“With so many people’s lives at risk, there really is no time to lose”

IOSH President-Elect Louise Hosking shares her experience as a No Time to Lose campaign ambassador during Global Asbestos Awareness, 1-7 April 2021.

We know at least 742,000 people are dying globally every year from cancer caused by substances and conditions they are often unaware they have been exposed to at work. This is more than one death every minute. We also know that the biggest killer is exposure to asbestos containing materials (ACMs). In the UK there are still more people dying from exposure to asbestos than on our roads. Every single case is preventable and it’s these statistics which focus the mind of IOSH members the world over.

During my career, I have worked extensively with organisations in control of significant portfolios of property. I have also worked in construction and, more recently, to support small and medium companies, schools and charities which have far smaller resources to manage asbestos risk. Since becoming an IOSH volunteer, I have spoken to our members doing the same, including within parts of the world with little or no health and safety regulation and where asbestos is still in use.

In 2019, I gave a presentation on IOSH’s No Time to Lose (NTTL) campaign to 400 contractors responsible for store refurbishments for a UK-based retailer. Standing on stage, I asked whether anyone thought they might have been exposed to ACMs during their working life. As I looked across the vast conference room, I would estimate at least 80% of the room raised their hands, which is roughly in line with the results of a survey IOSH conducted of tradespeople. Seeing this and considering my own journey to manage asbestos risks was deeply sobering. The number of raised hands – representing most of the people in the room – affected me deeply and I actually stumbled over my words as I moved into the rest of the presentation.

Asbestos is still in use in many developing nations and has not been banned in the USA. Russia is the largest exporter of asbestos followed by China, Kazakhstan and Brazil. Whilst travelling in 2018, I caught up with some of our members in Sri Lanka, another country where asbestos is still in use, especially used in roof tiles as a light, inexpensive and cool material.

Managing asbestos risk effectively, especially in buildings which are known to contain asbestos, is an expensive business, one which requires planning and highly skilled, experienced and professional contractors, analysts and specialist project management. The material cannot always be seen, it can’t be smelt and accidental exposure can happen without being aware. There have been cases where fibres have been brought home on the clothing of workers exposed to ACMs.

As health and safety professionals, we should be aware of the requirements within our own territories to manage this risk and it should be part of our overall management plan to know where the material is located, to manage it well, remove it safely where this is the most effective course of action, and provide good information to those who might be accidentally exposed.

In my experience there are no short cuts in managing asbestos risk. Organisations looking to limit their liabilities should ensure that they undertake comprehensive surveys to identify ACMs before they enter into deals to purchase new property. Anyone in control of property should carry out an appropriate level survey by a competent individual before undertaking refurbishment or demolition work, but also as a routine manage asbestos risk for those who maintain or repair buildings.

When you know where ACMs are located, you should work with an experienced asbestos consultant to determine a plan for managing the risk based on use of the building and create a high level policy statement which demonstrates the commitment of business leaders to manage it well. This might involve leaving it as it is – while monitoring its condition – enclosing or encapsulating it, or removal. This must be combined with good education and regular reminders for construction workers, maintenance staff and anyone who could accidentally damage ACMs and release fibres.

This education and training is crucial and will include understanding where it is most likely to be located, typical usage and what to do if damage is caused. The UK has prescriptive requirements in respect of management of asbestos.

In countries where there are fewer legislative frameworks, careful consideration of how to manage the risk will be required. If there are no skilled specialists to work in this area, no analysts or secure locations to dispose of waste, poor removal will increase risk.

Business is currently highly focused on managing risks from Covid-19 infection. Resources to manage other risks may have been diverted. NTTL has excellent free resources, which I have used to support the work I have undertaken and I would urge IOSH members and organisations to utilise these fully and keep training workers. Be open and be prepared to have an honest conversation about this.

Take a step back and look at those aspects being managed before the pandemic, particularly asbestos risk. Is what you are doing enough or do you need a reset? Consider looking again at your asbestos management plan. With so many people’s lives at risk, there really is no time to lose.