Parliament Call for Asbestos Eradication Program
One hundred and twenty-three years after the hazard was first acknowledged by a British Factory Inspector, a Parliamentary Committee called for government action to eradicate the danger posed by asbestos-containing material in public buildings.1 The deadline suggested by Members of Parliament (MPs) for the completion of the decontamination was forty years or 163 years after the problem was first reported.2
In an article in the Morning Star on April 22, 2022, the TUCs General Secretary Frances OGrady was unimpressed:
More than 22 years after the use of asbestos was banned, hundreds of thousands of workers are still put at risk of exposure every day. A 40-year deadline isnt ambitious enough. Ministers must commit to removing all asbestos to keep future generations safe.3
OGradys disappointment was shared by Robin Howie, Past President of the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), who commented:
I guess the Committee's recommendations went as far as it could within the unwritten rules. I would have wished that they had more clearly outlined timescales, e.g. not more than 10 years for schools and Local Authority housing falling off to 40 years for offices used only by adults etc.
As we have about 8 million school pupils in the UK, a 10 year exposure still give us 80 million person-years of potential exposure!! If we have an average exposure of, say, 0.0001 f/ml of amosite (i.e. at 1% of the Clearance Indicator) for 10 years, we can expect a meso rate of about 25/million, or a minimum of about 200 meso deaths.4
The tone and content of a press release by Unison broadly welcomed the report but wanted the UK government to:
develop a central, digital asbestos register, containing information on asbestos in schools and hospitals as well as other public buildings. UNISON submitted written evidence to the committee as a member of the joint unions asbestos committee, which has called for the removal of asbestos in schools to be prioritised The government must act now with a strategy to protect workers and future generations from this preventable cancer.5
There was much to commend in the document issued by the Work and Pensions Committee, not least the fact that the MPs heard evidence from a spectrum of stakeholders during sessions on November 17, 2021 and February 2, 2022; those witnesses who provided oral evidence included asbestos victims campaigners, representatives of cancer charities and trade unions as well as officials from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and government ministers. It was noteworthy that information provided by technical, medical and epidemiological experts from Germany, France and the Netherlands made it clear that the HSEs policy on asbestos was not only outdated but also not fit for purpose.6
The muted media reaction to the report concentrated on just one of the Committees conclusions: that the eradication of asbestos contamination was the long-term goal;7 criticism of the current HSE policy was, on the whole, avoided despite the forthright statement made by Committee Chair MP Stephen Timms:
Asbestos is one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times and while the extreme exposures of the late twentieth century are now behind us, the risk from asbestos remains real. The drive towards retrofitting of buildings to meet net zero aspirations means the risk of asbestos exposure will only escalate in the coming decades. Falling back on regulations which devolve responsibility to individual building owners and maintenance managers will not be sufficient to protect peoples health.
Setting a clear deadline of 40 years for the removal of asbestos from non-domestic buildings will help to focus minds. The clock is ticking and the Government and HSE must now come up with a strategic plan which builds the evidence on safer removal and prioritises higher risk settings such as schools.
This is no time for laissez-faire. The Government needs to fund the HSE properly to allow it to reverse the decline in enforcement activity seen in the decade before the pandemic and ensure that asbestos, and its removal, is managed safely and effectively.8
The Government has two months to respond to the Work and Pensions Committees report.
May 3, 2022
1 Kazan-Allen, L. Chronology of Some Significant Landmarks in Britains Search for Asbestos Justice.
British Asbestos Newsletter. Issue 109. Spring-Summer 2019. [Pages 4-8]
2 Set 40 year deadline for non-domestic building asbestos removal, MPs say. April 21, 2022.
3 Trinder M. MPs back TUC calls for asbestos removal from public buildings. April 22, 2022.
4 Email from Robie Howie. April 22, 2022. Mr. Howies evidence to the Committee can be accessed here:
ASB0048 - Health and Safety Executives approach to asbestos management.
5 UNISON Welcomes Asbestos Report. April 21, 2022.
6 Inquiry. Oral and Written Evidence. Health and Safety Executives approach to asbestos management. Uploaded April 21, 2022.
7 MPs say asbestos must go from public buildings within 40 years. April 21, 2022.
Lives depend on asbestos removal plans, says IOSH. April 26, 2022.
Pitcher, G. MPs demand plan to remove asbestos from public buildings. April 22, 2022.
Trinder, M. MPs back TUC calls for asbestos removal from public buildings. April 22, 2022.
8 Set 40 year deadline for non-domestic building asbestos removal, MPs say. April 21, 2022.