According to new survey findings, nearly one in four construction workers in the UK believe they may have been exposed to asbestos fibres, putting them at a greater risk of developing asbestos-related cancers later in life, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural thickening.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (“IOSH”) commissioned an Opinium survey of 500 construction workers with the aim of gaining a better understanding of construction workers’ knowledge of the risks associated with asbestos in the workplace. This was undertaken ahead of the fourth phase of the IOSH’s ‘No Time to Lose’ occupational cancer campaign launched on 9 April 2018.

Although, the survey was conducted among construction workers, those involved in refurbishment, maintenance and other similar trades could also be exposed to the harmful material. These include architects, computer and data installers, telecommunications engineers and workplace maintenance staff, for example, caretakers. Hospital, school and office staff could also be at risk of exposure.

Key findings of the IOSH’s survey include:

  • 59% of workers have been informed of the risks of asbestos which is regularly reinforced through training; 15% of workers have never been informed;
  • 23% say they have been exposed to asbestos; 27% said they had not been exposed;
  • 32% of those surveyed had never checked the workplace asbestos register before starting work on a new site; 15% did not know about its workplace asbestos register; and
  • 18% of workers said they would be unsure what to do if they found asbestos.

Health and safety experts along with scientists have expressed concern about the findings of the IOSH’s survey. The new Chair of the UK’s Industrial Injuries Advisory Council and leading expert on workplace carcinogens, Dr Lesley Rushton stated, “What these new survey results confirm is that, while people have heard of asbestos and know what the effects of being exposed to it are, they’re not sure how to check if it’s present and they may not know what to do if they find asbestos… It is crucial that we reach them, to inform them of the risks and how these can be managed, to ensure their future health is not compromised.”

The new figures highlight the importance of the responsibility placed upon employers to adequately inform and train their employees in respect of the risks of asbestos in the workplace.

Asbestos was banned in the UK by The Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations 1999 but may still present in buildings constructed before then - predominantly houses, schools, offices, hospitals and factories built between the 1940’s and 1970’s when the substance was used extensively.

This harmful substance still kills approximately 5,000 workers each year, with 20 tradesman dying each week as a result of past exposure. British workers continue the trend of having the highest chances of dying from mesothelioma, the most fatal of the asbestos-related cancers.

The IOSH Opinium survey shows the importance of highlighting risks associated with asbestos exposure and, additionally, the failings of employers to educate and protect their workforce against asbestos exposure. This clearly indicates a need for employers to take steps to prevent the harmful impact of asbestos exposure.