Asbestos: the forgotten safety crisis

Asbestos was banned 25 years ago, yet thousands are still dying as a result of its presence. CN examines the long legacy of the former go-to building material and whether enough is being done about the dangers it poses today

Roofer Liam Bradley and his co-workers had just finished removing old panels from a building in Bury, Greater Manchester, in 2006. “My supervisor said, ‘When you go down make sure you wash your hands and face before you have your dinner because those panels were asbestos’,” the 37-year-old recalls.

Eleven years later, Bradley was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a type of cancer associated with inhaling asbestos fibres.

“When we did the jobs, you just went out and did what you were told… There just weren’t enough checks on it to make sure you were clear”

Les Gear, ex-heating and ventilation engineer

Many think asbestos is a thing of the past, yet it is still the UK’s biggest workplace-related killer, with more than 5,000 people dying from asbestos-related diseases annually. Former construction workers are the most-affected group.

It takes an average of 35 years after exposure before the onset of asbestos-related disease. By the time mesothelioma symptoms appear, sufferers do not usually have much time left: the median survival time from diagnosis is 13 months.

Constant cough

From the age of 17, Les Gear worked as a heating and ventilation engineer, later becoming clerk of works for Leicester City Council. He did not take a sick day in 28 years, but just over a year into retirement symptoms appeared. “I found myself with a constant cough that lasted maybe a month, then stopped for a month, then started again. Then I developed a wheeze,” says Gear, now 71.

He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in late 2020 and has since received chemotherapy and radiotherapy to slow the uncurable cancer’s growth. Gear says that mentally he feels no different to when he was a young worker, but his body is certainly not the same. “I wish I could breathe a bit better and wish I could run a bit and chase my grandchildren,” he says.

Heating and ventilation engineers are among the most likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and asbestos-related lung cancer.

Gear can remember many situations in which he and former colleagues encountered asbestos – they too are suffering as a result. Talking to Construction News about his career, he recounts numerous examples of disturbing asbestos board through routine work such as welding, drilling and changing parts. Voids in old boiler rooms were often blowing out air with asbestos dust in. “It was everywhere,” he says.

Convenient and cheap

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, used widely in construction from the 1950s in insulation, coatings, board, lagging, cement, floor tiles and elsewhere.

“It was an incredibly convenient, cheap material,” says Julian Peto, professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “There was a panel on every fire door. If you wanted to box in a pipe, the cheapest way to do it was to saw a bit of asbestos board and box it in with that.”

The former popularity of brown asbestos, one of the most hazardous of the three varieties, is thought to be a key reason why the UK has one of the world’s highest rates of mesothelioma.

“I’ve been to sites where you ask for the asbestos register, and they don’t even know what one is”

Liam Bradley, site technician

Professor Peto’s research proving that the risks of asbestos were being underestimated helped lead to bans on the blue and brown varieties in 1985 and a total ban on all asbestos, including the white variety, in 1999.

Gear recalls: “When we did the jobs, you just went out and did what you were told. As time went by [and the dangers became more widely known] I really think that the companies and [clients] should have taken the responsibility for it ultimately. There just weren’t enough checks on it to make sure you were clear.”

Devastating news

Mesothelioma can be devastating for the recipients, who are overwhelmingly in their 70s and 80s – although the cancer can also develop in younger people.

Bradley was just 30 when he was diagnosed. A very rare case because of his age, he has so far escaped symptoms, seven years on. Doctors discovered the disease in his lung during an operation after a fall from a three-storey building at work.

Bradley, father of a two-year-old girl at the time, recalls hearing the news. “Every parent should have the right to watch their kids grow up. It still might happen, it might not, but for a while I thought that it had been taken away from me completely.”

He has had chemotherapy and goes for regular scans to see if the cancer is spreading.

“I don’t really remember a lot of the first three to six months [after diagnosis], I was trying not to face it,” Bradley says. “One day I got out of my car and just broke down on the street. My father-in-law turned up, put his arm round me and said, ‘Don’t worry about what you can’t control, you’re fit and healthy. We’re all in line but most of us don’t know when the end is, you know a little bit more about yourself, that’s all.’”

From that point his attitude changed – he stopped letting his diagnosis hold him back, and has since had two more daughters.

“If I was to die tomorrow through mesothelioma, I would say the cancer has not beaten me. It’s what you do in between to determine whether it’s beaten you or not. If I were to sit here and be miserable, not doing anything or not paying attention to my kids, then it has beaten me,” he says.

