The UK government has rejected the Work and Pensions Committee’s key recommendation that policy makers should commit to removing all asbestos from public buildings within 40 years.
In April this year, the select committee published its Health and Safety Executive’s approach to asbestos management report calling on the government and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to develop and publish a strategic plan to remove asbestos from non-domestic buildings by 2062.
The House of Commons committee also urged policy makers to focus on removing the highest risk asbestos first, including in schools, which are identified as being one of the priority areas.
As a first step, the select committee called on the government and HSE to prioritise the improvement of the evidence base for the safe removal and disposal of asbestos, taking into account the relative costs and benefits. At the same time, it recommended that policy makers should integrate this action with government proposals to upgrade the built environment linked to net zero aspirations and wider waste management strategies.
However, the government, which published its response last week (21 July), said that ‘moving to a fixed deadline for removal would increase the opportunity for exposure which remains difficult to support if the current risk of exposure is very low where asbestos can be managed safely in-situ until planned refurbishment works’.
The government added many public estates would be significantly disrupted by a removal deadline if it was introduced outside existing estate strategies.
‘There also remains a concern that introducing a deadline would stimulate poor removal and disposal practices with a further risk of increase in asbestos exposures’, the government’s response noted.
‘The government argues that fixing a deadline for asbestos removal would increase the opportunity for exposure, but the risk is likely to increase anyway with the drive towards retrofitting of buildings to meet net zero aspirations,’ Stephen Timms MP, the select committee’s chair responded.
‘This [the government’s] strategy should prioritise the highest-risk buildings and urgently boost the evidence base for the safe removal and disposal of a material that is still the single greatest cause of work-related fatalities in the country.’
In its response, the government said that Great Britain already had a ‘mature and comprehensive plan’ to manage legacy asbestos risks as reflected in the Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR) 2012 and the ‘duty to manage’ outlined in regulation 4.
However, it did accept that it needed to do more to understand the ‘likely rate of elimination due to current levels of asbestos removal through planned refurbishment and demolition’.
The HSE, the government response noted, was carrying out national modelling as part of the CAR’s Post Implementation Review (PIR), which will be published later this year. Although this was based on estimates, the modelling indicates that there will be a substantial reduction in the numbers of buildings containing asbestos over the next few decades.
The GB OSH regulator is also planning research that will make use of digital information to ‘more accurately define the scale and location of buildings likely to contain asbestos and this evidence can be used to inform future work and priorities’.
Elsewhere, the government also rejected the select committee’s recommendation that the HSE works with others in government to develop a central digital register of asbestos in non-domestic buildings, describing its location and type.
Echoing the HSE’s evidence to the committee, the government said that a new central register would require duty holders and government to dedicate significant resources. In addition, it said that the information provided would duplicate existing information that duty holders are legally required to provide under the CAR 2012 and that even with this measure there was no clear indicator that asbestos exposure risks would be improved.
The government warned that the creation of a new central register could ‘undermine the active requirement on duty holders to manage asbestos in non-domestic premises on an ongoing basis.’
The select committee had also called on the HSE to ensure that its current review of the CAR 2012 includes ‘a thorough written assessment of moves towards more stringent asbestos occupational exposure limits (OELs) in Europe’.
The select committee had suggested specifically that the HSE should move to a lower OEL. However, the government supported the HSE’s position that ‘the underlying science being used to justify a new limit is not certain at this stage’.
Responding to the committee’s report, the government said: ‘In GB, the approach for exposure control to asbestos is that OELs and the clearance indicator act as “triggers” for action rather than levels that workers could be expected to be exposed to over a working lifetime.’
The government added that the GB limits fell under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSSH) and CAR 2012, which require carcinogenic exposures to be ‘reduced as low as reasonably practicable’. Many other countries, the government said, did not have ‘such a framework in place’.
A spokesperson for the HSE told IOSH magazine: ‘Management of asbestos is a complex, sensitive issue and a key priority for HSE. We welcome scrutiny, and repeat our previous thanks to the committee. We will act on any suggestions where there’s evidence doing so would be beneficial.’
Ruth Wilkinson, head of health and safety at IOSH, said: ‘Asbestos remains a global challenge to both occupational and public health. IOSH was pleased to support the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry and we supported the recommendation for there to be an overall ‘plan’ developed by the government and HSE.
‘But removing asbestos is something which is fraught with risks so we called for caution over doing this without considering research and evidence around safe removal and disposal. We requested that any options, planning and decision stages consider all hazards and risks in relation to “in-situ”, removal, transportation and disposal.’
Ruth added that the lack of consistency in managing asbestos among duty holders and the lack of awareness and knowledge about it among those who are coming into contact with it, particularly in smaller businesses, was a significant concern.
‘We would like to see a collective effort by policy makers, government, regulators, employers and worker representatives to address this,’ she said.
‘This action should be part of a strategic plan which is aligned to the built environment and net zero initiatives. Such a plan must have a focus on duty holders and the competence of individuals, and include the development of clear guidance around managing asbestos. It should also include enforcement. Also essential to it is improved training for employees, which raises awareness of the dangers of exposure, informs them how to deal with asbestos and what to do if they come across it.’