By Simon Webb a specialist asbestos-related disease solicitor at Irwin Mitchell

The facts are staggering; Internationally, in 2018 the World Health Organisation estimated that 107,000 people have died as a consequence of some previous asbestos exposure. In the UK alone, there are approximately 12,000 deaths a year from lung diseases of which 40 per cent are asbestos related (HSE, 2021). Forty five people a week die from mesothelioma, a cancer that primarily affects the lining of the lung, heart and abdomen. 

Since the 1980s deaths due to asbestos exposure have risen dramatically and it is predicted that this trend will continue for the remainder of this decade.

Continuing risk of asbestos to workers

Today, more than 50 per cent of those suffering asbestos illnesses are over 75-years-old and previously worked in industries or trades associated with the construction industry where asbestos use was widespread, and whilst the use of asbestos was completely banned in 1999 it continues to pose a significant risk to workers.

In properties throughout the UK, carcinogenic asbestos fibres can readily be inhaled or ingested during the maintenance, repair re-development work. Considerable amounts of toxic asbestos dust can be released during demolition work. The problem of asbestos is unlikely to be eradicated as hundreds of thousands of buildings contain this dangerous material.

National asbestos database

In an effort to prevent an individuals accidental asbestos exposure to asbestos, the UK National Asbestos Register (UKNaR), a social enterprise, is endeavouring to provide a national asbestos database where asbestos registers can be uploaded and readily accessed by workers who require such information thereby helping reduce the risk of such exposure.

On the 11 November, 2021, the Work and Pensions Committee, began an inquiry into the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) approach to asbestos management. Final evidence submissions were made earlier this week by HSE officials and the Minister for Disabled People Health and Work. The findings are awaited.

IOSH research

Research commissioned by the The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), the largest membership organisation for safety and health professionals, found that in a poll of 500 construction workers:

  • 59 per cent have been informed of and received regular training regarding the risks asbestos, 15 per cent have never been informed;
  • 32 per cent have never checked the asbestos register before starting work on a new site, with 15 per cent of these not knowing about the register;
  • 18 per cent said that if they found asbestos they would either be unsure or have no idea what to do.

It is this lack of awareness that has prompted IOSH to highlight the issue and to publicly state, during this World Cancer Day (4 February) that “it’s time to get tough with asbestos”

Tragic that people weren't warned of the dangers of asbestos

For those of us who act for individuals and the families affected by this devastating disease, it is tragic to learn of the circumstances of how workers come to be exposed to asbestos;  the significant commonality all these individuals share is a lack of an awareness at the time, having never being warned of the dangers of asbestos. Asbestos is a hideous legacy of our industrial heritage

Despite clear legislation, in far too many workplaces little is being done to protect employees. Knowledge is a key factor to helping prevent the current and future workforce from unknowingly being exposed to asbestos and potentially suffering terrible consequences. Workers need to have a better awareness of the dangers of asbestos, understand where in premises it is and how to prevent exposure.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and families affected by asbestos at our dedicated asbestos-related disease section 

Download out more about asbestos-related disease statistics in Great Britain in 2021 at the Health and Safety Executive website