The lingering threat of asbestos in the workplace and public buildings

As events have made more than clear since the importation and use of asbestos in the UK was finally completely banned in 1999, the fact that asbestos is no longer actively used in industry in this country, does not mean it has ceased to pose risks to human health.

One only needs to perform a search for “asbestos” on any online news site to see evidence of this; more than a generation on from the ban on asbestos in all its forms, newly diagnosed instances of asbestos-related disease are continuing to emerge in the UK.

Just one recent example of this was the deeply saddening case of Barbara Morris, a former sales assistant who was the focus of an article by The Sunday Times in August.

The newspaper’s piece was entitled “I was exposed to asbestos – now I won’t see my grandchildren grow up”, and directed fresh attention to the devastating effects that asbestos is continuing to have on many people and their families in the UK to this day.

The story of Barbara Morris

Although the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos is associated with a heightened risk of the person exposed going on to develop a potentially fatal disease – such as mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer – such conditions are also known to have a long latency period. In other words, it can take many decades after exposure for symptoms related to such diseases to arise.

This appears to have been the case, too, for Barbara Morris, who – as detailed by The Sunday Times’ story – was only diagnosed with asbestos-related cancer five years ago. The article stated that she had come into contact with asbestos during her time working for the East Midlands Electricity Board in Daventry, Northamptonshire, in the 1970s, but it took around 43 years more for her mesothelioma symptoms to appear.

The Times article also referred to the severe health consequences and challenges that Ms Morris had faced during treatment, including severe damage to her kidneys due to chemotherapy, and the removal of her spleen, ovaries, and a layer of her diaphragm.

As the newspaper further noted, only around a tenth of mesothelioma sufferers actually survive five years after diagnosis. Ms Morris was quoted as saying on this: “Five years is a long time to survive, so I suppose I’m quite lucky in that way. I just try to take each day as it comes.”

The changing face of asbestos-related illnesses

If, then, there is one thing that hasn’t changed about asbestos in the UK since 1999, it is the extremely serious risk it can pose to human health as a carcinogen. Sure enough, asbestos remains Britain’s leading workplace killer to this day, accounting for more than 5,000 people losing their lives annually.

Something that has changed in relation to this notorious substance, however, is the makeup of those who are dying due to asbestos-related disease. As pointed out by The Sunday Times’ story, whereas it was once the case that the majority of those passing away from asbestos-related cancers worked in construction and manufacturing, in the 2020s, most deaths are among those who worked in white-collar jobs, such as teaching, television, healthcare, and retail.

Indeed, we recently reported ourselves here at Oracle Solutions on the case of the veteran television presenter and journalist Esther Rantzen, who has suggested that her lung cancer could have arisen as a result of exposure to asbestos in buildings where she formerly worked at the BBC.

Although many buildings up and down the country that are likely to have contained asbestos – such as the BBC Lime Grove Studios where Ms Rantzen once worked – have now been demolished or had asbestos removed from them, that is far from universally the case.

There is no requirement in current UK law for asbestos to be removed from any and every building in which asbestos is found to be present. This means that, with the now-notorious substance having been used so heavily in construction projects around the country for the bulk of the 20th century, it continues to be prevalent in many commercial and public buildings, such as schools.

The ongoing asbestos dilemma in schools and hospitals

The Sunday Times stated in its article that around 1.5 million buildings in the UK still contain asbestos, including 81% of schools. This further underlines the sheer scale of the challenge inherent in attempting to manage asbestos and keep people safe from exposure in such public premises – including staff, service users, visitors, and the broader public alike.

legal duties of schools

Moreover, with such public buildings as schools and hospitals tending to vary so greatly in their ages, forms, and complexity, the ongoing management of any asbestos still present on such sites can become an even more complicated and difficult process.

Focusing specifically on hospitals, for example, we have written in the past here at Oracle Solutions about the wide range of spaces within such premises where asbestos might be present, such as in boiler rooms, staff canteens, and underground pedestrian tunnels linking hospital buildings.

This, combined with such factors as some asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) being more publicly exposed than others, and others varying greatly in their levels of deterioration, also presents complexities for decisions on removal.

