Asbestos has been known to be harmful since the late 19th Century and, given that the material was widely used in the UK until very recently, many people are surprised at how extensive asbestos regulation history really is and how late asbestos was banned.
Reading through the asbestos regulation history, it becomes clear that laws and recommendations were ignored for decades, exposing generations of workers to huge risks.
Here are the key dates that have influenced the asbestos legislation that we know today:
1901 – Early laws
The Factory and Workshop Act 1901 specified that, if workers were likely to be exposed to excessive inhalation of asbestos dust, steps should be taken to set up some mechanical means of protection. Later guidance suggested keeping the material moist to minimise dust production. Clearly, protection of workers was considered important well over a hundred years ago.
1931 – Safer workplaces and better equipment
The Asbestos Industry Regulations 1931 provided, among other things, for separation of processes involving asbestos from other work, for provision of protective equipment including breathing apparatus and overalls and for prohibiting young people from certain work involving asbestos. In 1935, the first recorded case of asbestos related lung cancer was reported.
From the 1930s, medical and scientific research revealed more about the serious harm asbestos could inflict and stronger advice was given by specialists that asbestos dust in industry needed to be controlled. It was also established around this time that, while even a tiny level of asbestos could cause serious injury, exposure to greater quantities would likely accelerate the development of the disease.
Reports in the 1930s suggested that, in factories where some workers were using asbestos and others were not, the processes should be kept separate. Unfortunately, we have seen that, even in cases arising from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, this was not implemented, with asbestos contaminating entire, open-plan factories.
The Factories Act 1937 strengthened the protective regulation and, in the same year, a compensation scheme for those affected by asbestosis in certain jobs was introduced.
1941 – The 'bare minimum'
The asbestos industry did not simply accept these health and safety developments. In 1941, an asbestos company wrote to a workers' representative body insisting that there was no danger when asbestos was cut outdoors and only slight risk if cut indoors. Commentators criticised the practice of certain employers for doing the 'bare minimum' to comply with asbestos regulations, an issue which persisted for decades afterward.
1953 – Breathing equipment and tools
By this stage, it was suggested that breathing masks were only, at best, secondary defences to asbestos dust – there should be sufficient ventilation for the air to be breathable in any case, with a mask as a precaution and that fabric covering the mouth and nose were effectively useless.
Here at Michelmores we have seen enough cases of workers in asbestos-heavy environments using nothing more than handkerchiefs around their faces to know that this was certainly not universally enforced. In addition, poorly-fitting or damaged breathing equipment are, according to the 1950s findings, as good as useless. Recommendations were also made for tools such as circular saws to use systems of exhaust ventilation.
1960 – Safety over all
A booklet published by the Ministry of Labour specified that the best solution to the asbestos problem was, where possible, to use an alternative substance instead. This, it said, should be the first possibility explored. It was also becoming increasingly clear that it was not just workers who could be harmed by asbestos; instances of families being affected by asbestos related disease were being recorded, showing that workers were often bringing the material into their homes on their work overalls.
Asbestos, one commentator said, did not differentiate between workers or those at home, and increasing numbers of women were being reported as victims. The Asbestos Regulations 1969, the broadest law yet, applied to every process involving asbestos in a factory. You can find out more how the modern legislation was influenced by asbestos regulations 1969.
1960 - present
Throughout the last half-century, more and more guidance continued to be produced about the maintenance of safety equipment and preventing the escape of asbestos dust. Proper ventilation of the working area was the key requirement, followed by provision of adequate breathing equipment.
While it is clear that the dangers of asbestos were well-known, many workers continued to receive minimal if any protection when using the material. The issue became political, with the former MP Cyril Smith defending the use of asbestos, saying that it did not present a serious risk to public health. It was later found that he held shares in one of the major English asbestos companies.
When was asbestos banned?
Blue and brown asbestos, the most dangerous forms, were only banned in the UK in 1985; use of white asbestos was banned over a decade later in 1999. Asbestos is still present in many buildings, however; it is estimated that 50% of the asbestos used in the building trade remains in place and it is thought that it may never be completely removed.
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