The latest statistics published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report that “there were 2,526 mesothelioma deaths in Great Britain in 2017, broadly similar to the previous five years."
The latest projections suggest that there will continue to be around 2,500 deaths per year for the rest of this current decade.” HSE goes on to report that there were 2,230 mesothelioma cases assessed for the purposes of Industrial Injury Disablement Benefit in 2018.
This is a work-related disease that is not going away. The danger is that society will regard deaths caused by exposure as a phenomenon that in time will pass. After all, what civilised society has not taken tough to measures to ensure is properly controlled and regulated?
Statistics reveal that half of all asbestos-related deaths, some 5,000 each year, are of those aged over 75 years. It is neither true nor acceptable to write off this catastrophic risk to the health of our nation as a disease that impacts predominantly only the elderly.
As HSE notes, “Asbestos was used extensively in Great Britain in a wide range of products, but particularly in insulation and building materials, following World War II. Widespread asbestos exposures during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s led to a large increase in asbestos-related disease in Great Britain.”
We are, however, still living with the legacy of the widespread use of asbestos as a construction and engineering material of choice.
It is present in so many buildings, schools and homes; it would be a big mistake to think that we are going to get to 2030 and see a massive reduction in deaths from mesothelioma.
While the regulation of asbestos in Great Britain is tough, there continues to be a significant number of breaches where asbestos has been managed in an irresponsible manner.
We are seeing too many cases where property owners and contractors are exposing their workers to asbestos through ignorance, negligence or recklessness.
It is not the sole responsibility of HSE to ensure that asbestos is properly managed. HSE does, however, play the key role in educating, informing and regulating the risks that asbestos poses.
HSE’s research also is key to understanding the threats posed by exposure to asbestos. Regrettably the HSE-led Asbestos Liaison Group, “a forum of key stakeholders that works together in a constructive way to promote best standards and practice in relation to control and work with asbestos”, appears defunct.
There should be resources and effort devoted to ensure effective asbestos enforcement. The focus should not be solely on licensed asbestos removal contractors, real concerns exist around property owners and contractors who behave with impunity when faced with asbestos, effectively putting two fingers up to the law.
We do need to be assured that HSE takes a robust stance on the use of prosecution when investigating breaches of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. Although three asbestos prosecutions were reported by HSE in January and February there is no sense how many breaches HSE detects end up in court.
The three featured cases – concerning Newnham College, Cambridge, the joint prosecution of property owner Michael Cutmore and BSN Demolition and Barry Patchett trading as B and S BM Ltd – all involved exposure of workers to asbestos-containing materials.
The fines imposed on Newnham College and BSN Demolition – £12,000 each, were derisory. Cutmore received an order to do 120 hours of unpaid work and Patchett was sentenced to 12 week’s imprisonment suspended.
Courts have failed to grasp that the victims of these crimes might not have lost limb or life but do face the very real prospect of a life-ending disease in months or years to come.
is where the Sentencing Council guidelines are falling down. Judges and magistrates need to get a grip when assessing culpability and harm. While the harm done may not be apparent at the time of prosecution, the potential consequences of exposure to asbestos are.
Neal Stone is head of policy and governance at McOnie
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