despite a significant under-reporting of deaths caused by exposure to its deadly fibres. We find out how well the UK and others are managing the hazardous material in buildings.
April marks an important event in the calendar, with OSH professionals joining asbestos victims to shine a spotlight on one of the world’s biggest occupational killers. Global Asbestos Awareness Week is an annual event designed to educate people about its risks and how best to manage the material to prevent disease.
As Linda Reinstein, co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, which created the event, points out: ‘The reality is that most people don’t know what asbestos is, where it is and what they need to do to prevent exposure.’
Asbestos causes an estimated 233,000 work-related deaths annually, yet most countries continue to use this hazardous material extensively (Furya et al, 2018).
Even in the 67 countries where asbestos has been banned, the effectiveness of controls varies significantly, and on top of that there is a huge legacy issue to contend with. The UK, which stopped the importation, supply and use of the material in 1999, is a case in point.
According to the GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE), asbestos remains the largest single cause of work-related fatalities, with more than 5000 deaths each year from related diseases (HSE, 2021).
In July 2021, the UK Work and Pensions Committee launched an inquiry to examine the current risk posed by asbestos in the workplace (UK Parliament, 2021) after concerns about the UK’s policy on managing asbestos in buildings were raised by think tank ResPublica’s report (Morrin et al, 2019).
On 17 November 2021, the committee held the first of its oral evidence sessions. Its investigation will also explore how the HSE mitigates the risks and how the regulator’s approach compares with other countries. IOSH gave evidence at the second session. The committee’s findings, expected this spring, will inform the government’s HSE review and examine the effectiveness of current asbestos regulations.
One of the tragedies surrounding asbestos is the long latency period between exposure and the appearance of symptoms of the hitherto invisible damage caused. The lung disease deaths reported in recent years often relate to exposure to asbestos fibres that took place at work decades ago.
As Craig Bramwell, asbestos project officer at Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council, points out: ‘If people died of asbestos within two days of being exposed to it, it would be managed very differently.’
In the UK, anyone who owns, manages or has responsibility for maintaining a building, part of a building or a structure also has a legal duty to manage any asbestos in it.
IOSH and the Asbestos Leadership Council have produced a duty-to-manage flowchart as part of its No Time to Lose campaign (see Resources, below), including a step-by-step guide to help duty holders manage asbestos safely. One of the steps is the creation of an asbestos register, which identifies the material’s condition and location.
However, the person responsible isn’t always easy to identify – sometimes they are not aware that they are the duty holder and what they are responsible for. Although the responsibility for asbestos management cannot be delegated, the tasks involved can be – and often are.
Headteachers, for example, who are responsible for ensuring contractors undertaking maintenance work in schools always check the asbestos register and sign it, will sometimes delegate this task to receptionists, says Craig.
Preventing exposure: IOSH asbestos policy position
Individual, corporate and national action on asbestos can be challenging to secure as it can take decades for past exposure to lead to asbestos-related disease. Additional contributing challenges are the number of buildings containing asbestos that create a hazardous legacy as well as the widespread lack of awareness and uncertainty on how to manage it safely – particularly among SMEs.
IOSH gained international support for the asbestos phase of its No Time to Lose campaign to prevent occupational cancer. IOSH is calling for urgent joint action and improved OSH standards to prevent further exposure and harm. It would also like public policy-makers and organisations worldwide to manage asbestos risk more responsibly and to prevent people being exposed to it.
The UK’s education sector is a hotspot for the material – particularly the 3000 schools that are part of the Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (CLASP) built during the 1950s that contain substantial amounts of asbestos in their structures.
Craig says these schools are the most problematic to manage because maintenance is both difficult and very costly. He argues that all the schools need to be replaced with new structures, with the asbestos safely removed from the original buildings before they are demolished.
Some commentators have expressed concerns about an increase in asbestos-related deaths in the years to come because of a decline in building maintenance during the pandemic, but Craig doesn’t agree.
‘The risk posed by asbestos requires activity to disturb fibres, and exposure over a period of time,’ he says. ‘Closed buildings should still have been maintained – and when they do open, health and safety checks need to be done.’
Dr Yvonne Waterman, president of the European Asbestos Forum, notes that the UK, together with the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Australia, has the highest number of asbestos-related deaths per head of population. She adds, however, that the official statistics still significantly underestimate the actual numbers.
Yvonne also cites Furya et al (2018), which called for stricter workplace exposure limits. The authors argued that the present exposure limit of 100,000 asbestos fibres in one cubic metre fails to provide sufficient protection to workers, and recommends a more appropriate limit of 1000 fibres/m3.
On 20 October 2021, the European Parliament issued a resolution supporting a revision to the current occupational exposure limit value for asbestos. The policy change came about after the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) published a report recommending the 1000 fibres/m³ limit (ECHA, 2021).
