In order to combat what remains a frighteningly common cause of workplace-related deaths, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has launched a new asbestos awareness campaign to alert people to the dangers of the substance. HSE figures suggest that 20 people are dying every week as a result of contracting diseases like mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos at work. Previous estimates suggest that four plumbers, six electricians and eight joiners are among those killed by the substance each week.

A campaign to combat ignorance

Despite the dangers of asbestos being relatively well understood by tradespeople likely to come into contact with the substance, less than 30 per cent of those surveyed by the HSE knew how to work safely with it. And although 70 per cent of carpenters and joiners knew how to reduce the risk of exposure to asbestos, just 55 per cent of construction workers were similarly well-informed.

Even more concerning was the discovery that just 15 per cent of workers were aware that asbestos could be present in newer buildings. Any building constructed up to the year 2000 when a formal ban came into place may have asbestos present.

Using technology to spread the word

The asbestos awareness campaign is accompanied by a new Beware Asbestos web app that provides ‘simple, practical advice for working with asbestos’. The app takes workers through a series of questions to help them decide whether they need to take additional precautions before beginning work on a specific construction site.

Tradespeople are warned of possible risks of exposure based on whether they are working on a residential or commercial property, whether the project is taking place indoors or outdoors and what the specific task being completed is. The web app then provides useful advice and guidance on how to proceed safely to reduce the risk of being exposed to asbestos particles. Users can even download handy guides to print out for use on-site.

Helpfully the HSE has also provided a gallery of photographs to help workers identify potential sources of asbestos. From fireplaces to ceiling insulation sprayed coatings, there are dozens of examples of what to be aware of when working on houses built pre-2000.

A campaign to protect tradespeople

Ultimately it will only be through education and initiatives like the asbestos awareness campaign that tradespeople will be alerted to the potential dangers of working with the material.

Speaking at the launch of this latest effort by the HSE, health and safety minister Mark Harper said: “The number dying every year from asbestos-related diseases is unacceptably high. 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.”

Inhalation of asbestos fibres can lead to the development of all manner of lung diseases with mesothelioma, a form of cancer, being one of the most aggressive. But because these fibres can lie dormant for between 15 and 40 years after exposure, many tradespeople do not realise the risks they have taken at the time. It is only many years later that they realise the damage done.

These are still real risks for any employee working on a site that contains asbestos and who may be exposed to deadly fibres or dust.

Timed to coincide with the anticipated peak

The greatest number of asbestos exposure cases appear to have happened to tradespeople working during the 1960s and 1970s booms in heavy industry and shipbuilding, when use of the material was extremely common. Statistics suggest that the number of deaths caused by exposure to asbestos will peak in 2016 as the final effects of that period are felt.

The HSE is therefore keen to ensure that asbestos-related deaths fall sharply in future, and that 2016 is the last such peak in these industrial fatalities.

Unfortunately the results of their recent surveys suggest that awareness of dangers is fading, hence the need to launch a new campaign to re-examine the issue.

Get your team up to speed

The new HSE web app can be found at and can be accessed any time any place from a smartphone or tablet (just remember you will need a mobile connection). Other information about staying safe is also available from the British Lung Foundation and their Take 5 and Stay Alive campaign which has similar goals to the HSE’s.

Employers also need to be aware of their obligations when sending workers onto sites that potentially contain asbestos. Of particular interest will be regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 which gives some further details of these requirements.

So over to you, how well briefed are your employees in safely working on sites that may contain asbestos?

David Cant
Veritas Consulting