Asbestos review shows ‘shocking’ official complacency

An official review of how the UK’s workplace asbestos laws are operating has exposed the ‘shocking complacency’ of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the TUC has said. Hugh Robertson, the union body’s head of safety, is critical of a proposal to reduce the frequency of the legally required medical examinations of those undertaking the highest risk ‘licensed’ work from every two to three years, which he says ‘seems totally irresponsible.’ He adds that he ‘was staggered by the level of complacency that there is throughout the review.’ A key concern is the repeated statement in the HSE document that the 5,000 UK deaths a year linked to asbestos are the result of past exposures when the carcinogen was “less well-regulated than today”. Robertson is also concerned that HSE fails to acknowledge that self-reporting of asbestos exposures can be misleading, as workers today are no longer working directly with asbestos so are far less likely to be aware of their exposures. While the paper concludes retaining the regulations is justified, “nowhere did the paper look at the possible effect of improving controls,” he says. “We did not get any calculations of the effect on death rates if the government were to require employers to remove the millions of tons of asbestos that is still in place.” He notes asbestos can be found in an estimated half a million workplaces and around a million homes. “Over 50,000 people have died in the UK from mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure, several tens of thousands more have died from lung cancer or other asbestos-related diseases. Tens of thousands more will die because of exposure that they have already had,” Robertson notes. “How many more will die over and above that will depend on what we do now. The fact that government and regulators see the status quo as the best option is a damning indictment of our health and safety system.”

TUC Stronger Unions blog. Post implementation review of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, HSE, 2017.