UK Asbestos Alert: Update
(See also latest (August 16, 2016) HSE response in update at end of this article)
Enquiries made by a coalition of civil society groups (see: Press Release July 27, 2016) disturbed about the possibility of UK imports of asbestos-containing building materials from China have spurred the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into action according to an emailed letter dated August 11, 2016:
Given the nature of your concern, we have already established contact with Yuanda (UK) Co. Ltd. to conduct preliminary enquiries, establish their relationship to Yuanda Australia, understand the operation of their supply chain and the specification and quality assurance and quantity of materials they bring into the UK. We are currently considering the results of sampling and analysis of selected materials from key Yuanda construction sites . We anticipate taking a decision on the need for a formal investigation in the next 7 working days.1
In addition to contacting Richard Judge, Chief Executive of the HSE, the asbestos action group which issued the press release cited above also emailed a letter to Alistair Lazenby, Managing Director of Yuanda UK. Replying to that email on August 1, 2016, his colleague Simon Cheesman acknowledged the serious nature of this situation given the fact that Yuanda Australia had incorrectly supplied materials containing asbestos for use on two infrastructure projects. While Yuanda UK and Yuanda Australia are, he explained part of the same group of companies, they are separate business entities, with their own contracts and supply chains. Expressing confidence that none of the materials used in Yuanda UKs projects contain asbestos, Cheesman wrote:
We have undertaken a comprehensive review of all our materials and products and confirm that none used in the UK and Europe raises any concerns. The materials used for our projects are all specified and checked by Yuanda UK and we do not use materials from the suppliers who provided the materials in question in the 2 Australian projects.
As welcome as these assurances are, asbestos victims and campaigners in the UK remain apprehensive. Reacting to the feedback from the HSE and Yuanda, Graham Dring, Chair of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, commented:
We will be urging the HSE in the strongest possible terms to instigate a formal investigation as soon as possible. The Australian experience has revealed the inability of customs officials to police the flow of goods crossing their borders. It is important that HSE does not just accept assurances from Yuanda UK about the materials used. Presumably Yuanda Australia gave the same assurances when they imported asbestos-containing materials in contravention of the Australian ban. Considering the fact that asbestos has caused the UKs worst epidemic of occupational death, stringent examination of the Yuanda supply chain as well as that of other companies is needed.
Echoing Mr. Drings call, Hilda Palmer, Co-founder of Families Against Corporate Killers, said:
The capacity of the HSE to ensure safe workplace environments and conditions has been seriously compromised as a result of financial constraints and personnel cutbacks. The same organization which has discontinued asbestos inspections of schools is, under REACH EU regulations, entrusted with safeguarding our borders from illegal toxic imports. A full and transparent investigation into this and other matters such as the availability of asbestos-contaminated toys and products from China should be regarded by the HSE as a top priority.2
Susan Murray, National Health and Safety Adviser for the Unite trade union, believes the issues involved have much wider implications:
Asbestos continues to threaten the health of millions of people across the world. Only when asbestos has been completely eradicated will our workplaces be safe from it. Asbestos is banned in the UK and we expect 100% compliance with the law in all workplaces coupled with rigorous enforcement by the HSE.
In other EU countries, trade unionists are investigating potential workplace hazards at sites operated by Yuanda Europe. In Australia, Yuanda Australia freight containers are now being impounded by custom officials and documentation and shipments are being thoroughly examined. Civil society groups in the UK are asking that the same processes be followed to protect workers and members of the public from illegal and avoidable toxic exposures.
August 15, 2016
On August 16, 2016, the HSE announced (see (emailed): HSE confirmation letter dated August 16, 2016) that it will “undertake a formal investigation in relation to the potential import and use of asbestos by Yuanda (UK) Co. Ltd. in line with HSE procedures…”
1 Letter from HSE to G. Dring and L. Kazan-Allen. Ref. 1108DLH16-CETO-218-16. August 11, 2016.