IOSH has urged caution after a parliamentary committee recommended that the government set a 40-year deadline to remove asbestos from all public and commercial buildings.
The Work and Pensions Committee’s report, The Health and Safety Executive’s Approach to Asbestos Management, published on 21 April, calls on the government to commit to a strategy to remove all asbestos from public and commercial buildings by 2062 and to ramp up funding to boost enforcement activity.
The report notes that asbestos can still be found in around 300,000 non-domestic buildings and warns that there is a growing risk of public exposure to the carcinogenic material because the UK’s net zero ambitions are driving an increase in retrofitting and, potentially, the disturbance of asbestos-containing materials.
The MPs added that reliance on the current Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 will not be sufficient to manage this changing situation.
The regulations note that asbestos that is in good condition, well protected and unlikely to be disturbed, can be left in place in buildings. However, the committee warns that these buildings will not last forever and ‘a policy of waiting for materials containing asbestos to deteriorate before removing them is not sustainable in the long term’.
For this reason, it says a stronger and proactive programme of asbestos removal is required.
Responding to the report, IOSH welcomed ‘a systemic view across both the government and regulators’ to consider the management of both current and future risks. However, it also urged caution over any plans to remove asbestos from buildings without research and evidence around safe removal and disposal.
‘Removing asbestos is something which is fraught with risks, so any decision to do so is something which cannot be taken lightly,’ said Ruth Wilkinson, head of health and safety at IOSH.
‘Full consideration must be given to how the people removing it are protected and where the asbestos goes from there, including its packaging, transportation and final disposal – particularly when considering the large number of buildings this plan will relate to,” she added.
‘So, we would expect to see any such plans will include detailed information on how these risks will be managed to prevent significant exposure during this process.’
The Work and Pensions Committee report, which launched an inquiry in July 2021 to examine the current risk posed by asbestos in the workplace, highlighted how, despite a complete ban on the importation, supply and use of asbestos more than two decades ago, the material ‘persists as the single greatest cause of work-related fatalities in the UK’.
The HSE said that more than 5000 people died from asbestos-related diseases in 2019, including from cancers like mesothelioma, having been exposed to the deadly material decades previously. The heavy use of brown asbestos is thought to be a significant reason why the UK has one of the highest mesothelioma rates in the world.
Although the MPs note that the available evidence indicates that cumulative exposures are much lower for younger age groups, they argue that more data is needed to understand the current picture. The HSE, they added, should adopt a more structured approach to collecting data on current exposure levels.
As a priority, the parliamentary committee would like to see the government improve the evidence base for the safe removal and disposal of asbestos, considering the relative costs and benefits. In addition, it would like to see a focus on removing the highest risk asbestos first and early removal from the highest risk settings, notably schools.
The MPs also called on the government to boost funding for the HSE’s inspection and enforcement of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.
According to the committee’s report, the HSE issued 60% fewer asbestos enforcement notices annually between 2011/12 and 2018/19.
‘The scale of decline is remarkable when compared with the HSE’s enforcement activity overall, despite no specific and compelling evidence that compliance with the asbestos regulations has improved dramatically during this time,’ it noted.
The MPs added that a central register of information on asbestos in buildings could ‘help to shed light on the true level of compliance and could contribute to a more effective risk-based and targeted enforcement regime’.
The report recommended that the HSE works with others in government to develop a central digital register of asbestos in all non-domestic buildings.
IOSH agreed that there is currently a lack of consistency in how asbestos is managed among duty holders and a lack of awareness and knowledge about the risks among those who come into contact with the hazardous material, particularly in smaller businesses.
‘We would like to see a collective effort by policy makers, government, regulators, employers and worker representatives,’ said Ruth.
‘This should include improved training for employees in how to deal with asbestos, clearer guidance around working with asbestos and more awareness raising about the dangers of exposure. Action is needed now. People’s lives depend on it.’
The government has two months to respond to the House of Commons Committee report.
A spokesperson for the HSE said: ‘The HSE can confirm it has received the report and will consider its findings and respond in due course to any recommendations and observations contained within it.’