Attempting to implement the prohibition of the import and widespread industrial use of asbestos in the UK for much of the 20th century has been a painstakingly slow and laborious history. It serves to give a clear illustration of the implicit reluctance by employers to accept growing medical and legislative asbestos awareness of the fatal health risks attached to continued asbestos exposure.
For the many thousands of workers employed in the shipyards, railways, textile mills, car assembly plants, construction and many other industries where blue, brown and white asbestos was extensively used, the mounting evidence was often kept hidden and the horrific consequences only coming to light up to 50 year later when the first mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms would appear.
The use of asbestos as a cheap, flexible and highly effective heat insulating material persisted right up to the 1980s and 1990s. This was despite the first Asbestos Regulations of 1969, which only aimed to ‘manage asbestos contact’ but at least, was the first time that the deadly fibres were positively declared as a risk to workers. It was not until fourteen years later, in 1983, that the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations was introduced which required an HSE (Health and Safety Executive) licence for any person working with asbestos coating or asbestos insulation products.
Meanwhile, as a result of the long latency periods, the number of fatalities from asbestos-related disease was rising at an alarming rate along with mesothelioma compensation claims being brought by the victim’s families. Research has revealed that the total number of observed, male mesothelioma deaths from 1968 onwards was over 32,000, with the total number of male deaths still increasing even as late as 2008 onwards to nearly 60,000.
The first time an attempt to actually ban the import and use of the more dangerous forms of asbestos, crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos), was in the 1985 UK Asbestos (Prohibition) Regulations. And whilst in1987, the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations was introduced to ensure tighter controls in the prevention of exposure to asbestos in the workplace, it was not until 1992 that the usage of white chrysotile asbestos was added to the prohibition law from seven years’ earlier, which originally banned the blue and brown types.
Although the HSE license requirement had been in place for any work involving asbestos coating or insulation products since 1983, it took another 15 years until the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations were changed to incorporate AIB (asbestos insulation board) in 1998. The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations were amended in 1993 to enforce the substitution of any material containing asbestos, as far as it was possible.
Just one year before the end of the 20th century, a 1999 ruling saw the complete prohibition of the use and import of chrysotile, which was still being used as late as the 1980s and 1990s in construction materials and certain products.
Past the second millenium, in 2002 the “duty to manage” policy was introduced to provided further protection against asbestos exposure in the workplace. A year later, in 2003 the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations were again amended to ensure the relevant authority would be notified of the details of any asbestos work which required a license, at least 14 days prior to work commencement.
Finally, some 170 years after asbestos was first introduced in to the UK, all previous prohibition and licensing regulations were rolled into one comprehensive Control of Asbestos Regulations, 2006.