• Lee Calver
  • 14 October 2014

Will the HSE’s asbestos safety campaign be the catalyst for similar initiatives across the world?

The HSE last week launched a new safety campaign to encourage tradespeople to think about asbestos on every job. The aim is to ensure they are prepared to deal with the threat after it was revealed that 1.3 million are at risk from the dangers of asbestos.

According to a new survey, commissioned by the HSE, workers, including construction professionals, carpenters and painters and decorators could come into contact with deadly asbestos on average more than 100 times a year.

The survey also uncovered some common myths believed by those at risk which demonstrate precisely how important it is that all workers familiarise themselves with the dangers of asbestos.

One in seven (14%) said that they believe drinking a glass of water will help protect them, while one in four (27%) stated that they think opening a window will help to keep them safe from the deadly dust.

Worryingly, only 30% of those surveyed were able to identify all the correct measures for safe asbestos working, while 57% made at least one potentially lethal mistake in trying to identify how to stay safe.

The HSE revealed that the research, undertaken by Censuswide in September 2014, found that while 53% were aware that asbestos could be in old buildings built prior to 1970, only 15% knew that it could still be found in buildings built up to the year 2000.

Other findings from the study revealed that although many of those surveyed could pinpoint some asbestos-containing materials, others were oblivious. For example, only 19% recognised that asbestos could be hidden in common fixtures such as toilet seats and cisterns.

Commenting on the new safety campaign, Mark Harper, Minister responsible for Health and Safety, said:

“The number of people dying every year from asbestos-related diseases is unacceptably high. Despite being banned in the construction industry, asbestos exposure remains a very serious risk to tradespeople. This safety campaign is about highlighting the risks and easy measures people can take to protect themselves.”

Launching the campaign last week at the TradePoint store in Cricklewood, Harper announced that Builders merchant, TradePoint, will be supporting the campaign and 200,000 asbestos safety kits will be distributed to tradespeople through their stores across Great Britain.

Another key feature of the campaign is the creation of a new web app for phones, tablets and laptops that help tradespeople easily identify where they could come into contact with the deadly material as they go about their day-to-day work and also provides users with tailored help on how to deal with the risks.

The web app will lead users through a list of simple multiple-choice questions about the type of building they are working in, the job they are doing, and the type of asbestos-containing material they are working with.

After weighing up the responses given, the app, Beware Asbestos, will advise users to stop work and get a licensed asbestos contractor if the asbestos risk is too high; follow a simple step-by-step guide on how to lower the risk of asbestos work; or continue to work if there is no risk.

Mark Harper added:

“We hope the safety kits and the web app will encourage people to be aware of the risks, think twice, and take precautions to stay safe.”

Importance of safety campaign

Data released earlier this year shows that 2,535 people died in Britain from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma in 2012, up by over 10% on 2011’s figures. It is also expected that deaths from the cancer are expected to continue rising until 2020 due to the long latency of the disease and the legacy of past occupational exposure.

This latest safety drive follows the HSE’s ‘Hidden Killer’ campaign, which ran between 2008 and 2010. The previous initiative was said to be highly-effective as post-campaign evaluation revealed that it achieved an 85% awareness in the target audience, with 90% saying they had been provoked to think about their own exposure to asbestos. In addition, 87% stated they had a better understanding of the risks.

Due to the success of that campaign, questions have been raised as to why it has taken four years for a similar initiative to be introduced.

Construction Union, UCATT, welcomed the move but admitted its disappointment at the four-year delay. UCATT General Secretary, Steve Murphy, commented:

“Construction workers are at the greatest risk of being exposed to asbestos. Any campaign that warns workers of the dangers of asbestos is welcome. The campaign needs to be as wide ranging as possible and should not be confined to one company distributing information.”

Mr Murphy added:

“It is vital that construction workers receive proper training on asbestos. Pressure must be placed on employers to ensure that training takes place and workers are not victimised, threatened or blacklisted when raising concerns about asbestos, which is often the case. Employers who allow workers to be exposed to asbestos must be prosecuted.”

Despite UCATT’s frustration it has taken so long, it is evident the Union believes in the campaign, which can also be said for many others in light of last week’s launch.

Adrian Budgen, Head of asbestos-related disease litigation at law firm, Irwin Mitchell, said:

“This is a very positive step by the HSE and we, along with our clients, welcome the campaign. We continue to be instructed by hundreds of people each year whose lives have been turned upside down as a result of exposure to asbestos many years ago.”

“Many older buildings, including hospitals and schools, still contain asbestos and, whilst the risk is minimal if the material is not disturbed, the consequences can be devastating for those who inhale the fibres when they are released into the air. Our work shows it is not just people who work in heavy industry that are affected – many public sector workers such as teachers and health care professionals have developed mesothelioma simply by breathing the air at work.”

Budgen continued:

“It is only by raising awareness of the dangers of asbestos and explaining how the material can be safely removed, that we will see a decline in the number of people who are impacted by asbestos disease.”

He concluded:

“Employers have a duty to protect their people and we hope all those who work within the construction industry will support the HSE’s campaign to ensure that in the future asbestos will no longer cause unnecessary deaths.”  

Worldwide impact

The figures concerning asbestos-related deaths in the UK show how vital it is for campaigns such as this to take place, but when you also take global statistics into consideration, the importance becomes even clearer.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposures. One in every three deaths from occupational cancer is estimated to be caused by asbestos.

The WHO has compiled a list of documents reflecting its assessment of the risks of the different forms of asbestos and WHOs' technical directions and recommendations for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases, which all can be found here.

In the US, October is Health Literacy Month, and at the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), that means saving lives through prevention. It states that everyone should know the Irrefutable Facts about how to protect your loved ones from asbestos exposure because the only two ways to end asbestos-caused diseases are prevention and a cure.

Its theme is ‘Be a Health Literacy Hero’, and is asking for you to be a hero today by reading and sharing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “Asbestos Fact Sheet” about asbestos exposure in the workplace.

We spoke to Linda Reinstein, President/CEO, Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), who offered her views:

"As a mesothelioma widow and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), time has proven to me that education saves lives. It is staggering to witness the ongoing catastrophic collateral damage caused from asbestos. 

“The International Social Security Association reported in 2011 that the “cost-benefit potential for investments in prevention may be as strong as 1 : 2.2, and even higher in some cases”.

“Through collective activism and partnering for prevention, the global asbestos struggle continues to gain momentum. ADAO’s digital storytelling has allowed us to connect internationally; sharing our personal stories about the devastating impact asbestos has on our families and communities.”

Linda added: 

“It is reprehensible that Russia, China, Brazil, and Kazakhstan mined nearly two million metric tons of asbestos last year. While promising research continues, prevention remains the only cure for asbestos disease. It will take decades to end the man-made disasters caused from asbestos, but asbestos victims are united and change is imminent.”

To find out more about ADAO’s efforts throughout Health Literacy Month and their ongoing work, visit their website.

The future

While estimates show that currently about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace, it is clear that something needs to be done. The efforts of the HSE with its new safety campaign are a great start and will hopefully lead to similar initiatives across the world.

Our latest forum relates to this blog and we want to hear from you about what you think should be done to tackle this grave problem. Is the new HSE campaign enough or should this merely be the start in a long line of actions? Wherever in the world you are based, please share with us your views on this issue in our forum discussion group.