Growing concern over building trade workers known to be at the highest risk of asbestos exposure has led Britain’s largest union, Unite, to urge their members to join the union’s asbestos register. The call comes as the latest case of trade-occupation exposure to asbestos is reported when plumbers removed a boiler from a residential property in the west of England.

The Unite union’s new campaign to raise asbestos awareness of the ever present risk of exposure follows last year’s report by the Health And Safety Executive (HSE) that there had been nearly an 11 per cent rise in deaths from mesothelioma in 2012.

At the same time, it has been estimated that an average of 20 tradesmen lose their lives every week to mesothelioma or suffer with asbestosis disease. The HSE have also previously stated that more than 1.8 million people come into ‘occupational contact’ with asbestos and that “most mesothelioma deaths occurring now are a legacy of past occupational exposures to asbestos when it was widely used in the building industry.”

Employer’s duty to prevent asbestos exposure

The Unite register, which already contains the details of over 11,000 Unite members, was developed to identify members who were employed by the same company or on the same site, which would support mesothelioma claims by members who fall victim to the fatal, incurable disease.

Unite also reminds employers that they “have a duty to prevent exposure of their employees to asbestos” and are issuing new asbestos health and safety guidance aimed at helping ensure that employers protect their employees from exposure to asbestos at work.

While building industry contractors, such as carpenters, electricians and plumbers continue to be at most risk of occupational asbestos exposure today, a recent survey commissioned by the HSE also found that it is plumbers and heating engineers, in particular, who come into contact with asbestos more frequently than nearly all other tradesman – an average of 140 times per year, or nearly three times a week.

A striking example of how plumbers can so easily fall victim to the presence of hidden asbestos occurred during extensive boiler renovations at a residential scheme in Devon.

No assessment of where asbestos could be disturbed

While the request for information relating to the existence of asbestos was complied with before work started, a decision was made to proceed without carrying out a proper asbestos survey and an adequate assessment of where work would be liable to disturb asbestos. According to a subsequent HSE investigation, the plumbing firm instead relied on information provided for contractors on the housing estate website, which was found to be ‘incomplete or misleading’ and not specific enough to each individual property.

As a result, during the replacement of a boiler and the removal of a fireplace surround, asbestos insulation board (AIB) was disturbed, an AIB panel above a door was drilled and a further AIB panel manually handled.

Failure of the estate owners to provide sufficient asbestos information led to a court fine of £1,650 including costs for breach of the Construction (Design Management) Regulations. Proceeding to carry out work without sufficient asbestos information also led the plumbing and heating company to plead guilty – to two breaches of Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 – and fined £2,142 inc. costs.

All premises up to year 2000 are suspect

It has been estimated that there could be at least half a million properties, both private and public still containing asbestos hidden within the fabric of the building. Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, it is a legal requirement for an authorised survey/risk assessment to be carried out before any works are begun.

It is not always fully understood that despite the reduced use of the most toxic blue and brown asbestos types from the 1970s and a complete ban from the mid 1980s, the use of white asbestos insulation continued in the building industry until imports were halted in November 1999. Construction trade organisations repeatedly caution that any premises, private or public, built up to 2000 should be suspected of containing asbestos and a full asbestos survey always carried out before any renovations begin.

The still high levels of misunderstanding over the potential health risks from inadequate protection to asbestos exposure continue to put both property owners, building contractors and their employees at risk.

Click here for more information on Unite campaign on Asbestos Health and Safety Guidance