‘There needs to be much stricter controls on asbestos in the workplace’, says a report released in late 2018 by risk management consultant Lucion Services. The report suggests that the focus should begin heavily on schools and hospitals, two facilities where the risks are arguably higher than in others.
In September 2018, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), stated that about 20 tradespeople die in the United Kingdom each week from work-related asbestos exposure. This number is far higher than the number of people who die from accidents at work.
It also stated that asbestos-related diseases claim at least 10 000 lives globally each year; and will likely total up to 10 million deaths before it is fully controlled.
The report by Lucion Services heavily suggests that the current ‘duty to manage’ responsibility required by the Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012) needs to be amended and enhanced, calling for an occupational exposure limit for buildings known to contain high-risk asbestos. This call includes measuring airborne asbestos fibre concentrations at the time of periodic re-inspections, using modern air sampling and analysis techniques.
Charles Pickles, author of the report and chief technical officer at Lucion, had the following to say, “There is now serious and growing concern over current exposure levels from asbestos that remains in situ because the materials themselves have either been damaged and or are degrading, increasing the likelihood of fibres being released into the air. Rather than inspecting building materials for damage, the measurement of airborne fibres would enable the risk to the health of occupants to be directly measured and cost-effective asbestos abatement to be carried out.”
A Short History Lesson
In the 1950s and 1960s, asbestos was considered to be a ‘wonder’ material, and was used all over the world in the construction industry for many different purposes, including insulation and soundproofing. When it was found to be toxic, asbestos use was gradually limited as more and more workplace regulations tightened controls on the offending material. Unfortunately, due to the widespread use of the material, it remains in many shops, homes, hospitals, schools and offices today.
The World Health Organisation has estimated that around 107 000 global deaths occur due to mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer and asbestosis – each year. A more terrifying fact is that 56% of all mesothelioma deaths and 41% of all asbestosis deaths are recorded in Europe, which only constitutes 13% of the world’s population. As such, other European countries like the Netherlands and France have tightened the asbestos controls immensely.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops from the thin layer of tissue that covers many of the internal organs, which is known as the mesothelium. The most common area affected is the lining of the lungs and chest wall.
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibres. Prolonged exposure to these fibres can cause lung tissue scarring and shortness of breath. Asbestosis symptoms can range from mild to severe, and usually, they do not appear until many years after continued exposure.
Schools and Hospitals
These remain the biggest concerns in the UK. In 1983, the idea that pupils and staff could be inhaling raised levels of asbestos for six to seven hours a day led to the Department of Education crafting an ‘environmental’ limit proposal which was never carried through. In a 2018 BBC article, it was found that nine out of ten NHS trusts still have asbestos in their hospitals. In the years between 2013 and 2017, 352 claims were made against these trusts by people who had contracted asbestos-related diseases in NHS buildings.
This led to payouts of £16.4 million in compensation.
Because the majority of hospitals in the UK were built before 2000, they were mostly constructed with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), as the Asbestos Regulations only came into force in November of 1999.
- Asbestos lagging used as insulation on pipes and boilers
- Sprayed asbestos used for insulation, fire protection, ducts and partitioning
- Asbestos-insulating board used for fire protection, thermal insulation, ducts and partitioning
- Some ceiling tiles
- Floor tiles
- Cement roofing and guttering
- Textured coatings
So, what is required by law?
The presence of asbestos is not a sole cause for concern. If managed carefully, asbestos does not pose a risk to patients or staff. The legal requirement under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 states that asbestos in healthcare and other non-domestic premises should be managed. The BBC article showed that 198 hospitals have met this legal requirement and are aware of their asbestos locations. However, the fact that 32 hospitals failed to respond to the information request raises serious questions about their records and implies that not all the NHS trusts have full management of their asbestos situations.
The five steps to managing asbestos
All hospitals and all non-domestic premises are required to take these steps:
- Undertake an inspection and maintain a register of ACMs in the hospital
- Assess the risks associated with ACMs in the hospital or premises
- Devise a plan for managing asbestos in the hospital
- Make sure that staff, visitors and contractors know the risks and precautions they need to take
- Keep the management of asbestos in the hospital under review
Part of the Lucion report highlighted the cumulative effects of chronic low-level exposure to asbestos and how this will have a long-term impact on afflicted persons, especially for children. Having first exposure at a younger age makes them particularly vulnerable to asbestos-related illness.
According to the National Education Union, more than 200 teachers have died from mesothelioma across the UK since 2001. But scarily enough, children who are exposed to asbestos fibres are a whopping 5 times more likely to contract the disease than 30-year-old adults.
So what is required by law?
The Health and Safety Executive states the following;
“Duty holders should know whether their premises contain asbestos, where it is and what condition it is in. Then they should ensure that they manage it properly. They must assess and manage the risks from asbestos to employees and others. They must also ensure that anyone who is likely to work on or disturb asbestos is provided with information about its location and condition.”
This puts the onus on the school itself to ensure that their asbestos situation is correctly managed.
More information can be found here; http://www.hse.gov.uk/services/education/asbestos-faqs.htm
A major call for action
In a report on “Academy Accounts and Performances”, compiled by the Public Accounts Committee and presented to Parliament on January 23, 2019, the UK’s failure to address the asbestos issue in schools was pinned in place.
The following is taken from that report:
“Nearly a quarter of schools have still not provided the information that the Department needs to understand fully the extent of asbestos in school buildings and how the risks are being managed. We remain seriously concerned about the Department’s lack of information and assurance about asbestos in school buildings – as we first reported in April 2017. The Department launched its ‘asbestos management assurance’ process on 1 March 2018 to collect data on how asbestos in schools is being managed, and to provide assurance that academy trusts and local authorities are complying with their legal duties. The Department asked schools to respond by 31 May 2018. Due to the poor response rate, it extended the deadline to 25 June 2018 and then extended it again to 27 July 2018. Despite this, only 77% of schools have responded and the Department has extended the deadline yet again, to 15 February 2019, to allow the remaining 23% of schools to respond. The Department says that those schools that do not respond will be picked up in its school condition survey. However, we are not convinced that extending the survey deadline again will result in a much higher response rate, or that the condition survey will provide the level of specific assurance needed about how asbestos is being managed.
Recommendation: In March 2019, the Department should name and shame those schools which did not meet the February 2019 deadline and which have therefore repeatedly failed to respond to its asbestos management survey.”
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At the heart of the matter
Asbestos can be extremely dangerous if the correct precautions and management procedures are not adhered to or followed. The risk of asbestos-related diseases in schools, hospitals and other premises is still high across the UK, and facility managers would do well to acknowledge and mitigate that risk as much as is possible.
Voltix Services provides asbestos surveys, testing and asbestos removal services whilst working to the highest industry standards. If you are unsure of your current asbestos management scheme, you need to get in touch with Voltix Services today.