In the light of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures, which finds that nearly one in five of all mesothelioma victims diagnosed in Britain are employed in construction trade industries, it might be thought that an initiative by HSE to raise asbestos awareness and help tradesmen to identify and handle the potentially deadly materials in their everyday work would be seen as a useful tool.

However, a new app developed by HSE for use on smartphones, tablets and laptops to provide workmen with a basic guide to what to do when confronted with asbestos has attracted criticism from an asbestos training association.

Simple, practical advice

Launched in October 2014, the app entitled “Beware Asbestos” offers “Simple, practical advice for working with asbestos”, according to the HSE website, from where the app can be freely downloaded.

Criticism of the app is focused on the possible encouragement of ‘untrained people’ to undertake the removal of asbestos and its failure to adequately represent the “very real risks associated with working with asbestos containing materials.” There is also further concern over whether the “wrong message” has been given out to those in trade occupations who may consider carrying out minor works involving asbestos.”.

Yet the HSE site itself states, “the information provided is not enough to protect against all risks from asbestos” and advises against starting work “until you have the correct instruction, information and training to do it safely.”

Targeting those unaware of the risks

In response to the criticism, HSE reaffirms the important role of asbestos training courses in “educating workers on what they must do.” It says the purpose of the ‘Beware Asbestos’ campaign is to simply target many of those in trade occupations who are unaware of the risks of unintentionally disturbing asbestos “when they carry out common tasks, such as drilling holes in textured ceilings and replacing old panels around baths.”

HSE says it believes “it is also vital that as many workers as possible know about the risk they face from asbestos and the simple measures they can follow to protect themselves… the app presents existing advice on carrying out tasks safely in an easy to understand way that workers can carry around with them.”

According to a survey of building trade occupations conducted by HSE in September 2014, only three in ten respondents were able to identify all the correct measures for working safely with asbestos, and nearly six in ten “made at least one potentially lethal mistake” in trying to identify the proper safety procedures.

While many of those surveyed could recognise a number of asbestos-containing materials, nearly one in five were unaware that asbestos could be hidden behind many common building fixtures, and within plumbing and heating systems.

Detailed information and vital advice

Previous and ongoing asbestos awareness campaigns from HSE include, “Hidden Killer” and “Asbestos Essentials”, which provide detailed information and vital advice for those who are most likely to be at risk of direct contact with hidden asbestos materials.

The HSE have stated that more than 1.8 million people, mostly construction and related trade workers, such as plumber and electricians, still come into occupational contact with asbestos every day. They have also suggested that 90,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in Britain between 1970 and 2050 will include around 15,000 employed in the building industry.