Working towards zero asbestos

Sir Stephen Timms, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee discusses ‘The Health and Safety Executive’s approach to asbestos management’ report

The immediate and most visible priority for the secretary of state for work and pensions and the team of ministers will be supporting people through the cost-of-living crisis. However, there are many other pressing policy areas that The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must not ignore.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports to DWP. Among these important pending issues is how to deal with the threats to health and life that persist in buildings up and down the country.

Threat to health and life
Our Work and Pensions Select Committee report, published last April, highlights the continuing risk from asbestos.
Despite being banned more than two decades ago, the material remains in 300,000 UK non-domestic buildings. It is the single greatest cause of work-related fatalities in the UK, with more than 5,000 deaths in 2019, including from cancers such as mesothelioma. There has been a growing number of deaths from asbestos-related diseases among retired teachers and nurses, presumably resulting from exposure during their working lives.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that the total annual cost of deaths from mesothelioma is £3.4 billion and around £3.1 billion for deaths from asbestos-related lung cancer. These figures attempt to put a price on the pain, grief and suffering caused to victims and their loved ones.

The extreme exposures of the last century are thankfully now behind us. But the drive towards retrofitting to meet net zero aspirations means the risk of asbestos exposure will only escalate in the coming decades. At the same time, the large-scale changes to buildings which will be needed provide a timely opportunity to remove asbestos in a cost-effective way. A key recommendation in our report is that this opportunity must be firmly grasped.
Current asbestos regulations devolve responsibility to individual building owners and maintenance managers. But this isn’t good enough, given the risk to human health. A new approach from DWP and the HSE is desperately needed.

Strategy needed
The previous secretary of state for work and pensions, Chloe Smith, told our inquiry, when she was still minister for disabled people, health and work that the Government had a ‘clearly stated goal’ that ‘it is right to – over time and in the safest way – work towards there no longer being asbestos in non-domestic buildings’.
The Committee agrees with that goal, although we are not aware of it ever having been stated before. But it isn’t good enough merely to state the goal. Our report calls for a new system-wide strategy to remove all asbestos from public and commercial buildings. A clear target should be set, as the cornerstone of a properly joined-up strategy for dealing with asbestos. We propose that ministers should set a deadline of 40 years for its removal.
The new strategic plan should focus on removing the highest risk asbestos first, as well as early removal from the highest risk settings, including schools. There also needs to be big improvements in the evidence base for safe asbestos removal and disposal, considering relative costs and benefits.

While the plan is being developed, there are other more immediate actions that can be taken. The HSE must do much more to monitor compliance with the current asbestos regulations and boost enforcement. The number of asbestos enforcement notices issued annually by HSE dropped by 60 per cent between 2011/12 and 2018/19.
Given a drop in government funding it is not entirely surprising that enforcement work has fallen over the past decade, but the level of decline in asbestos enforcement is much greater than for HSE enforcement work overall. There is certainly no evidence that compliance with asbestos regulations has improved dramatically during that time.
The HSE should commit to a sustained increase in inspection and enforcement activity and the government should make sure that the funding is there to support it.

As part of our inquiry we looked at how asbestos removal is handled in other countries, discovering that the direction of travel in Europe is towards tighter regulation and lower exposure limits for workers.
HSE made a fair point to us that European proposals may not necessarily be grounded in the real-world experience of asbestos exposure, and highlighted the problem of asbestos being so widespread in Great Britain.
An asbestos regulatory policy, however, which prioritises only that which is immediately practical risks tolerating poorer health standards, and higher costs in the longer-term. HSE should thoroughly assess the move towards more stringent asbestos occupational exposure limits in Europe.
The Government’s response last summer, before the change of Prime Minister, rejected our key recommendations, arguing that setting a deadline for removal would increase the risk of exposure. Such a stance fails to recognise that exposure is likely to increase in the coming years with more retrofitting of buildings as we approach net zero.
This strategy should prioritise the highest-risk buildings and urgently boost the evidence base for the safe removal and disposal of a material that is still the single greatest cause of work-related fatalities in the country.
The secretary of state has an opportunity to pursue a new approach, and to commit to developing a plan that deals properly with this deadly material and its continuing harmful consequences.

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