FIVE thousand deaths every year in Britain are linked to past asbestos exposure, but people are still being exposed to it today, warns the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).
In Global Asbestos Awareness Week (1-7 April), IOSH is calling on organisations to manage risks more responsibly and stop people being exposed to asbestos, which can lead to fatal cancers like mesothelioma.
Asbestos was banned in Britain in 1999 but it is still wreaking havoc across the country with lives being put at risk by companies failing to manage exposure to it, for example:
- 135 companies have been ordered to stop work and 130 told to improve because of asbestos management failures since January 2018
- 31 fines – totalling £933,277 – and prison sentences have been handed down since January 2018, the most recent fine being imposed just last week of a Devon-based luxury hotel owner
Since the start of last year, 135 companies or individuals have been ordered to cease work activities because of non-compliance with asbestos regulations, with a further 130 warned they must improve.
Another 31 companies or individuals have been prosecuted for breaches, with fines ranging from £1 to £200,000 and some directors being given prison sentences.
But while these companies are being hit in the pocket, the human cost of asbestos exposure at work is far greater, with at least 5,000 deaths every year in Britain being linked to it.
While it takes 20 years or more for exposure to lead to a cancer diagnosis, the IOSH is concerned that the number of buildings containing asbestos and a widespread lack of awareness and uncertainty on how to manage it – particularly among small and medium-sized organisations – means people will continue to become seriously ill in decades to come.
Despite being banned in 1999, it is present in at least half a million buildings constructed before this time, lurking in roofing, spray coatings, lagging, insulating boards and cloth.
IOSH’s Chief Executive Bev Messinger will address delegates at the International Asbestos Awareness and Prevention Conference in Washington DC on Saturday 6th April, highlighting the institution’s No Time to Lose campaign to tackle occupational cancer.
Messinger said: ‘It is unacceptable that, 20 years on from asbestos being banned in Britain, organisations are still potentially putting at risk the lives of employees, their families and other members of the public.
‘Courts fine some of the worst offenders, which causes significant commercial and reputational damage, but the human costs far outweigh the financial cost.
‘Thousands die in Britain every year from cancers like mesothelioma, while many more are diagnosed with it.
‘We must also consider the families of these people, who watch their loved ones suffer.
‘All this is preventable through good occupational safety and health.
‘It is time for organisations to wake up and realise how dangerous asbestos is. There are no excuses.’
An IOSH-funded survey last year found there was a worrying lack of awareness among tradespeople about asbestos.
Of 500 respondents, including electricians, carpenters, joiners and roofers, nearly one in four said they had been exposed to asbestos, while one in three admitted to never checking the asbestos register before starting work on a new site.
This lack of awareness is evidenced in some recent court cases:
- A Devon-based luxury hotelier was fined £80,000 last week after asbestos containing materials were disturbed during refurbishment of bathrooms and bedrooms at one of its properties.
Concerns about asbestos had been raised by an employee but no testing was done, and work carried on for several months.
- A manufacturing organisation allowed its workers to demolish an internal wall, exposing them to asbestos.
There had been no asbestos survey or up-to-date asbestos management plan for the premises. The company was fined £20,000.
Former roofer Liam Bradley, 32, of Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, was diagnosed with mesothelioma after surgeons operated on a collapsed lung following a fall from a height.
While the father-of-one isn’t yet showing any symptoms, his future remains unclear and he is urging organisations to provide more information for people at risk of exposure.
He said: ‘I worked for a number of small organisations on quite a few refurbishment projects, yet I was told hardly anything about the risks of asbestos, so being diagnosed with mesothelioma came as a huge shock.
‘It is incredibly frustrating that people continue to be ignorant about it.
‘I get the sense that a lot of people think it’s an old wives’ tale, something there to scare you. But it’s real.
‘It’s happened to me, so it can happen to anyone else – businesses, and the people who work for them, need to make it a priority.’
Through its No Time to Lose campaign, IOSH is raising awareness of occupational cancer and some of the most common causes.
Its current focus, which began a year ago, is asbestos.
The institution has free resources which can assist businesses and individuals on how to prevent asbestos exposure.
For more information, visit www.notimetolose.org.uk
- An appeal has been made to former school colleagues of a grandmother who died from a cancer usually linked to asbestos exposure.
Elizabeth Ann Griggs, 79, worked as a science lab technician at Wells Cathedral School in Somerset between 1969 and 2001, a law firm said.
It is asking former staff and pupils to provide information ‘regarding the use of asbestos-based equipment’.
Mrs Griggs died in November 2017 after being diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Her family has instructed Irwin Mitchell to investigate whether lab equipment she used at the school in the 1970s caused her disease.
Before she died, Mrs Griggs, who was known as Ann Curtis when she worked at the school, said her work involved providing pupils with asbestos mats designed to prevent heat damage to work surfaces.
She also remembered setting up and packing away bunsen burners containing solid asbestos.
Her husband, Gerald, from Shepton Mallet, said: ‘Ann died before she was able to achieve justice.
‘We now want to honour her memory by doing this for her and would be grateful to anyone who might be able to provide more information.’
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops in the lining that covers the outer surface of some of the body’s organs.
- The first trial for the death of a Madrid metro worker from a cancer linked to asbestos opened on Monday in Spain, where a total ban on the material’s use dates only to 2002.
The family of Julian M.R., who died in October 2018 at the age of 60 from lung cancer, are seeking 400,000 euros ($450,000) in compensation from the company that manages the Spanish capital’s metro system, Metro de Madrid, which they accuse of negligence.
They argue the employee, who had worked as a maintenance worker for Metro de Madrid for over three decades, developed the illness due to overexposure to asbestos.
The trial at a labour court in Madrid is the first for negligence involving Metro de Madrid for a death attributed to asbestos exposure, a spokesman for the High Court of Justice said.
Asbestos, which started to be banned in Europe in the mid-1990s, was widely used as building insulation because it absorbs sound and resists fire, heat and electrical damage.
The inhalation of asbestos fibres has been shown to cause lung inflammation and cancer, and symptoms can take up to 20 years to manifest themselves.
Metro de Madrid is accused of knowing that asbestos was used in its underground rail network at least since 1991 but doing nothing to protect its employees.
Julian M.R. is one of two metro employees who died from a cancer caused by asbestos who had successfully sought recognition as suffering from a work-related illness, according to Spanish media reports.
Another two employees who are battling cancer have also had the disease recognised as being work-related, according to the reports.
Rosalia Gonzalo, the transport minister in the Madrid regional government run by the conservative Popular Party, said in November that the presence of asbestos in the metro system posed no risk for metro employees and workers.
She said that Metro de Madrid will spend 140 million euros to remove all asbestos from the metro networks by 2025.
Exposure to asbestos at work kills more than 107,000 people around the world every year, according to the World Health Organisation.