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Asbestos: An historic tragedy for modern times and the need for action to remove it from public and commercial buildings

By Simon Webb, a specialist asbestos-related disease lawyer at Irwin Mitchell

The announcement that the MPs are calling for ministers to set a 40 year deadline for the removal of asbestos from public and commercial buildings is to be commended. Currently, there is no coherent Government strategy for dealing with the problem of this carcinogenic material.

Asbestos is still a present day danger

Sadly, the dangers of asbestos are not something that remain confined the some relic of an antiquated industrial past. These dangers remain as real today as they did when the risks were recognised at the turn of the 20th century.

Asbestos is undoubtedly one of the leading causes of occupationally related deaths this century and in 2019 accounted for more than 5,000 deaths.  We may be aware of newspaper headlines  that label the hazard of asbestos being termed as the, ‘asbestos time bomb’ and ‘the hidden killer’ but away from such headlines and despite asbestos imports being banned for over two decades, little has been done to manage the ongoing risk from asbestos.

From the 1900’s HM Factory inspectors were reporting deaths amongst workforces exposed to asbestos. It was during the post war era of the 1940’s and 1950s that various medical groups recognised that the inhalation of asbestos dust could cause terminal lung cancer and mesothelioma. 

Where asbestos may still be present

Nevertheless, the UKs use of asbestos continued to expand. It is estimated that over five million tons of asbestos were imported into the UK between 1940 and its ban in the 1990s. Today, asbestos still insulates pipes and ducting; it clads factories and farm buildings; fireproofs thousands of offices and shops and is found in many schools and hospitals.

Chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP described our asbestos legacy as, “one of the greatest workplace tragedies of modern times…”

As we increasingly focus on moving into a world of net carbon zero with the retrospective fitting of buildings to improve efficiencies the risk of individuals being exposed to asbestos becomes increasingly likely. Asbestos remains in hundreds of thousands of public buildings, homes and commercial properties throughout the UK and often in locations where individuals including many tradespeople may often unwittingly suffer some asbestos exposure.

Time frame for removal of asbestos welcomed

A time frame within which asbestos removal is to be achieved is welcomed and widely supported by trade unions and asbestos charities. Plainly, it is likely to be a mammoth and extremely costly exercise. It would seem sensible that we start with our schools to prevent a new generation of individuals being so exposed.

But what of domestic properties and the homes of many elderly and the most vulnerable of our society?

Stephen Timms MP accepts that: “Falling back on regulations which devolve responsibility to individual building owners and maintenance managers will not be sufficient to protect people’s heath.”

How can removal be achieved?

The Health and Safety Executive as well as other government departments require both increased funding and wider powers with the focus not simply being on policies of persuasion requiring workers  to wear appropriate protection but laws and regulations that impose heavy fines and prosecutions for employers who fail to properly protect their employees from a foreseeable risk of harm.

Sadly, asbestos is but one of a number of hazards that continues to afflict our environment; maybe now is the time for a step change in policies for the management of the harmful materials that remain legacies of our industrial past.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting people and their families diagnosed with diseases following asbestos exposure at our dedicated asbestos-related disease section.

MPs have called for a 40-year deadline for all asbestos to be removed from public and commercial buildings.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee said asbestos remained the biggest cause of work-related deaths in the UK.

More than 5,000 such fatalities were recorded in 2019.”