Britain’s key traditional asbestos “hotspots” tend to be mostly centred around the Midlands, the north of England and the south coast. However, it may be argued that Scotland continues to pose one of the highest risks of potential occupational exposure. Asbestos containing materials can be uncovered in unexpected workplaces.
Most recently, it was reported that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) discovered asbestos at five police stations, which were not being properly managed, as required under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012).
Focus traditionally on shipyard workers
The overwhelming focus of asbestos awareness has traditionally always been on the tragic suffering caused to thousands of shipyard workers who developed occupational mesothelioma and asbestosis disease. During the peak asbestos use years from the 1950s to the late 1970s/early 80s when around 170,000 tons of asbestos was imported annually, two of the most vulnerable groups of workers in British industry were shipbuilders and dockyard workers.
In 2012, the Clydebank area – where the ship building industry of Scotland was primarily focused throughout the twentieth century – recently recorded the highest rate of mesothelioma mortality.
In areas, such as Tayside and the north-east of Scotland, there is still a high number of confirmed mesothelioma cases reported each year. More than 100 people living in the Tayside area were admitted to hospital in 2013 for asbestos-related diseases compared to just 74 cases each year only five years ago, according to the NHS. It was also confirmed that between 2011 and 2012, the Dundee area saw a rise of nearly 30 per cent of asbestos-related deaths over the previous five years.
Asbestos in local authority or other types of public buildings
However, not all cases of asbestos-related illnesses reported in Scotland are suffered by those who worked in shipbuilding. It should also be remembered that in the decades of reconstruction after WW2, hundreds of thousands of properties – public, private, industrial and commercial – were built using cheaply-sourced asbestos as an universal insulator. Asbestos was used to line walls, ceilings, floors, boilers, pipework and exterior roofs. More than half a century later, the construction industry estimate that there could still be up to four million properties around Britain still containing hidden asbestos materials.
The potential hazards faced by asbestos remaining in local authority or other types of public buildings continue to make press headlines. While the urgent issue of asbestos in schools dominates the agenda, increasingly there are reports of asbestos found in town halls, libraries, swimming pools, leisure centres and a variety of other unexpected places.
Following an inspection of five Police Scotland stations by the HSE, the government watchdog identified “contraventions” of the law in the management of asbestos. The HSE issued an “improvement notice’ for action to be taken – not less than 21 days from the date of serving the notice – which could see hundreds of sites undergo a thorough asbestos survey.
Absence of properly managed asbestos plans
When Police Scotland – the second largest force in the UK after the Met – was formed in April 2013 from the merger of eight regional forces, there were 215 police stations at the time. In October of the same year, it was proposed that the number of sites would be reduced by 65 to 150. It’s possible that most of the remaining sites could be surveyed for the hazardous presence and mismanagement of asbestos.
According to the HSE, the absence of properly managed asbestos plans meant that areas with asbestos containing materials were not marked, while other areas were only marked in ‘general’ terms to just identify the presence of asbestos but giving no indication of where it actually was located in the building.
In addition to the lack of monitoring of the condition of the asbestos, the HSE also found evidence that asbestos containing materials had recently been drilled into by a contractor whilst fitting a new fire alarm at one police station. Police Scotland have confirmed that work is under way to determine how many sites will need to be surveyed.
However, it would seem that police stations in Scotland are yet another type of public building to join the growing list of properties where there is potentially an occupational health risk of exposure to asbestos.
Previous reports of asbestos in workplaces not related to the dockyards have almost exclusively focused on schools in different regions of Scotland thought to contain asbestos in the walls, ceilings or floors. Between 60 – 80 per cent of schools in areas such as Falkirk, Fife and East Ayrshire contain brown, blue and white asbestos. In Edinburgh, it is estimated that as many as 93 per cent of schools contain the potentially lethal fibre materials.