One in four construction workers say they have been exposed to asbestos while two-thirds do not know that it can cause cancer, according to a survey by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).
Among 500 construction workers surveyed by IOSH, 68 per cent did not know that asbestos can cause lung disease that can lead to cancer.
And with potentially half a million buildings containing this lethal mineral, employees across many sectors risk being exposed every day – continuing the trend of Britons having the world’s highest chances of dying from mesothelioma, the deadliest asbestos-related cancer.
More than 5,000 people die from asbestos-related cancers in the UK every year as a result of exposure at work, and a Health and Safety Executive study from 2012 found construction workers accounted for 66 per cent of all asbestos-related cancer deaths.
The IOSH is revealed the findings of a survey it commissioned to find out how much construction workers know about this hazard, as it launched its campaign to tackle asbestos exposure in the world’s workplaces.
IOSH commissioned Opinium to survey 500 construction workers to understand the scale of the issue.
While the majority are familiar about the risks posed, a third of survey respondents have never checked the asbestos register before starting work on a new site – with nearly half of those not even knowing there is a register. Worryingly, almost one in five respondents said if they discovered asbestos they wouldn’t be clear about what to do.
Key findings include:
- 59 per cent have been informed of the asbestos risks and have had this reinforced regularly with training; 15 per cent have never been informed
- 23 per cent say they have been exposed to asbestos; with only 27 per cent saying they haven’t been exposed
- 32 per cent have never checked the asbestos register before starting work on a new site, with 15 per cent of these not knowing about the register
- Understanding of the danger was particularly low among workers in London, with just 37 per cent being aware of the risk.
- Almost one in five industry workers said they would be uncertain or would not know what to do if they came across asbestos on a job, while one in three admitted they do not check asbestos registers for a site – 15 per cent were unaware registers even existed.
Building owners, or those responsible for repair and maintenance, are required to assess whether a building contains asbestos and make this information available to anyone working on it.
UK Industrial Injuries Advisory Council chair Lesley Rushton said employers needed to work harder to advise workers about dealing with asbestos. She said;
“Uncertainty and ignorance surrounding how to prevent workers from breathing in the fibres is deeply worrying. This is particularly the case among small companies, sole traders and older workers.
It is crucial that we reach them to inform them of the risks, how these can be managed [and] to ensure their future health is not compromised.”
Craig Foyle, IOSH President, said the survey also demonstrates that not enough is being done to protect workers. He said:
“Asbestos is banned in the UK and other countries for a good reason: it is dangerous. 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. 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. IOSH has an array of resources designed to assist employers put measures in place which protect their workforce.”
The IOSH recently launched their brilliant No Time To Lose campaign, which aims to heighten awareness of asbestos risks. There are a range of excellent resources available on their campaign website here, and you can watch their video below.
More videos and testimonials can be found on IOSH’s No Time To Lost YouTube channel here.
Former labourer Keith Hughes from the West Midlands was exposed to asbestos in the 1970s. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2016 and given less than a year to live.
Successful surgery helped him beat the prognosis, but the cancer is growing again. He wants to make sure workers are clearly told the risks of working with asbestos.
Speaking as part of the No Time To Lose campaign, Mr Hughes said:
“Asbestos is not someone else’s problem. We all have to be aware of the risks and all have to take action. The responsibility on employers is significant. I would question them what are they doing to protect their employees and the employees of the future.”
IOSH’s No Time To Lose campaign aims to raise awareness of occupational cancer and has highlighted the risks of silica dust, solar radiation, diesel exhaust fumes and asbestos since its launch in November 2014.