Nearly one in five (18 per cent) of UK builders and construction workers still have no clear idea of what to do if they come across asbestos when working in a building, compared to a decade ago when more than one in three (34 per cent) of tradesmen admitted to a lack of adequate asbestos awareness or not being well informed.

A new national survey of 500 construction workers was commissioned by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) ahead of launching the fourth phase of its “No Time to Lose” occupational cancer campaign, which aims to “explain the causes of occupational cancer and help businesses take action.”

The results reveal that there is an overall understanding of the health risks – most builders had heard of asbestos – although nearly a third (32 per cent) admitted they never checked the asbestos register before starting work at a new site. Alarmingly, more than one in six (15 per cent) of construction workers said they had “never been informed of the mesothelioma risk from asbestos exposure” as well as “not being given any training in how to manage the risk.”

The survey finding are released at the same time a court hears how a builder was exposed to asbestos while working on a Grade II listed building in Chelsea, and yet another firm – a specialist asbestos company – is reported by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for failing to detect asbestos at a large garage demolition site.

How do the latest IOSH results compare with a similar national survey by the British Lung Foundation of 399 builders and tradespeople, published in January 2008?

Only a third aware that asbestos exposure can cause cancer

Here we find that four out of five tradespeople (81 per cent) “never, rarely or only sometimes” asked if the site has been checked for asbestos before they start the job. Only a third (31 per cent) of tradespeople were aware that asbestos exposure can cause cancer and only one in eight (12 per cent) knew exposure could cause a fatal asbestosis disease, i.e. mesothelioma.

In the 2008, almost three quarters (74 per cent) of tradespeople surveyed said they never received any training in how to deal with asbestos.  Ten years on, a smaller proportion – 15 per cent – admitted they have never received any information or training.

Although the two survey sample groups may not be directly comparable, nevertheless, it is deeply worrying that a significant proportion of building tradespeople are still not fully aware of asbestos, and the procedures they need to follow to avoid exposure risk. More alarmingly, the IOSH survey also found that nearly one in four (23 per cent) state that have been exposed to asbestos while with only 27 per cent say that they have not been exposed to the deadly fibre insulation.

Stockpiles of asbestos insulation building material were still likely to be used

The professional construction industry repeatedly warn that there could be half a million properties still containing asbestos materials in the fabric of the building, including the interior walls ceilings and exterior roofing. The import of white asbestos into Britain was finally banned at the end of 1999. It is believed that stockpiles of asbestos insulation building material were still likely to be used in construction and renovations up until this date. It’s the reason why the industry cautions that asbestos must be suspected to be present in any premises built or refurbished up until 2000.In 2003, it was estimated that there was still around six million metric tons of asbestos containing materials in buildings across the UK.

More than 1.3 million people in the UK still come into occupational contact with asbestos, and building trade workers are still a high risk category. The HSE estimate that, on average, one in 20 tradesmen – mostly carpenters, electricians and plumbers – are diagnosed every week with mesothelioma or asbestos-related illness caused by regular exposure to the deadly mineral fibres.

Plumbers and electricians have a one in 50 risk of developing mesothelioma

The findings are repeated by Cancer Research UK who say that plumbers and electricians also have a one in 50 risk of developing mesothelioma. Carpenters under 30 years old who work with asbestos for ten years or more are estimated to have a one in 17 chance of contracting the fatal cancer. The HSE suggest that between 1970 and 2050, of a total of 90,000 cases of diagnosed mesothelioma in Britain around 15 per cent, i.e. 15,000 will have been employed in the building industry.

Access to numerous asbestos training courses are widely available at all times across the professional construction industry. In addition, the HSE regularly roll out awareness campaigns aimed at construction and demolition workers, and trade skills, such as plumbers and electricians who are all at daily risk of exposure to asbestos.