UK Asbestos Policy: Unfit for Purpose?
On September 8, 2014, in a written answer to a Parliamentary question on Environmental Protection, Dan Rogerson MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for water, forestry, rural affairs and resource management, stated:
The Government's policy position towards the eventual elimination of asbestos-related diseases is well established. The UK has a high rate of asbestos-related disease because of our past use of very high levels of asbestos Consequently, our regulatory system for controlling occupational asbestos exposure is now one of the strictest in the EU.1
It is undoubtedly true that there have been UK regulations intended to provide protection from the occupational asbestos hazard since the 1930s. Unfortunately, they have not prevented the countrys worst epidemic of occupational death from occurring. The UKs current regulatory system is unfit for purpose according to whistleblowers working in the asbestos removal industry. On September 9, 2014, in a parliamentary debate Steve Rotheram MP focused on the failure of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to prevent deadly practices during asbestos remediation work in Britains High Street stores:
When the 2006 regulations were introduced, the HSE was given clear instructions on how to deal with asbestos removal in commercial units. However, retailers consistently try to minimize disruption to their stores and trading hours, with the result that asbestos often in ceiling voids, where dust could be moved by air conditioning and ventilation units has the potential to come into contact with staff in shops. In some cases, dangerous fibers may find their way on to the shop floor and the space used by the public.
That is not speculation or an unlikely hypothesis. In 2011 it was widely reported that high street giant Marks & Spencer was prosecuted and fined £1 million for failing to protect customers, staff and workers from potential exposure to asbestos. The court case detailed works carried out during the refurbishment of the Reading and Bournemouth stores in 2006 and 2007 in which asbestos regulations were not followed.2
For years, anecdotal evidence has been circulating about shortcuts being taken and the cutthroat nature of the asbestos removal industry in Britain. The GMB Union is so concerned about the plight of workers in this sector, many of whom are not unionized due to fear of victimization, that this month it launched an outreach initiative to work with stakeholders to raise standards in the industry and to ensure that the elements in the [asbestos removal] licenses are fully complied with.3 The best way forward, says the GMB is for a unionised workforce using its combined strength to oppose any shortcuts regarding health safety and welfare In these challenging times for the industry the only way forward for companies is to be the best organised and efficient in the market place. Failure to develop a professional way of working may well result in companies going out of business.
Members of the coalition government may feel secure in their protection from asbestos presumably, the likes of David Cameron and Nick Clegg never worked in recognized asbestos danger zones such as shipyards, chemical plants, construction sites. However, their ignorance about the pervasive nature of the UKs asbestos threat could not only bring risks to themselves but also endanger those they hold dear; after all, every family has occasion to use schools and high street shops, many will live in properties Kensington Palace, for instance where asbestos-containing products were installed. Cutting the HSEs budget is counterproductive and dangerous. Without a well-resourced government watchdog to ensure standards are being met, the legislation, such as it is, is meaningless.
1 Hansards. Written Answers to Questions. September 8, 2014.
2 Hansards. Westminster Hall debate. September 9, 2014. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmhansrd/cm140909/halltext/140909h0001.htm#14090931000003
3 Press Release. GMB Call On Asbestos Removal Employers To Work With Union Members On Sites To Ensure Safe Removal And Disposal Of Asbestos. September 1, 2014.