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Workers Continue to be Exposed to Deadly Asbestos Fibres

The health and safety of workers continues to be put at risk through exposure to deadly asbestos fibres, new research has found. 

A survey commissioned by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) found that around a quarter of construction workers in the UK believe they may have been exposed to asbestos fibres, placing them at higher risk of contracting terminal cancers later in life.

Deaths from Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos fibres are invisible to the naked eye. When breathed in, they can stick into the lining of the lungs, causing serious illnesses over time, including fatal cancers like mesothelioma.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, at least 5,000 people die every year in Britain alone from an asbestos-related cancer caused by exposure at work.

Worldwide, asbestos claims well over 107,000 lives a year. Yet an estimated 125 million people are still exposed to asbestos at work annually.

Asbestos is banned in 62 countries. The UK banned it in 1999, but many buildings constructed before this time contain it. It can be found in many products including roofing, spray coatings, lagging, insulating boards, ropes, yarns and cloth.

Employers Must Do More to Protect Workers

There is now greater awareness of the risks posed by asbestos, which is fortunate as half a million buildings in the country could potentially still contain the lethal substance. However, despite this knowledge, a third of respondents to the survey said they never checked the asbestos register before starting work on a new site – with nearly half of those not even knowing there is a register. Almost one in five respondents said if they discovered asbestos they wouldn’t be clear about what to do.

“Asbestos is banned in the UK and other countries for a good reason: it is dangerous,” commented Craig Foyle, IOSH President. “It is staggering to see how many people die from exposure to asbestos every year. That is well over 100,000 families suffering the devastation of a lost loved one.”

“It is unacceptable, therefore, for anyone in any workplace to be exposed to asbestos,” he said. “Clearly, though, people are being exposed to it. In the decades to come, it is likely that these people and their families will still be suffering unless we all do something about it.”

“We are calling on everyone, including employers, to do the right thing; to protect the people who work for them,” he added. “IOSH has an array of resources designed to assist employers put measures in place which protect their workforce.”

Risk to Teachers Highlighted

While the survey was conducted among construction workers, the risks of asbestos exposure are present across many workplaces.

One less obvious group of employees known to be at risk of asbestos exposure is teachers, together with their students.

Asbestos was used heavily in the construction of many schools, with figures from the Joint Union Asbestos Committee estimating that as many as 90% of schools in England contain the lethal material, reports Personnel Today. It also estimates that as many as 17 teachers die every year from mesothelioma – a deadly cancer related to asbestos exposure.

The Committee has called for the development of a central database, detailing the location and condition of all asbestos within school buildings. It has also called for a plan of action to be prepared setting out how the asbestos will be removed.

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