Raising awareness of the asbestos risks that remain today

The Health and Safety Executive tells us about their ongoing asbestos campaign

Almost a quarter of a century ago, the importation, supply and use of all asbestos was banned in the UK. The ban, in 1999, was due to the risks to health following inhalation exposure to asbestos, however the deadly impact of past exposure continues today – asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK, responsible for 5,000 deaths a year.
While the ban has ensured that many workers will be spared the exposure that previous generations suffered, due to the nature of their activities, certain occupations remain at risk today – one of these being workers involved in construction activities involving older properties.
Asbestos could be found in any building built, or refurbished, before the year 2000 and properties built in the fifties, sixties and seventies are highly likely to include asbestos. This means across the UK many tradespeople today will be in working in houses and buildings that contain asbestos.
The importance of communicating this risk was highlighted in a recent Work and Pensions report – ‘The Health and Safety Executive’s approach to asbestos management’, which recommended sustained campaigning specifically targeting tradespeople.

If asbestos fibres are inhaled, they can cause fatal and serious diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and asbestos-related lung cancer. Unlike many health risks in the workplace, these diseases will not affect you immediately, they often take a long time to develop, but once diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything.
Asbestos is dangerous when not maintained in a safe condition or if physically disturbed without the right measures in place to avoid fibres being released into the air. This is why tradespeople can be at significant risk, as their activities can often disturb materials containing asbestos during repairs and refurbishment, and unlike dust, you can’t see, smell, or feel asbestos fibres in the air or on your clothes.

There is noticeable difference between homes and commercial properties regarding asbestos and the risks to tradespeople. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 contains a duty to manage asbestos, which is directed at those who manage non-domestic premises, and includes protecting others who work in such premises, or use them in other ways – such as tradespeople, from the risks to ill health that exposure to asbestos causes.
However, in domestic properties, homeowners generally look to tradespeople to be the expert, and many will be unaware whether their property has asbestos or not – highlighting the importance of asbestos awareness to those working in this environment.

HSE’s mission is protecting people and places, its 10-year strategy includes reducing work-related ill-health. Supporting this was our overarching objective to contribute to the reduction of the overall number of tradespeople from exposure to asbestos leading to a decrease in those becoming afflicted/dying from asbestos-related diseases.
To achieve this, we had to raise awareness of the issue, to inform and educate the target audience about the risks from asbestos. And we wanted to test which messages resonate with the audience, and the channel mix, to see which achieve the greatest impact on the behaviours of tradespeople following the recommendations of the Work and Pensions Committee.

HSE had run campaigns previously targeting tradespeople in the 2000s (Hidden Killer) and 2010s (Beware Asbestos), which supplied detailed insight into this audience, which includes electrical fitters, joiners, plumbers, painters, plasterers, and roofers.
To ensure this information was up to date, as well as working with our insight team, we arranged focus groups with representatives from across the UK. The views from those experiencing the risk in their day-to-day work life validated previous research and highlighted a key point, which had become more important in the eight years since our last campaign, many young workers did not see the risks of asbestos, considering it a problem of the past – one for the ‘old timers’.

Asbestos & You
Our challenge was to make the risks of asbestos relatable to in trades, especially younger workers, or those new to the industry, while highlighting the importance of this issue.
The gauntlet was thrown down to HSE’s design team, who came up with Asbestos & You – a campaign identity which hints at the personal relationship our audience can have with asbestos and how they must be aware of the dangers it poses.
Using brush and pen fonts to provide a personal feel, the creative uses a patterning effect based on asbestos. What makes the creative really stand out is the use of red as the main colour, commonly associated with danger and stop, red is also the colour construction disposal bags use to highlight that they contain asbestos.
We recognised the challenges our audience faced, being out on jobs and the lack of time to sit down and research, therefore our communications had to be easy to read and understand, providing the information in a simple and concise way.
To achieve this, we created the Asbestos & You campaign site, a single webpage, which hosted our new ‘Quick guide for trades’ – an easy read reference document to help tradespeople deal with asbestos on every job, and signposted HSE’s asbestos essentials – more detailed task sheets, as well as links to further information.
We understood that not all workers and self-employed tradespeople were plugged into HSE communication channels, which meant to take our messages to them we needed to use the channels they did use at a personal and professional level.
Our approach was to adopt a multi-channel campaign, building on our owned communications (website, email and social media). This involved stakeholder engagement, involving industry groups, such as the Construction Leadership Council, and trade organisations including the Institute of Carpenters, The National Federation of Roofing Contractors, and the Contract Flooring Association, to disseminate our messages to their members.
Supporting this, we tapped into social media platforms used by our audience, targeting workers on Facebook, and LinkedIn. In addition, we worked in partnership with On The Tools – the UK’s largest and most engaged construction community with over 6.9 million followers. This resulted in two fantastic videos: a mini-documentary that brought to life the risks of asbestos through the real story of a tradesperson who has sadly contracted mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure; and ‘A Day in the life of an asbestos removal expert’ – highlighting what to look for when out on the job.
Finally, we wanted to ensure that we got our messages out to tradespeople who may not be digitally active, to achieve this we worked with leading builders merchant, Jewson, ensuring our campaign materials were issued to more than 400 stores across the UK.
Asbestos & You launched Monday, 6 March, and will run at least until the end of March 2024, so it is early days in terms of evaluating the impact of the campaign. We have been able to measure key metrics to assess the performance of the various tactics we employed, which have delivered some impressive results. Already we have seen more than 100k page views online, which has driven over 36k downloads of the quick guide.
Campaigns like Asbestos & You are essential to HSE’s mission to reducing work-related ill health, and it is only by delivering concerted communications through a variety of channels that we deliver a real-world impact to protect workers from the dangers they face. The response from across industry, and from those on the frontline, has been overwhelmingly supportive, highlighting how collaboration with stakeholders is key to delivering a wide reach to a varied audience. Asbestos & You is still at the start of its journey, but we are confident it is on the right path to raise awareness in those trades at highest risk, and to protect workers today from the effects of asbestos exposure in the future.

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