Asbestos risk awareness should be part of NHS staff training, new study recommends

Awareness of asbestos risk and the possibility of a mesothelioma diagnosis should be added to the mandatory training for new NHS staff, given that asbestos is present in many hospital buildings, a report has recommended.

The MAGS study was carried out by researchers at the University of Sheffield and funded by national charity, Mesothelioma UK, alongside donations from the family and friends of the late Dr Mags Portman, a pioneer in the fight to prevent and control HIV, who died of mesothelioma in 2019.

The study found that hospitals have a duty to make staff aware of the existence of the substance in their buildings, and to communicate a mesothelioma diagnosis to a staff member in a “patient first, professional second” manner.

Mesothelioma is a cancer related to exposure to asbestos and predominantly affects the lining of the lungs. The UK has the highest incidence of the disease in the world with around 2,700 people diagnosed each year.

With many NHS hospital buildings containing some asbestos, the study aimed to explore the experiences of healthcare workers in the UK with mesothelioma and to develop recommendations for increasing awareness of the risk to healthcare workers.

Recommendations from the study include the need to get a more accurate picture of the extent of mesothelioma amongst healthcare staff, that awareness of asbestos risk should be added to the mandatory training for new members of NHS staff, and that special consideration should be given to the communication of the diagnosis.

Through patient interviews, literature reviews, and data analysis researchers examined the experiences of presentation, diagnosis, treatment, and care of healthcare staff with mesothelioma. Participants included both clinical staff, such as doctors and nurses, and non-clinical staff, such as medical secretaries, cleaners, porters, and maintenance staff.

Dr Peter Allmark, the lead researcher for MAGS at the University of Sheffield, said:

The healthcare workers I interviewed were people who’d worked many years caring for others. That they had either certainly, or probably been exposed to asbestos at work and become seriously ill as a result was deeply upsetting. Their wish is that this project will help healthcare workers avoid this in future.

Dr Peter Allmark, University of Sheffield

Liz Darlison, head of services for Mesothelioma UK, which part-funded the study, said:

We’re learning that mesothelioma doesn’t just affect people who worked in areas typically associated with asbestos exposure such as the construction or shipping industries. People are exposed to asbestos in many of our public buildings such as hospitals and schools.

Mesothelioma UK will ensure that this research raises awareness of the risk of exposure to healthcare staff and hopefully, improve the treatment and care given to them by medical teams and support agencies.

Dr Mags Portman was a huge inspiration and I would like to say a personal thank you to her family friends who supported this study.

Liz Darlison, Mesothelioma UK