UK Employers Have Legal Duty to Protect Workers from Asbestos

May 20, 2004
Starting May 21, employers in the U.K. have a responsibility to protect building and maintenance workers from exposure to asbestos.

The new law requires anyone responsible for the maintenance of commercial, industrial or public properties, or for the common areas of domestic properties, to check for asbestos and properly manage the risk.

Many structures built or renovated between 1950 and 1980 still contain asbestos, about half a million buildings across Britain. Asbestos becomes dangerous when disturbed; if maintenance workers are not warned, they may dislodge the asbestos fibers and unwittingly expose themselves to the hazard.

"With the government's whole-hearted support, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is engaged in a campaign to get the message on asbestos in buildings across to the huge audience who need to know about it, and to encourage them to take effective action," said Minister of State for Work Jane Kennedy. "It must surely make good business sense to find out whether your premises contain asbestos, and then make certain that building and maintenance workers are warned in advance."

Asbestos is the biggest occupational health risk ever faced by workers in Britain, according to the HSE. About 3,500 people are dying every year as a result of exposure to past asbestos exposure. This figure is expected to reach at least 4,000 deaths annually, peaking sometime between the years 2011 and 2015. Most of these deaths are from mesothelioma (cancer of the lung lining) or lung cancer.

Asbestos is not yesterday's problem," said Bill Callaghan, chairman of the Health and Safety Commission. "We must now meet the challenge of managing the risks from asbestos, if we are to prevent another generation of workers suffering an early death at its hand.

"Sadly, we can't turn the clock back for the people who breathed in asbestos fibers in the shipyards, docks and factories of 30 years ago," he added, "But what we

can and must do is to make every effort to prevent any more exposure to this terrible material."

More information on asbestos is available on HSE's Web site: www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos/index.htm.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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