Hanna Davies, Trainee Solicitor in the Asbestos Litigation team discusses the key recommendations from the recent report from the Work and Pensions Committee, reviewing the current asbestos regulations in the UK.
Asbestos is an extremely dangerous mineral which was used in the construction of buildings throughout the twentieth century. The HSE estimates that asbestos remains in 300,000 non-domestic buildings and remains the single biggest cause of workplace fatalities in the UK. On 21 April 2022, the Work and Pensions Committee published a report which reviewed the current asbestos regulations; the risk that asbestos still poses today and recommendations on its removal from all public buildings.
The Select Committee’s Key Recommendation(s)
Firstly, it highlighted that under the current regulations, asbestos which is in good condition and undisturbed can be left in buildings. However, the committee argued that waiting until the condition of this asbestos deteriorates before removal is not a viable long-term solution. Consequently, the most significant recommendation of the paper was to remove all asbestos in public buildings by 2062.
The Committee called for a more comprehensive plan with clearly defined dates and deadlines to target the highest risk settings first, such as schools and hospitals. The paper highlights the need for a more united approach and a ‘pan-government’ strategy for the long-term removal of asbestos. It asked the government to work with HSE to develop and publish a strategic plan to reach a 40-year deadline to remove asbestos from all non-domestic buildings. This needs to include research into the safe removal and disposal of the asbestos and an analysis of the costs and benefits.
Additionally, the report criticised the HSE’s investment and research into the costs and benefits of removing asbestos. With net zero targets leading to retrofitting buildings, the asbestos contained in these buildings are likely to be disturbed and therefore this research is becoming a more urgent task. It also criticised the HSE’s management and enforcement of asbestos regulations and called on the agency to commit to its target of increasing the number of asbestos related inspections by 2022/2023.
The Government Response
On 21 July 2022, the Government issued its response rejecting the Select Committee’s key recommendations. It stated that it already has a plan to manage asbestos risks under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012) and this should remain with the duty holders as required under the regulations.
Furthermore, the government highlighted concerns over disturbing fibres that are already managed safely in buildings as it argued that risk of exposure is currently low. Instead, it believes that waiting until planned refurbishment work takes place ensures that the fibres will be released in a safe and controlled manner. It stated that introducing a deadline will increase the risk of exposure as it may lead to “poor removal and disposal practices”.
The Government also noted that the removal of asbestos is already being carried out by many government departments. Specifically, the Department of Education is investing £1.8 billion in schools where managing asbestos is proving difficult. It also highlighted that the Department of Health and Social Care is adequately tackling the management and removal of asbestos in hospitals.
Additionally, it rejected the Committee’s recommendation of investing in a central register of asbestos to identify the level of compliance with CAR 2012 and to gather information to support a longer-term plan to managing and removing asbestos. The government and HSE argued that this would require a significant amount of resources and will potential duplicate the information we currently have.
Asbestos is incredibly dangerous and even very low exposure can lead to the development of mesothelioma. A person who can understand the danger of such little exposure is Dad of three, Mr Bradley, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in February 2017 at the age of thirty. Mr Bradley was exposed to asbestos in 2006 when he worked as a roofer. During his employment, he was required to replace old roofing which contained asbestos. He also worked in close proximity to a colleague who was using a hammer to break up asbestos sheets. Despite having limited exposure to asbestos, Mr Bradley went on to develop mesothelioma. Hugh James helped Mr Bradley win compensation to provide security for him and his family.
Therefore, despite the Government highlighting that asbestos is currently being managed safely, Mr Bradley’s case demonstrates that the safest way forward is to fund the total removal of asbestos across the country. For as long as the government avoids taking a proactive approach and implementing the 40-year plan, people suffering from asbestos-related conditions will continue to rise.