Teaching young trainee plumbers to avoid asbestos risks

With young tradespeople among workers most at risk of exposure to deadly asbestos fibres, the President of the world’s top safety and health body taught trainee plumbers what to look out for and how to protect themselves.

Asbestos remains the world’s worst occupational cancer killer, despite being banned in 62 countries. People at greatest risk of exposure include construction workers, electricians and plumbers. Young workers just starting their trades are particularly vulnerable.

Recent research by IOSH, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, for the asbestos phase of its No Time to Lose campaign tackling work-related cancers, revealed startlingly low levels of awareness among some of these workers.

Asbestos-containing materials only pose a threat if they are disturbed or begin to decay – but workers making alterations to buildings or fixing pipes in floors, walls and ceilings are more likely than most to disturb asbestos fibres if they’re there.

To address this, President of IOSH Craig Foyle taught a class on Wednesday 20 June of trainee plumbers in Lincolnshire to help them know what to look out for when they start work and the steps to take if they think they’ve found asbestos.

Craig – a leading consultant in project safety management, training and safety and health management – outlined risks and responses to the group of learners, who are training to be plumbers at University Academy Holbeach (UAH), near Spalding.

The session, which IOSH hopes will be the first of others representing the campaign at colleges UK-wide and potentially further afield, was made possible by Geoff Westall, President of another industry body, the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineers (CIPHE).

Craig Foyle said:

“I’m really grateful to Geoff Westall of the CIPHE and Lucy Mawer, Head of Plumbing at UAH, for this opportunity to use the excellent No Time to Lose occupational cancer campaign materials as a way of engaging young people at the very start of their careers.

“Learning about asbestos is already part of the curriculum for the course these students are doing, and the Academy and the CIPHE are champions of safety and health.

“The session was great. No Time to Lose gives visual materials and case studies about real people, making this more immediate and relevant so people relate more easily to it.

“I also included the ‘Straw Walk’ activity, with students following me on a brisk walk around the Academy, including up and down stairs, then holding their noses and trying to breathe through straws to find out what life with respiratory illness is like.

“Capturing their attention now is vital before these students start their careers and perhaps get into situations where they’re exposed to materials they don’t recognise. If they know what to look out for and what employers and people responsible for buildings are legally obliged to do to protect them, that information could save lives.”

Lucy Mawer, Head of Plumbing at University Academy Holbeach, said:

“The session was a fantastic success and very beneficial for the students. The Academy is delighted to support the No Time to Lose campaign.”

Geoff Westall, President of the CIPHE, said:

“It is imperative that all plumbing students are made aware of the dangers of asbestos, how to guard against exposure and the correct procedures for dealing with the removal of the substance.”

Inhaling the near-invisible, microscopic, glasslike asbestos fibres can cause damage deep inside lungs and other soft tissues leading to deadly cancers like mesothelioma decades later.

Every year in Britain, 5,000 people die from asbestos-related cancer – the highest rate in the world, showing no signs of decline. Britain finally outlawed asbestos use in 1999, before some of the UAH students were born, but it still lurks in around half-a-million buildings.

Take a look around this website to find out more about the asbestos phase of the award-winning No Time to Lose campaign, to offer support and access free resources.