Inaugural Evidence Supplied to the Parliamentary Inquiry into HSE’s Approach to Asbestos Management

In edition 335 of BC Disease News (here), we reported that the Work and Pensions Committee, a Select Committee of the House of Commons, had launched an inquiry into ‘the current risks posed by asbestos in the workplace, the actions taken by HSE [the Health and Safety Executive] to mitigate them and how its approach compares to those taken in other countries’.

It did so with the intention of obtaining feedback to influence the HSE’s Post Implementation Review (PIR) of the current version of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, which had been commissioned by the Government in response to ResPublica’s influential Report on the UK’s policy of managing the continued presence of asbestos in public buildings: DON’T BREATHE IN: BRIDGING THE ASBESTOS SAFETY GAP– we analysed its contents extensively in edition 299 (here).

On 17 November 2021 (2-months after the deadline for responding to the inquiry had elapsed), the Work and Pensions Committee gathered for its first oral evidence session, as part of its inquiry. [i] The full length video can be viewed here, while the full transcript can be accessed here.

Members of the Committee interviewed 2 panels, consisting of 8 witnesses in total. The list of witnesses comprised of safety campaigners, representatives from charities and support groups, as well as European experts in asbestos management:

  • Professor Thomas Kuhlbusch – Head of Hazardous Substances Management at The Federal Institute for Occupational Hygiene and Health (BAuA), in Germany.
  • Professor Alex Burdorf – Head of Department of Public Health at Erasmus University Medical Centre, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
  • Nicolas Bessot – Head of the Office of Chemical, Physical, Biological and Occupational Diseases at the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Integration, in France.
  • Charles Pickles – Asbestos campaigner known for the ‘Airtight on Asbestos Campaign’.[ii]
  • Gill Reed –Technical Adviser at The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC).
  • Tony Hood – Partner and National Head of Asbestos Strategy at Thompsons Solicitors.
  • Joanne Gordon – Chair at The Asbestos Victims Support Groups’ Forum (AVSGF) UK, and Co-ordinator of Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team (DAST).[iii]
  • Liz Darlison – Chief Executive Officer at Mesothelioma UK.

Most of the panellists made identical cases for the phased, safe removal of asbestos from some 3,000 pre-fabricated ‘CLASP’ schools still in use today; for the creation of a central register for asbestos in public buildings; for the abandonment of a policy of ‘management in situ’; and for the better training of designated ‘duty holders’, assigned by HSE.

Mr. Hood revealed that his solicitors’ practice had received contact from more and more victims of indirect asbestos exposure, while Ms. Gordon disclosed how the Forum had been increasingly communicating with people who had experienced low-level exposure – a potential issue given that tests used to determine asbestos levels are purported to be insufficiently sensitive.[iv] Elsewhere, Mr. Pickles drew attention to female primary school teachers as an occupational group with one of the highest prevalence rates of all occupations, allegedly facing brown asbestos (amosite) in a ‘dilapidated condition’ on a frequent basis.

Back in edition 317 (here), we suggested that the rate of mesothelioma mortality among workers in the education sector could be slowing, in the wake of 3-years of constant decline. This may have been a premature quip, however, as the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) latest figures (dated 4 November 2021) show that in 2020, there were 19 deaths.[v] This is double the 2019 figure and harks back to levels last seen in 2017. In any event, existing mortality data is thought to underestimate the true extent of the true modern day occupational health risk.

What is more, the effects of asbestos exposure on school pupils cannot be disregarded, albeit there is no official record of how many UK adults have died following a period of childhood exposure. The epidemiological literature nonetheless states that the risk of developing mesothelioma doubles every 10 years up to the age of 30, with some US clinicians predicting that for every teacher who dies of mesothelioma, so will 9 students. In Italy, high emerging numbers of mesothelioma deaths among those under the age of 50 have also been attributed to exposure during childhood.[vi]

The Work and Pensions Committee is due to continue hearing evidence over the coming months, on the subject of 6 million tonnes of asbestos harboured in UK public property, and is scheduled to release its final report in 2022.[vii]

Stay tuned for more updates.

 

[i] ‘HSE’s approach to asbestos management: Work and Pensions Committee to hold first oral evidence session’ (11 November 2021 UK Parliament) <https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/164/work-and-pensions-committee/news/158856/hses-approach-to-asbestos-management-work-and-pensions-committee-to-hold-first-oral-evidence-session/> accessed 19 November 2021.

[ii] Written evidence from Charles Pickles can be accessed here.

[iii] Written evidence from the AVSGF (and DAST) can be accessed here and here.

[iv] Christopher McKeon, ‘Teachers and pupils at risk from asbestos at 3,000 UK schools, MPs told’ (18 November 2021 Evening Standard) <https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/mps-teachers-stephen-timms-children-health-b966802.html> accessed 19 November 2021.

[v] ‘Deaths where the underlying cause was mesothelioma, for teaching and educational professionals in England, deaths occurring between 2017 and 2020’ (4 November 2021 ONS) <https://www.ons.gov.uk/file?uri=/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/adhocs/13914deathswheretheunderlyingcausewasmesotheliomaforteachingandeducationalprofessionalsinenglanddeathsoccurringbetween2017and2020/mesotheliomafinalfile.xlsx> accessed 19 November 2021.

[vi] Terri Oppenheimer, ‘Study Links Childhood Asbestos Exposure to Early Mesothelioma’ (18 November 2021 Mesothelioma.net) <https://mesothelioma.net/mesothelioma-news/study-links-childhood-asbestos-exposure-to-early-mesothelioma/> accessed 19 November 2021.

[vii] Rory Sullivan, ‘MPs to investigate hundreds of asbestos-related deaths among teachers’ (17 November 2021 The Independent) <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/asbestos-deaths-inquiry-schools-hospitals-b1958949.html> accessed 19 November 2021.