Neglect of duty

Bradley now works as a site technician for a roofing materials firm. He has become acutely aware of asbestos and has witnessed some “absolutely awful” practices over the years.

“I was on a job in Sheffield once, I came out of the building site and looked up the road. There were guys in a white Transit van with asbestos suits tied round their waists, smashing asbestos panels to bits with a lump hammer. I’ve been on building sites where they’ve taken machinery from the plant rooms with asbestos stickers all over them and just dumped them in the middle of the site,” he recalls. Bradley says he reported such mismanagement to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

An inquiry by parliament’s work and pensions committee into asbestos in 2021 heard similar stories, including about a woman whose builders left asbestos dust on her child’s bed while renovating her house.

Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, non-domestic building owners have a duty to plan for the safe management of asbestos. One requirement is that a register with information about asbestos in the property is kept updated and can be supplied to people working on the buildings. “I’ve been to sites where you ask for the asbestos register, and they don’t even know what one is,” Bradley says.

A 2018 survey of 500 construction workers, commissioned by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, found that a third never checked the asbestos register before starting work on a site.

Bradley believes education is the key to keeping people safe. “Education about the dangers should be in all site inductions. Even on a new-build there’s no harm in educating someone about it.

“If you see something that remotely worries you about whether it’s got asbestos in it, stop what you’re doing and get it checked,” he says.

Remove it all?

Because asbestos is no longer used as a building material, experts expect cases of its associated diseases to fall, with the latest figures showing signs they may have passed their peak.

However, the HSE estimates that there may be 310,000 non-domestic buildings that still contain some form of asbestos. The bans did not reduce the number containing the material initially, because asbestos can be left in place if it is in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed.

In 2022, Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee called for the government to publish a strategy for removing all asbestos from non-residential buildings within 40 years.

MPs said the drive towards net-zero and the associated increase in retrofits mean disturbances are set to rise. The committee also called for the creation of a central digital register of asbestos in non-residential buildings, rather than building owners having their own private ones.

Liz Darlison, chief executive of charity Mesothelioma UK, says it is impossible to keep asbestos in an acceptable state of repair. “You cannot prevent hospital trolleys bashing into walls or children kicking holes in school walls.”

She adds: “It’s a national tragedy and a disgrace that the UK has the highest incidence of asbestos disease in the world. We’ve had a manage it in situ approach for many years now, the status quo obviously isn’t working.”

Schools are a particular focus of the calls for asbestos removal including among education unions. Women make up a much lower proportion of the workforce in high-asbestos-risk sectors, such as construction. However, the asbestos-related disease death rate among female former teachers has gone up in recent years, suggesting that old school buildings could still pose a risk to their users – including children.

The absence of monitoring of current exposures – something noted by the parliamentary committee – means the level of risk from existing buildings is unknown. An HSE spokesperson says the organisation is “open to any ideas” to improve the current system and considers latest research, but it does not believe a central register would improve the picture for information sharing.

The spokesperson adds: “Asbestos should be removed where it is in poor condition or cannot be safely managed. However, where a building is in good condition, proactive removal of asbestos… may create more exposure than it prevents.

“The law already requires removal of asbestos wherever it is in a poor condition and cannot be safely managed in situ or before refurbishment or demolition work.”

This will eventually lead to the removal of all the material, the spokesperson says.

Professor Peto, alongside education unions, is planning to conduct a study of teachers’ lungs in a bid to gauge the extent of the issue, but he disagrees with the calls for proactive removal of asbestos.

He believes that the risks of exposing the workers who would remove the material and those who use buildings after it has been taken out, as well as the costs of extraction, outweigh the potential benefits of proactive removal.

If not for the data on former teachers, he adds, he would not be very concerned about asbestos in public buildings.

“The problem with mesothelioma is that the lag between being exposed and dying of it causes confusion between how many people are dying now and how many people are being exposed now,” Peto says.

Whether the policy on asbestos removal remains in place or is looked at again, one thing is for sure: workers will need to take the deadly dangers of asbestos seriously, for decades to come.

Mesothelioma: Symptoms and support

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium, a thin lining that covers some internal organs and cavities. The most common symptoms of mesothelioma are breathlessness, chest pain, fatigue and weight loss.

Those concerned about their health should see their GP, who may recommend an x-ray or CT scan. If these show signs of mesothelioma, a biopsy is likely to follow.

The charity Mesothelioma UK offers help and support to those affected by the disease. Visit its website for more information, or call its freephone support line on 0800 169 2409.

HSE advice on avoiding asbestos exposure at work can be viewed here.

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