Survey reveals “uncertainty and ignorance” over exposure to asbestos

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According to research nearly one in four UK construction workers believe they may have been exposed to asbestos fibres, placing them at higher risk of contracting terminal cancers later in life

With potentially half a million buildings containing asbestos fibres, workers across many industries risk being exposed every day – continuing the trend of Britons having the world’s highest chance of dying from mesothelioma, the deadliest form of cancer.

As the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) launches its campaign to tackle asbestos exposure in the world’s workplaces, it has revealed the findings of a survey it commissioned to find out how much construction workers know about this hazard.

While the majority are familiar about the risks posed, a third of survey respondents have never checked the asbestos register before starting work on a new site – with nearly half of those not even knowing there is a register. Almost one in five respondents said if they discovered asbestos they wouldn’t be clear about what to do.

Leading scientists and safety and health experts have expressed concern about the findings. Along with IOSH, they are calling on employers across all sectors to ensure they do not expose employees.

Dr Lesley Rushton, the new Chair of the UK’s Industrial Injuries Advisory Council and a leading expert on workplace carcinogens, said: “What these new survey results confirm is that, while people have heard of asbestos and know what the effects of being exposed to it are, they’re not sure how to check if it’s present and they may not know what to do if they find asbestos.

“Uncertainty and ignorance surrounding how to prevent workers from breathing in the fibres is deeply worrying.

“This is particularly the case among small companies, sole traders and older workers. It is crucial that we reach them, to inform them of the risks and how these can be managed, to ensure their future health is not compromised.”

Ahead of the launch of the fourth phase of its ‘No Time to Lose’ occupational cancer campaign, IOSH commissioned Opinium to survey 500 construction workers to understand the scale of the issue.

Key findings include:

  • 59% have been informed of the asbestos risks and have had this reinforced regularly with training; 15% have never been informed
  • 23% say they have been exposed to asbestos; with only 27% saying they haven’t been exposed
  • 32% have never checked the asbestos register before starting work on a new site, with 15% of these not knowing about the register
  • 18% said that if they found asbestos they would either be unsure or have no idea what to do.

Asbestos is banned in 62 countries. The UK banned it in 1999, but many buildings constructed before this time contain it. It can be found in many products including spray coatings, lagging, insulating boards, ropes, yarns and cloth.

Asbestos fibres are invisible to the naked eye. When breathed in, they can stick into the lining of the lungs, causing serious illnesses over time, including fatal cancers like mesothelioma.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, at least 5,000 people die every year in Britain alone from an asbestos-related cancer caused by exposure at work.

Worldwide, asbestos claims over 107,000 lives a year. Yet an estimated 125 million people are still exposed to it at work annually.

Former labourer Keith Hughes, from near Birmingham, said he is facing an “uncertain future” having been exposed while working on refurbishments and renovations in the 1970s. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in September 2016. Following surgery, he has outlived the initial prognosis that he had less than a year to live, however the cancer is now growing again.

He said: “I’m angry because the law was not really made clear and asbestos didn’t really seem to be taken seriously in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Asbestos is not someone else’s problem. We all have to be aware of the risks and all have to take action. The responsibility on employers is significant. I would question them what are they doing to protect their employees and the employees of the future.”

Craig Foyle, IOSH President, added: “It is unacceptable for anyone in any workplace to be exposed to asbestos. Clearly, though, people are being exposed to it. In the decades to come, it is likely that these people and their families will still be suffering unless we all do something about it.”

For more information about the campaign and to access its free resources, visit www.notimetolose.org.uk or follow the campaign on Twitter @_NTTL.

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