Set 40 year deadline for non-domestic building asbestos removal, MPs say

Asbestos-related illness ‘one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times’ with thousands of deaths each year from past exposures.

An increase in retrofitting in response to net zero ambitions means that more asbestos-containing materials will be disturbed in coming decades – a cross-government approach is needed.
More funding for HSE to boost enforcement activity.

The government must commit to a strategy to remove all asbestos from public and commercial buildings within 40 years, MPs say today, with the risk to health only likely to increase as buildings are adapted with the move to net zero.

The report from the work and pensions committee highlights how despite being banned more than two decades ago, asbestos persists as the single greatest cause of work-related fatalities in the UK. There were more than 5,000 deaths in 2019, including from cancers such as mesothelioma.

Many of these deaths will relate to exposures from 35 or more years ago. The available evidence indicates that cumulative exposures are much lower now for younger age groups but more data is needed to understand the current picture.

With asbestos still in around 300,000 non-domestic buildings and a likely dramatic increase in disturbance from net zero retrofitting, the committee says that reliance on the current asbestos regulations will not be good enough. It concludes that a cross-government and ‘system-wide’ strategy for the long-term removal of asbestos is needed.

The report calls for the government and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to back up their stated goal of removing all asbestos by committing to a clear time frame and strategy. The plan should strengthen the evidence base on safe and effective asbestos removal in the first instance before prioritising removal from the highest risk settings, including schools.

The government must also ensure adequate funding for HSE’s inspection and enforcement of the current asbestos regulations, which has declined in recent years.

Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, chair of the committee, said: “Asbestos is one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times and while the extreme exposures of the late twentieth century are now behind us, the risk from asbestos remains real.

“The drive towards retrofitting of buildings to meet net zero aspirations means the risk of asbestos exposure will only escalate in the coming decades. Falling back on regulations which devolve responsibility to individual building owners and maintenance managers will not be sufficient to protect people’s health.

“Setting a clear deadline of 40 years for the removal of asbestos from non-domestic buildings will help to focus minds. The clock is ticking and the government and HSE must now come up with a strategic plan which builds the evidence on safer removal and prioritises higher risk settings such as schools.

“This is no time for laissez-faire. The government needs to fund the HSE properly to allow it to reverse the decline in enforcement activity seen in the decade before the pandemic and ensure that asbestos, and its removal, is managed safely and effectively.”