Britain’s Asbestos Legacy: 2023 Update  

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



On February 6, 2023, one hundred housing repair and maintenance workers on the Wirral went on strike over requirements by their employer: Magenta Living, a social housing company, mandating they undertake work on asbestos material in the company’s 13,000 properties. The industrial action will last for a week and be followed by strikes every other week until April 17; 30 days of strike action are planned.

Magenta’s former policy on asbestos instructed employees to stop work if asbestos was found so that a specialist contractor could be brought in. Under the 2023 policy, employees are expected to deal with some of the asbestos themselves. According to Sharon Graham, General Secretary of Unite, this deplorable policy “is trying to force our members to undertake work they are not properly trained for, which risks their lives and that of tenants.”1 Echoing his colleague’s views, Unite Regional Officer John Sheppard said the strike was a last resort: “Magenta Living has been given every opportunity to resolve this dispute through negotiations but it has refused to do so.”

“Highly disturbing” evidence obtained by Unite substantiates claims that Magenta was “playing god” over asbestos issues. In a company document entitled “Asbestos Essential,” workers were instructed on how to prevent awkward questions being asked:

“You should ask the tenant to vacate the room before putting on your RPE and PPE. If they note that you are wearing PPE, you should tell them that you are following company procedures, as you are working with power tools and doing maintenance activities that could create dust and other waste products.”

There was no mention of asbestos in the guidance issued by the company for responding to tenants’ enquiries.

It seems hard to believe that in 2023, workers are still experiencing toxic exposures as a matter of course. Ordinary Britons are paying with their health and even their lives for the failure of successive governments to progress the removal of millions of tonnes of asbestos-containing products from the national infrastructure.2 According to a report published last month (January 2023) by the Trades Union Congress (TUC): “the majority of NHS buildings – including hospitals, health centres, blood donor clinics and GP surgeries – still contain asbestos more than 23 years since its use was banned in new buildings.”3The TUC’s new report identified 451 contaminated premises in London and 695 in Scotland, two thirds of which were open to the public.

The widespread public anger over the toxic conditions in UK healthcare facilities was succinctly expressed in a January 23rd commentary in The Scotsman:

“It is simply not good enough to leave this material in place in hospitals, hoping it remains undisturbed. The intense pressures on NHS resources are well documented, but this is an area where there surely must be a greater sense of urgency. MP Ian Lavery, chairman of the UK parliament’s asbestos group, rightly describes the findings as ‘shocking’… the removal of asbestos would be not only in the best interests of patients and staff, but also in the best long-term interests of the NHS as a whole. If we are to have any hope of cutting the rate of mesothelioma, we must act now to rid public buildings of its primary cause.”4

Asbestos contamination of schools in England and Wales is also widespread, with four out of five schools affected. As a result, the number of teaching staff dying from workplace asbestos exposures continues to rise. New statistics collected through Freedom of Information requests to the Department for Education (DfE) ascertained that 80.7% of English schools which had carried out surveys for the Asbestos Management Assurance Process in 2021 admitted “that asbestos was present on their estate.” In 2016, data collected by the DfE found that 80-85% of English schools were contaminated.5 According to recent data, 9.8 million children and 800,000+ teachers, teaching assistants, support and custodial staff attend schools in England and Scotland.6 The lack of any coordinated plan of action to eradicate asbestos contamination from the school estate has been termed a “national scandal” by a parliamentary all-party group.

Whilst the European Union progresses the implementation of protocols to better protect workers from asbestos exposures and encourage the eradication of the hazard from Europe’s built environment,7 little is being done in post-Brexit Britain where:

“Asbestos exposure continues to cause thousands of deaths every year. Yet asbestos is still with us in workplaces and public buildings across the country. As a result, decades after the use of asbestos was banned, hundreds of thousands of workers, patients and members of the public are still put at risk of exposure every day.

“The only way to protect today’s workers and future generations is through the safe removal of asbestos from all workplaces and public buildings. We need national government to work with local authorities on a plan to remove it from every last building.”8

These were the words of the TUC’s General Secretary Paul Nowak. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

February 8, 2023


1 Wirral maintenance workers strike over asbestos fears. February 6, 2023.
Unite. Wirral housing workers to strike over deadly asbestos fears. February 3, 2023/.
Thorp, L. Housing company Magenta accused of urging workers to hide asbestos issues. February 3, 2023.

2 “The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that the total annual cost of deaths from mesothelioma is £3.4 billion and around £3.1 billion for deaths from asbestos-related lung cancer."
Working towards zero asbestos.

3 TUC: Hundreds of NHS buildings in London still contain deadly asbestos. January 23, 2023.

4 Wilson, P. Leader: Asbestos should not be in NHS buildings. January 23, 2023.

5 Quarmby, K. The Silent Killer in Schools. Government Under Fire for Failing to Act on Lethal Asbestos. January 26, 2023.

6 Reporting Year 2021. School workforce in England. 2022.
Statista. Number of pupils attending schools in Scotland from 2013 to 2022, by school type. January 24, 2023.,309%2C133%20being%20secondary%20school%20pupils.
Academic Year 2021/22. Schools, pupils and their characteristics. 2022.

7 European Commission. Press Release. Commission acts to better protect people from asbestos and ensure an asbestos-free future. September 28, 2022.
Questions and Answers: Towards an asbestos-free future
. September 28, 2022.

8 TUC: Hundreds of NHS buildings in London still contain deadly asbestos. January 23, 2023.



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