Asbestos training in the construction industry has dropped sharply during the Covid-19 pandemic to the lowest level in five years. The UK Asbestos Training Association raises concerns at this fall and urges action to avert a serious crisis
The UK Asbestos Training Association (UKATA) has raised concerns about the lack of asbestos training in the construction industry that has been undertaken since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite the reopening of construction sites in May, the number of workers undertaking asbestos training courses continues to remain well below average and are at their lowest level for five years, prompting UKATA to speak out.
Prior to the Coronavirus crisis, an average of 18,000 workers a month completed asbestos training. Over the last six months (March-August), an average of 6,000 workers a month undertook asbestos training delivered by UKATA-approved training providers, a fall of more than 66%.
Craig Evans, chief operating officer of UKATA, said: “Our concern is health and safety training is being overlooked as construction sites push to make up for time lost during the lockdown. This not only increases construction workers’ risk of exposure to deadly asbestos but also the buildings’ users.”
Annually, it is estimated that there are 18,000 new cases of self-reported breathing or lung problems caused or made worse by work-related activities.
Deaths from asbestos exposure have increased dramatically in the last 15 years after widespread use between 1950s and 1970s. Since 2018, diseases (including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis) caused by the airborne fibre asbestos are responsible for killing more than 5,000 people per year – making asbestos the largest single industrial killer ever seen in the UK.
A crisis waiting to happen
Asbestos-related health issues are not identified immediately after exposure to asbestos. It takes between 15 years and up to 60 years before deadly asbestos-related diseases present themselves.
The latency period of asbestos, coupled with a substantial drop in training numbers, could mean that the UK will be facing a greater amount of deaths over the next 15-60 years. To reduce this risk, it is important that delivery of asbestos training returns to pre-Covid levels.
Asbestos is a highly toxic mineral that was used extensively in construction for over a hundred years prior to its ban in 1999. It has the ability to break down into microscopically thin fibres. These fibres are so small they can remain airborne for days after they were initially disturbed.
Despite its ban, it is estimated that even now there are 6m tonnes of asbestos in the UK, in as many as 1.5m UK buildings and the death rate from asbestos-related diseases continues to rise.
It is this that led to the establishment of the UKATA in 2008. A leading authority on asbestos training and not-for profit association, UKATA has campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of the necessity of asbestos training.
Risk and responsibility
The HSE recommends that asbestos refresher training courses should be undertaken to help ensure knowledge of asbestos awareness is maintained. The asbestos regulations also make it clear that asbestos training for non-licensable and licensable asbestos works should be carried out at least annually.
Correct training on how to identify potential asbestos hazards in buildings can mitigate the risk of asbestos. Legislation is in place to ensure employers of people who are liable to disturb asbestos during their normal work – electricians, builders, heating and ventilation engineers, etc – receive the correct level of information, instruction and training so that they can work safely and competently without risk to themselves or others.
However, within the construction industry self-employed tradespeople in particular can be overlooked, with many viewing the asbestos health risk as negligible or as something that will never happen to them. The harsh reality is that asbestos kills 20 tradespeople in the UK every week – a fifth of all asbestos deaths.
Up-to-date training vitally important
“Undertaking officially recognised asbestos training should be the first step in ensuring the safety of yourself and others where asbestos is concerned. Once you’ve done this training you will view asbestos in a very different light,” Evans said.
“It horrifies me that there are videos on YouTube instructing people how to remove asbestos ‘safely’. Anyone who uses these as instructional videos should be made aware that they are most definitely not an adequate alternative to recognised training courses and are not only risking their own lives but those of the building’s users.”
To ensure asbestos training continues to be accessible during the pandemic, UKATA approved its 200 member companies and individuals to deliver asbestos courses by video conference technology.
Evans said: “It is now vitally important that all construction employers and workers ensure that all asbestos training is up-to-date. These are difficult times, but this is a matter of life or death.”
The majority of UKATA-approved training providers are now fully operational and either delivering courses remotely online or face-to-face observing social distancing guidelines.
To find a UKATA member in your area delivering asbestos training visit www.UKATA.org.uk, call 01246 824437 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chief operating officer
UK Asbestos Training Association
+44 (0)1246 824437