Globally, the effectiveness of asbestos management has varied considerably. An OSH professional in Australia (who wishes to remain anonymous) says that the national strategic plan there for asbestos awareness and management lacks commitment and substance, despite the country establishing an Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency to remove the material.
‘I put asbestos in the same bracket as mental health and wellbeing in Australia,’ he says. ‘It gets talked about once a year and then it just feels like it has fallen off a cliff.’
Like the UK, the Australian duty holder must keep an asbestos register and check the material regularly to ensure it isn’t degrading. However, anyone can remove up to 10m² of asbestos and take it to the household waste and recycling centre as long as it is bonded or sealed.
‘As soon as you start removing that asbestos or break it up, technically you are exposing the fibres,’ warns the professional.
Case study: France
There is a legal requirement to check very emissive asbestos materials (e.g. flocking, thermal insulation, false ceilings) in domestic and non-domestic buildings on a regular basis, the frequency of which depends on their state of conservation and the type of asbestos materials present such as floor slabs and asbestos roofing.
There is also a legal requirement to identify asbestos in a wide range of employment environments before work commences so that workers are not exposed to asbestos. Buildings, ships and boats, railway rolling stock, industrial installations, aircraft, transport infrastructure, civil engineering works and potentially asbestos-bearing soils are among the areas covered.
France has an occupational exposure limit of 0.01 f/cm3 (10 fibre/L), which is calculated on the basis of measurements carried out using the same analysis technique (MET) and counting methods.
The French government is in the process of implementing a cross-department action plan which outlines the actions that each government ministry will take to manage asbestos risk in the areas it is responsible for.
Nicolas Bessot, Head of the Office of Chemical, Physical, Biological and Occupational Diseases, Ministry of Labour, Employment and Integration
Better safe than sorry
The US, meanwhile, continues to import and use asbestos. As Linda notes: ‘We don’t have a ban, and in 2020 we allowed 300 metric tonnes of raw asbestos to be imported. There are more than 40,000 deaths every year from asbestos-caused diseases in the US. Due to under-reporting, deaths in the Americas and in developing countries are estimated to be higher.’
But Yvonne points to the Flanders administrative region in Belgium as one of the trailblazers in managing asbestos safely. OVAM, the organisation responsible for overseeing the process, is taking action to make Flanders ‘asbestos-safe’.
‘Flanders wants to tackle the second asbestos exposure wave [faced by its] population. An action plan adopted by the Flemish government in 2018 initiated innovative legislation and supportive instruments towards owners,’ says Sven De Mulder, project leader at OVAM.
‘As a key instrument, an asbestos inventory will become compulsory for the sale of buildings in 2022.’
Yvonne concludes that there remains a ‘clear and severe’ under-registration of the presence of asbestos in everyday life.
‘Under-registration equals underfunding for, underappreciation of and less commitment towards a global asbestos ban,’ she argues. ‘What we need to do is test, test and test. In addition, the international OSH community needs to help each other by sharing best practice.’
Case study: The Netherlands
There is a legal requirement for duty holders is to carry out an asbestos management plan. This plan describes how a building up to the moment of asbestos remediation and/or demolition, can be used in a safe manner in the event that the asbestos-containing materials have not been (completely) removed.
An asbestos management plan states what measures are necessary to ensure a guaranteed safe (work) situation. Using electron microscopy techniques (SEM) to measure levels of all types of airborne asbestos fibres, the clearance indicator for acceptable and limited airborne asbestos fibre concentrations is 0,01 fibres/cm3, calculated or measured over a reference period of eight hours.
Yvonne Waterman, President, European Asbestos Forum
European Chemicals Agency. (2021) ECHA scientific report for evaluation of limit values for asbestos in the workplace. See: https://echa.europa.eu/documents/10162/d5f8d584-5e7d-bc97-3a98-4e9a39715f41 (accessed 14 December 2021).
Furuya S, Chimed-Ochir O, Takahashi K et al. (2018) Global asbestos disaster. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15(5): 1000. See: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/15/5/1000 (accessed 14 December 2021).
Health and Safety Executive. (2021) Why is asbestos dangerous? See: https://www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos/dangerous.htm (accessed 14 December 2021).
International Ban Abestos Secretariat. (2019) Current asbestos bans. See: http://ibasecretariat.org/alpha_ban_list.php (accessed 16 December 2021).
Morrin M, Aldane J, King H. (2019) Don’t breathe in: bridging the asbestos safety gap. See: https://www.respublica.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Asbestos-Report-Final.pdf (accessed 14 December 2021).
UK Parliament. (2021) Health and Safety Executive approach to asbestos management examined. See: https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/164/work-and-pensions-committee/news/156457/health-safety-executive-approach-to-asbestos-management-examined (accessed 14 December 2021).
Next: read our exclusive interview with Linda Reinstein, co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Association, which set up Global Asbestos Awareness Week.