It can probably be no great surprise, then, that The Sunday Times is calling for the phased removal of asbestos from buildings across the UK, beginning with schools and hospitals.

A need for a strategy: managing the risk vs proactive removal

The UK Government’s approach to asbestos management has long focused on encouraging those responsible for buildings containing asbestos to often manage the material in place, instead of necessarily removing it altogether.

Indeed, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s stance on asbestos continues to be that, as long as asbestos is in good condition and not subject to damage or disturbance, it presents “negligible risk” to human health. This has led to great numbers of building owners and managers simply introducing a regime of inspecting and assessing the risk posed by such materials “in situ”.

But has the time come for a more proactive strategy, placing a greater emphasis on asbestos removal? The Sunday Times evidently thinks so; in its justification for this, the newspaper stated that prefabricated buildings dating from the 1950s to the 1970s were “now falling into disrepair”. It added that there was also a need to upgrade national infrastructure, in order to meet the target of net zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century.

Doubtless, debate about the right approach to take to 20th-century asbestos in UK buildings will intensify in the years ahead, including considerations of the need to balance safety, urgency, and budgets. But one thing is for sure: the debate is now firmly on the agenda, including in our newspapers.

Raising awareness and safety education in white-collar industries

So, presuming the UK Government is unlikely to perform a sudden about-turn on its current policy for the on-site management of asbestos, what steps can be taken in the meantime to help better protect those in white-collar industries who may be at risk of asbestos exposure?

One measure should be ensuring that suitable asbestos awareness and safety training is delivered to those working in non-traditional, but at-risk sectors, in the knowledge that it is by no means only those directly involved in such industries as construction and manufacturing who could easily come into contact with the lethal substance.

In addition, appropriate safety protocols and measures must be implemented in workplaces, in order to further protect employees. When these steps are combined with advocating for better regulation and enforcement, we can be sure that we are doing as much as we realistically can to help prevent future tragedies, such as that of Barbara Morris and the thousands of asbestos-related deaths every year.

Asbestos removal challenges in national infrastructure upgrades

Even putting to one side the matter of whether the asbestos in any given public building in the UK is removed or simply managed in place over time, many such premises will inevitably be subject to large-scale renovation projects, in order to bring them into line with the latest requirements. This, in turn, raises the question of how to address asbestos in ageing infrastructure.

While certain infrastructure upgrades to older premises are always likely to be needed for immediate practical reasons, it is also crucial for the owners and managers of such buildings to balance the urgency of infrastructure upgrades with safety concerns.

Such safety concerns might, in some cases where future disturbance, damage, and/or deterioration of present ACMs is possible or likely, necessitate the complete removal of such asbestos, instead of it being left “in situ”.

This will require that dutyholders under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012) are mindful of the logistical challenges entailed in asbestos removal, in addition to identifying potential sources of funding for carrying out this work.

Conclusion: the asbestos threat has not gone away in the 21st century

Sadly, the continued risk presented by asbestos in buildings up and down the UK is very much real, even in the 2020s. In a broad range of today’s workplaces and public buildings, there is an urgent need to prioritise health and safety by actively addressing asbestos risks – which in many cases, might call for more proactive action than simply managing existing asbestos on-site.

By taking every possible step to raise awareness of the persistent dangers that asbestos poses, alongside implementation of safety measures and advocating for asbestos removal, our current generation can greatly help save the lives of future generations.

To find out more about our own asbestos services at Oracle Solutions and to receive a fast, free, and competitive quote, please don’t hesitate to contact us via email, or to give our team a call today.

The lingering threat of asbestos in the workplace and public buildings 1

Written by Jess Scott

Jess Scott has been an all-round asbestos consultant since 1996. That’s nearly 3 decades of asbestos knowledge. He spends his time sharing that knowledge with the team at Oracle and with their clients. Jess's goal is, and always has been, to use my expertise in helping people to comply with the law. This legal compliance ultimately helps to protect everyone from the harmful effects of asbestos. Jess has acted as an asbestos expert witness in legal cases and is involved in many asbestos educational activities throughout the UK.