On 9 July 2021, the Work and Pensions Committee announced the launch of an inquiry into how the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) manages the continued presence of asbestos in buildings. The Inquiry was largely a result of a campaign by think tank Respublica ('Airtight on Asbestos'), which the Committee brought to the Government's attention in September 2020.
The campaign argues that:
- Despite the ban on importation, use or supply of asbestos, the substance continues to be the UK's number one occupational killer, causing more than 5,500 deaths in 2018
- Vast quantities of asbestos remain inside public and private buildings in the UK including schools and hospitals
- The current legislative framework in respect of asbestos management does not effectively safeguard the public from harm. Not only is the domestic framework inferior to that in other European countries but compliance with the framework is also poor.
The campaign seeks to encourage the government to amend the legislative framework to:
- Revise the role of the 'duty holder' so that responsibilities are articulated clearly
- Improve air monitoring standards in line with other countries in Europe
- Adopt modern microscopy techniques in order to regularly test airborne asbestos fibres in buildings
- Create full and accurate databases in respect of the presence of asbestos in buildings as well as recording compliance with regulations
- Commit to the phased removal of the most harmful asbestos still present in buildings.
The Minister for Employment confirmed in response that the HSE would be reviewing the effectiveness of the current asbestos regulations and that the Inquiry would feed into the HSE's review.
The deadline for submissions of evidence was 17 September 2021.
All written evidence submitted to the Inquiry can be found here. Amongst others, there were submissions from:
- The HSE
- Numerous medical societies, charities and experts including the British Occupational Hygiene Society and the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health
- Firms of solicitors that act on behalf of asbestos-related illness victims
- Trade Unions including TUC and GMB.
There were three formal hearings during which oral evidence was given on 17 November 2021, 15 December 2021 and 2 February 2022 respectively. Sarah Albon, Chief Executive of the HSE, gave oral evidence at the latter.
The HSE argued that 'the risks of asbestos exposure through work-related activities in non-domestic premises in Great Britain is regulated effectively through a comprehensive legislative framework'. It remains sceptical of the comparisons to other European frameworks and suggests that there is no evidence that the approach taken in France, for example, offers additional benefits to the approach taken in the U.K. It also advises caution against comparing the removal regimes in other countries such as Poland given the significantly different risk profile and the feasibility of national removal projects. The HSE did, however, suggest that there is a need for the framework to be adaptable and that there is scope for the approach to be developed in future both to address the impact of the incoming Building Safety Regulatory regime and to tackle the risk of exposure from increased demolition of buildings resulting from the 'net zero agenda'.
The Committee published its full report on 21st April 2022, and concluded that:
- Asbestos-related illness is one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times
- Despite the ban on the importation, supply and use of asbestos, its legacy lives on
- An increase in retrofitting in response to net zero ambitions means that more asbestos-containing materials will be disturbed in coming decades and, as such, reliance on the current asbestos regulations will not be good enough
- The HSE needs to adopt a more structured approach to collecting data on current exposure levels
- The current policy of 'management in-situ' should be changed and a deadline should be set for the removal of asbestos from non-domestic buildings within 40 years, beginning with the most high-risk settings
- The HSE should commit to a sustained increase in inspection and enforcement activity and the Government should ensure adequate funding for this increased programme of work.
Asbestos continues to persist as the single greatest cause of work-related fatalities in the UK. With the drive to meet net zero ambitions from the retrofitting of buildings, asbestos exposure will only likely increase rather than decrease in the years to come. With the HSE's funding being reduced in recent years and its resourcing coming under ever increasing pressure from competing demands, it remains to be seen whether the 40 year deadline for the removal of all asbestos from non-domestic buildings is an achievable one. What is clear is that the Government and the HSE will need to work closely together to develop a strategic plan to tackle the issue of asbestos, and that the Government will need to ensure adequate funding and support is provided to enable the HSE to carry out their important function.
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