Every week in the UK, an average of 20 tradesmen – mostly carpenters, electricians and plumbers – will die from mesothelioma or other asbestosis diseases, according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).
There are still around 4,000 deaths recorded annually from asbestos exposure, the biggest single cause of work-related fatality, which even exceeds the number who die in road accidents.
With an estimated half a million properties around the UK, constructed or renovated up until at least the 1980s, which still contain hidden quantities of mainly white chrysotile asbestos building material, it is inevitable that it is those workers employed in the building trades who are most at danger of asbestos exposure today.
Other high risk trade occupations include those who are employed as heating and ventilating engineers, tilers, plasterers, glazers, roofers, insulation installers, general maintenance and refurbishment, ground clearance, removals and demolition.
As a result, in 2008 the HSE created an asbestos awareness campaign called ‘Hidden Killer’, which was designed to instruct and remind workers who are most likely to come into daily contact with the ‘low level’ risk but still potentially dangerous material. However, in Autumn 2010, government cuts of 35 per cent to funding halted the launch of a third campaign, which was expected to also affect safety inspections in many vulnerable areas, such as in schools and hospitals.
Since that time, there have been continual reports of contractors failing to recognise or mishandling asbestos material on building / demolition sites or illegal flytipping of the deadly material due to not following the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.
Despite HSE stating at the time that “there is no intention to run the Hidden Killer campaign again.”, a decision has just been taken to restart the vital programme in 2012. A campaign website will also provide vital information, including a factual quiz and images showing the exact and different forms of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) and how to identify asbestos likely to be encountered on-site.
Throughout most of the twentieth century and up until legislation started to be introduced from the mid 1970s onwards, asbestos fibre material was used as an inexpensive insulation and fire retardant in a variety of building products, including wall board, ceiling and floor tiles, textured surface coatings, cement roofing sheets, sprayed insulation, pipe lagging, adhesive, fillers and packing.
However, chrysotile white asbestos, thought less hazardous, continued to be used in construction of domestic and commercial properties until a final ban was introduced in 1998.
Even though chrysotile white asbestos is considered as a low risk material if left undisturbed and securely encapsulated, it is still classified as a Class 1 carcinogen. Handling can release fibre dust into the surrounding atmosphere and once breathed in, the fibres remain embedded within the linings of the lungs or stomach.
A long gestation period of between 15 to 50 years often elapses from first exposure to subsequent appearance of asbestosis symptoms. Inevitably, the mesothelioma would have spread to an advanced stage and a patient’s survival rate is likely to be no more than 4 to 12 months.
According to the HSE, the number of mesothelioma deaths in 2008 was 2,249, an increase of 3 per cent on 2007.