We’re all familiar nowadays with the fact that asbestos is a dangerous substance but, surprisingly, it was not totally banned in the UK until 1999. While blue and brown asbestos materials were banned outright in 1985, the import, sale and second hand reuse of white asbestos was still legal until the total ban in 1999. Before this date, asbestos was widely used in the UK for decades, indeed it was extolled as an excellent insulating material.
Over the years, this insidious mineral found its way into factories, shipyards, power plants, chemical plants, refineries and commercial buildings, to say nothing of the homes and schools all across the UK. Surprisingly, it was clear as far back as the 1970s that cases of mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases were on the rise in the UK. Even more shocking is the fact that scientific findings in the 1920s and 1930s suggested that asbestos was causing serious respiratory illnesses in those exposed to the fibres.
We’re now paying the price for our former love affair with asbestos and the fact that it took so long for legislation to ban its use. Asbestos is the single greatest cause of work related deaths in the UK and will probably remain so for quite some time to come. Every week 20 tradesmen die from an asbestos related disease. Asbestos remains such a danger here in the UK that the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was moved to launch its ‘Hidden Killer’ campaign which ran in October and November of 2008. The Hidden Killer campaign aimed to reduce the rising death rate by educating tradesmen about the dangers presented by asbestos and won the prestigious European Excellence Award in the category of health.
The Hidden Killer campaign led to HSE collaborating with a communications agency in order to plan an effective PR campaign spearheaded by ex England player (and former plasterer) Ian Wright which used a football based analogy to raise awareness of the numbers of people dying from asbestos exposure. With extensive coverage by the broadcast, online and print media (including BBC Radio 4 and GMTV), the campaign led to a six fold increase in page requests on the campaign’s website.
This campaign has been a vital tool for HSE in its quest to prevent a new generation of tradesmen (including electricians, joiners, plasterers and plumbers) from suffering the ravages of asbestos exposure. There are now strict guidelines in place for those who work with asbestos by way of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 which came into force in April of that year. The regulations update previous UK regulations in order to take into account the European Commission’s opinion that the UK had not fully implemented the EU Directive on exposure to asbestos (Directive 2009/148/EC). Although the changes were limited, they do mean that some types of non-licensed asbestos work now have additional requirements (e.g. medical surveillance, notification of work and effective record keeping).
Although we still have a long way to go in the UK, we’re well on the road now to minimising exposure to asbestos – a huge step forward in making asbestos related diseases a thing of the past.