Nearly one in four UK construction workers believe they may have been exposed to asbestos fibres, placing them at higher risk of contracting terminal cancers later in life.
And with potentially half a million buildings containing this lethal mineral, employees across many sectors risk being exposed every day – continuing the trend of Britons having the world’s highest chances of dying from mesothelioma, the deadliest asbestos-related cancer.
The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) is revealing the findings of a survey it commissioned to find out how much construction workers know about this hazard, on the day it launches its campaign to tackle asbestos exposure in the world’s workplaces.
While the majority are familiar about the risks posed, a third of survey respondents have never checked the asbestos register before starting work on a new site – with nearly half of those not even knowing there is a register. Almost one in five respondents said if they discovered asbestos they wouldn’t be clear about what to do.
Leading scientists and safety and health experts have expressed concern about the findings. Along with IOSH, they are calling on employers across all sectors to ensure they do not expose employees.
Dr Lesley Rushton, the new Chair of the UK’s Industrial Injuries Advisory Council and a leading expert on workplace carcinogens, said:
“What these new survey results confirm is that, while people have heard of asbestos and know what the effects of being exposed to it are, they’re not sure how to check if it’s present and they may not know what to do if they find asbestos.
“Uncertainty and ignorance surrounding how to prevent workers from breathing in the fibres is deeply worrying.
“This is particularly the case among small companies, sole traders and older workers. It is crucial that we reach them, to inform them of the risks and how these can be managed, to ensure their future health is not compromised.”
Asbestos is banned in 62 countries. The UK banned it in 1999, but many buildings constructed before this time contain it. It can be found in many products including roofing, spray coatings, lagging, insulating boards, ropes, yarns and cloth.
Asbestos fibres are invisible to the naked eye. When breathed in, they can stick into the lining of the lungs, causing serious illnesses over time, including fatal cancers like mesothelioma.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, at least 5,000 people die every year in Britain alone from an asbestos-related cancer caused by exposure at work.
Worldwide, asbestos claims well over 107,000 lives a year. Yet an estimated 125 million people are still exposed to asbestos at work annually.
Ahead of today’s launch of the fourth phase of its No Time to Lose occupational cancer campaign, IOSH commissioned Opinium to survey 500 construction workers to understand the scale of the issue.
Key findings include:
- 59 per cent have been informed of the asbestos risks and have had this reinforced regularly with training; 15 per cent have never been informed
- 23 per cent say they have been exposed to asbestos; with only 27 per cent saying they haven’t been exposed
- 32 per cent have never checked the asbestos register before starting work on a new site, with 15 per cent of these not knowing about the register
- 18 per cent said that if they found asbestos they would either be unsure or have no idea what to do
While the survey was conducted among construction workers, the risks of asbestos exposure are present across many workplaces.
Craig Foyle, IOSH President, said the survey also demonstrates that not enough is being done to protect workers.
He said: “Asbestos is banned in the UK and other countries for a good reason: it is dangerous. It is staggering to see how many people die from exposure to asbestos every year. That is well over 100,000 families suffering the devastation of a lost loved one.
“It is unacceptable, therefore, for anyone in any workplace to be exposed to asbestos. Clearly, though, people are being exposed to it. In the decades to come, it is likely that these people and their families will still be suffering unless we all do something about it.
“We are calling on everyone, including employers, to do the right thing; to protect the people who work for them. IOSH has an array of resources designed to assist employers put measures in place which protect their workforce.”
Mum-of-three Sandra Kellett, 60, suffers from mesothelioma having been exposed to asbestos while she was a trainee nurse working in an old hospital building. She now faces an uncertain future, knowing she won’t see her grandchildren grow up and isn’t even sure she will be able to attend her daughter’s wedding later this year.
She said: “Contracting this disease through no fault of my own has, I feel, robbed me of my future. It’s taken away all my hopes and dreams of making memories with my family and friends. Instead of planning for family get togethers, holidays and so on, I now find myself thinking about wills and funeral plans so my family won’t be burdened when I’m gone.
“I loved doing my job. But I now have a death sentence hanging over me because of it. Employers have a duty to warn people if there is asbestos present in a workplace, and to measures in place to prevent exposure.”