Around 1.3 million tradespeople are at risk of being exposed to asbestos each year, HSE has revealed as it launched a new awareness campaign in an attempt to drive down the death toll from exposure to the deadly dust.
With 20 tradespeople dying from an asbestos-related disease each week, the regulator said that construction workers, carpenters and painters and decorators could come into contact with asbestos up to 100 times a year, according to a new survey.
Only 30% of the people polled could correctly identify all the correct measures for safe asbestos working, while just over half made at least one potentially lethal mistake in trying to identify how to stay safe.
A key feature of HSE’s new campaign, called Beware Asbestos, is a free web app for phones, tablets and laptops that helps tradespeople identify where they could come into contact with the deadly material as they go about their work. In addition, it gives them tailored help on how to deal with the risks. Free asbestos safety packs are also being distributed through the building supplies retailer TradePoint.
The survey of 500 tradespeople, undertaken by Censuswide in September 2014, shows that while 53% knew asbestos could be in old buildings built before 1970, only 15% knew that it could still be found in buildings built up to the year 2000.
And although many of those surveyed could identify some asbestos-containing materials, only 19% recognised it could also be hidden in common fixtures such as toilet seats and cisterns. Asbestos can be found in walls and ceilings, or the structure of a building, as well as a host of other places like floor tiles, boilers and guttering.
It can be disturbed by basic maintenance work like drilling holes and sanding and once disturbed, the microscopic fibres can prove lethal if breathed in. It can cause lung diseases such as pleural plaques and asbestos, and cancers such as mesothelioma. Symptoms of the diseases typically take a very long time to present, often as long as 30-50 years.
Amosite and crocidolite, also know respectively as brown and blue asbestos, were banned in 1985, with chrysotile, or white asbestos, being outlawed in 2000.
In addition, Beware Asbestos will feature national press advertising to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos and drive use of the free web app; promotion of key messages through commercial organisations that interact regularly with tradespeople; and delivering messages through stakeholders.
“The number dying every year from asbestos related-diseases is unacceptably high,” said Mark Harper, the Department for Work and Pensions minister with responsible for health and safety, who launched the campaign this morning at TradePoint.
“Despite being banned in the construction industry, asbestos exposure remains a very serious risk to tradespeople. This safety campaign is about highlighting the risks and easy measures people can take to protect themselves. We hope the safety kits and the web app will encourage people to be aware of the risks, think twice, and take precautions to stay safe.”
Beware Asbestos follows HSE’s highly-effective Hidden Killer campaign, which ran between 2008 and 2010. Post campaign evaluation showed that it had a huge impact; it achieved an 85% awareness in the target audience, with 90% saying they had been provoked to think about their own exposure to asbestos and 87% saying they now had a better understanding of the risks.
HSE has faced repeated calls since 2010 to relaunch the campaign. Construction union UCATT welcomed today’s announcement, but said it was four years too late. It warned that workers have been denied effective advice for over four years due to government “penny pinching”.
The union said it had been dealing with an increasing number of cases where a lack of training or a lack of information meant workers were being needlessly exposed to asbestos.
Data released earlier this year shows that 2,535 people died from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma in 2012, up by over 10% on 2011’s figures.
HSE’s mesothelioma statistics show that the incurable disease caused the deaths of 2,126 men and 409 women in 2012. Deaths from the cancer are expected to continue rising until around 2020 due to the long latency of the disease and the legacy of past occupational exposure.
Steve Murphy, the general secretary of UCATT, said: “Construction workers are at the greatest risk of being exposed to asbestos. Any campaign that warns workers of the dangers of asbestos is welcome. The campaign needs to be as wide ranging as possible and should not be confined to one company distributing information.”
The union said that when the coalition government came to power in 2010 it blocked government marketing and communication programmes, which ultimately blocked attempts to revive Hidden Killer.
Murphy added: “The Conservative-led government’s penny pinching means that for the last four and a half years, thousands of workers have been needlessly exposed to asbestos and had their health put at risk.”
Philip White, HSE’s chief inspector for construction, said: “Asbestos is still a very real danger and the survey findings suggest that the people who come into contact with it regularly often don’t know where it could be and worryingly don’t know how to deal with it correctly, which could put them in harm’s way.
“Our new campaign aims to help tradespeople understand some of the simple steps they can take to stay safe. Our new web app is designed for use on a job so workers can easily identify if they are likely to face danger and can then get straight forward advice to help them do the job safely.”
Former electrical consultant Simon Clark, who in 2012 was diagnosed with mesothelioma at the age of just 52, said: “When I was younger I didn’t think of the dangers of asbestos and I must have been exposed to it frequently. Since being diagnosed, I’ve had to give up my work and let some of my employees go – which is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It is vitally important that everybody knows when they might be exposed and takes the correct steps to protect themselves.”
The web app can be accessed at: www.beware-asbestos.info
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