Awareness of asbestos and the practices designed to deal with it have greatly improved in construction over the years – but contractors should still be mindful of the great harm it can cause.
It’s a sobering thought that most of the six million tonnes of asbestos imported into Britain since 1880 still remain hidden within our national infrastructure.
In 2015, the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health highlighted that half a million commercial properties and one million homes contain asbestos and, worryingly, so do 75 per cent of our schools.
This group also estimated that around 1.3m tradespeople routinely come into contact with asbestos at work, thanks to its prolific use before being banned in 2000.
While awareness and practices in the construction industry have vastly improved over the years, these statistics should serve to sharpen the focus of those on the frontline and their employers.
Clearly the presence of asbestos increases project costs and delivery times, but prioritising budgets and schedules can be a false economy that has devastating long-term implications.
“When the consequences have been caused by complacency or negligence, the effect on the individual and their families is magnified”
I encounter people on a regular basis who are suffering terribly due to asbestos-related conditions, many of which could have been avoided.
The effects of asbestos exposure can be devastating and, when the consequences have been caused by complacency or negligence in a construction environment, the effect on the individual and their families is magnified.
Since the negative health implications of asbestos were identified, the sector has made great strides forward in mitigating health risks. For example, earlier this year more than 150 chief executives at the Health in Construction Conference signed a charter committing them to improve occupational health.
So it’s always concerning to see cases and surveys that highlight goodwill failing to translate into action.
Even as recently as last month, Construction News reported that half of construction firms are not monitoring occupational health, which indicates there is still some way to go.
“The statistics provide a grim backdrop. Asbestos kills 5,000 people every year”
Campaigning groups and awareness days, such as the annual Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April and Action Mesothelioma Day in July, aim to keep the danger of asbestos front of mind, but it’s vital that workers and employers never lose sight of the threat it poses.
The statistics provide a grim backdrop. Asbestos kills 5,000 people every year and it’s thought that by 2020, a quarter of a million Britons will have died as a result of exposure.
In the workplace, asbestos-related diseases and respiratory ailments are responsible for 100 times more deaths than accidents. Indeed, 2014/15 alone tragically saw 2,600 construction workers die due to cancer caused by exposure to the material.
With asbestos-related conditions taking decades to manifest themselves, many believe we are yet to see the peak and are braced for a significant rise in cases over the coming years.
Far from over
The fight against this hazardous substance is far from over, especially when it comes to maintaining focus and avoiding unnecessary exposure in a working environment.
Legal responsibility lies firmly with employers to provide information, instruction and training to those who are likely to be in contact with asbestos.
For those workers on the frontline, it remains essential that best practice is adhered to and, if an employer is found wanting, that they speak up to protect their future health and that of their colleagues.
The industry can ill afford to let its guard down.
Asbestos is a persistent menace that has the potential to continue to create health, legal and financial issues for many years to come.
Tracey Graham is director of industrial disease at Your Legal Friend