by Zoe Livadeas, a workplace illness trainee solicitor at Irwin Mitchell 

Asbestos is a naturally occurring material that can be deadly if fibres are inhaled. It is reported by Mesothelioma UK that over 2,500 people per year are diagnosed with mesothelioma, a fatal form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

Asbestos still present in many public buildings

Asbestos is still found today in many buildings throughout the UK, including in offices, schools and hospitals. This autumn, the Health and Safety Executive (‘HSE’) will be ‘cracking down’ on dust in an effort to protect workers’ health.

Risks to construction workers

Working in the construction industry is a particularly risky business due to the dangers of exposure to hazardous dust.

Our collective awareness of the dangers of asbestos has developed over time alongside greater understanding of its impact on respiratory health. 

In 1965, the Sunday Times published a pivotal article about the ‘killer dust disease’ which highlighted that even low levels of exposure could lead to mesothelioma. In 1999, the use of asbestos was banned completely. 

Despite this, the HSE reports that over 3,500 builders die every year from cancers related to their work, with thousands more cases of poor health and lost working days.

HSE’s chief inspector of construction Sarah Jardine said “around 100 times as many workers die from diseases caused or made worse by their work than are actually killed in construction accidents”. 

This is a stark reminder that employers should take the risks of dust exposure just as seriously as the more conspicuous accidents occurring in the workplace.

HSE inspection initiative

From 4 October, 2021, HSE inspectors will be undertaking a month-long inspection initiative at construction firms with the aim to improve health within the industry. 

The inspectors will be focusing on respiratory risks and occupational lung disease, examining the control measures in place to protect workers’ lungs from construction dust. This is not only in relation to asbestos, but also other respiratory risks such as silica and wood dust. 

The HSE hopes that employers will “avoid creating dust by working in different ways to keep dust down and wear the right protective equipment”.

It is of vital importance that employers have effective measures in place to control their employees’ exposure to respiratory health risks from inhaling dust. The HSE’s inspection initiative is a positive step towards creating safer workplaces and encouraging employers to take action to protect their employees’ health.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and their families who are affected by workplace illness at our dedicated industrial disease section