Industry report highlights abject failure of asbestos management in UK buildings

*** Industry report highlights abject failure of asbestos management in UK buildings ***
A new report by leading asbestos industry organisations highlights the repeated failures of the Health & Safety Executive’s asbestos management system and continuing presence of lethal asbestos in public buildings.
On Monday, the two leading asbestos management industry bodies will present evidence in Parliament that the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) policy of managing asbestos in situ is failing badly.
The report has been produced by Asbestos Testing and Consultancy (ATaC) and the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants (NORAC). It will be published at an event in Parliament hosted by the Chairman of the Work & Pensions Select Committee, Sir Stephen Timms, who led an inquiry into asbestos management in the UK during 2022.
An embargoed copy of the report is attached.
It is the first annual analysis of consolidated data on the presence of asbestos in UK buildings. It has been produced in response to the Work and Pensions Committee’s report, which concluded that too little is known about the current extent and condition of asbestos in UK buildings.
The new report finds that a high proportion of the asbestos materials in UK buildings presents a risk to public health, and that it needs urgent remediation or removal.
Headline findings:
  • Of the 128,761 buildings inspected, 100,660 (78%) were found to contain asbestos
  • Within those 100,660 buildings, 710,433 items of asbestos were found
  • Out of the 710,433 items of asbestos, 507,612 (71%) were recorded as having some level of damage
  • Of the 507,612 damaged items, only 120,629 (24%) would be classed as “licensable” work and require a specialist contractor
  • Conversely, a significant proportion of damaged items can be classified as ‘high risk’ — the worst category of damage demanding amelioration or removal.
  • Some of this material will have been inspected previously, meaning that it has been noticed and left unaddressed
The report’s clear conclusion is that asbestos management in these premises is failing. The authors state that existing datasets need expanding and standardising in order to be able to identify different types of buildings that pose a risk, such as social housing, hospitals, schools, etc.
This would be necessary for the development of a national database, one of a number of measures called for by the Work & Pensions Committee but dismissed by both the HSE in its submissions and by the Government in its response to the Committee.
Says Work & Pensions Committee chairman, Sir Stephen Timms MP:
Asbestos remains the single greatest cause of work-related fatalities in the UK, with more than 5,000 deaths in 2019.  I welcome the ATaC/NORAC report, showing that a large amount of data is readily available.  With further development, it could form the basis of a national database, supporting safe management of asbestos, and helping to prioritise buildings for phased removal.  I hope Ministers will rethink their opposition to a database
The report is welcomed by the campaign group Airtight on Asbestos, which has long argued for a proactive programme of phased asbestos removal.
Says Airtight on Asbestos founder, Charles Pickles:
‘These findings by ATAC and NORAC show just how patchy the current regulatory regime for managing asbestos is. For years, the HSE has said that removal is far more dangerous than management in situ, and that a national database for monitoring the location and condition of the substance would be too difficult to implement. In short, the policy has been to sit back and do nothing while buildings decay and become more hazardous for occupants. Now the data is in: either we act to remove the threat, or we ignore it and watch as the crisis deepens.’
Says Head of Health and Safety at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, Ruth Wilkinson:
“Asbestos is the biggest cause of occupational cancer, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives a year worldwide. It remains a global challenge to both occupational and public health, and simply must be addressed. Sadly, as a result of this unmanaged situation, many people, and workers in particular, will continue to become seriously ill and die prematurely”.
The analysis by ATAC/NORAC is the first of what will be an annual report into the condition of asbestos in UK buildings. It is a response to a 10-month inquiry by the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which was set up in September 2021 after considerable pressure from Airtight on Asbestos and other consumer representatives. The W&P Committee found that the HSE could provide no evidence about the condition of asbestos in public buildings.
The Committee said the HSE should:
  • Create a ‘National Asbestos Database’ to record all asbestos currently remaining in public buildings – including type, quantity, risk factor, etc.
  • Change the current policy of ‘management in-situ’ to one of a prioritised, scheduled removal of asbestos from ‘at-risk’ buildings.
  • Develop a National Asbestos Strategy with the Government, which would coordinate efforts to remove asbestos from high-risk settings.
  • Create a robust research framework into the measurement of asbestos exposure using more advanced techniques than are currently practiced.
In its submissions, the HSE response resisted these areas – and flatly rejected proposals for a national database and the phased removal of asbestos from UK buildings. It said a new central register would merely duplicate existing information and undermine the requirement on duty holders to manage asbestos.
John Richards, Spokesperson for Asbestos Testing and Consultancy (ATAC) and the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants (NORAC), was scathing about the Government’s response:
‘We understand why the Government has chosen to reject calls for a national database in addition to mandatory accreditation for asbestos surveyors as this would highlight the full extent of the problem facing the UK, one which has been ignored for decades. The Government responded positively following the 74 deaths that tragically occurred at Grenfell Tower with the establishment of a dedicated regulator, yet with almost 100 deaths occurring weekly as a result of past asbestos exposure and little understanding on the long term consequences of low level exposure, the Government chooses to ignore the recommendations of the Works and Pensions committee.’
Airtight on Asbestos’s Charles Pickles says that ATAC/NORAC’s new findings compel the Government/HSE to act:
‘In light of this new data, Airtight on Asbestos is renewing its call for the HSE to implement a national asbestos database, which can then be used as a base to drive a programme of phased removal. Doing so would take the UK one step closer to safe, asbestos-free public buildings – and could potentially save thousands of lives in the future. The time to act is now’.