The Health and Safety Executive’s approach to asbestos management – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

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Asbestos-related illness is one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times. The importation, supply and use of asbestos was completely banned in the UK over 20 years ago but its legacy lives on. Asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has reported that there were over 5,000 asbestos-related deaths in 2019, including from cancers like mesothelioma. The heavy use of brown asbestos is thought to be a key reason why the UK has one of the highest mesothelioma rates in the world. The extreme exposures of the mid- to late twentieth century in sectors such as construction and shipbuilding may be behind us, but asbestos is still in around 300,000 non-domestic buildings according to HSE, and in many more homes.

Control of asbestos regulations

Managing and working with asbestos in non-domestic buildings is now regulated under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.1 These regulations are made under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and apply only in Great Britain (GB). Northern Ireland and Gibraltar have separate legislation covering their territories. HSE, an executive non-departmental public body of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), has a key role in implementing these regulations and is currently reviewing whether they are meeting their intended objectives. It says it will use the findings from our inquiry to inform this review.

The asbestos risk today

Understanding the extent to which asbestos fibres are being released from the fabric of buildings remains an important task today. Analysis of fibres in lungs shows that the lifetime risk from mesothelioma—a disease strongly associated with past asbestos exposure—has reduced considerably for people whose working lives began after the mid-1980s when bans on asbestos started to be introduced. The most recent data from these studies shows a continuing decline in asbestos exposure but the case numbers are small and unreliable. We know relatively little about current exposure levels, but we heard worrying accounts of people who continue to be exposed to asbestos fibres. We think HSE should do more to gather a systematic picture of current exposure levels.

Taking a strategic approach

The current asbestos regulations say that asbestos that is in good condition, well-protected and unlikely to be disturbed, can be left in place in buildings. These buildings will not, however, last forever and a policy of waiting for materials containing asbestos to deteriorate before removing them is not sustainable in the long term. The TUC, the ‘Airtight on Asbestos’ Campaign and others, have said a stronger and proactive programme of asbestos removal is required. Large-scale removal is not, however, without its own risk and uncertainty.

HSE has been slow to invest in research to understand better the costs and benefits of more wholesale removal of asbestos and options for its safer removal. This is becoming a more urgent task. The likely dramatic increase in retrofitting of buildings in response to net zero ambitions means that more asbestos-containing material will be disturbed in the coming decades, thus changing the cost-benefit analysis. Simple reliance on a set of regulations which devolve asbestos management to individual dutyholders—the building owners or managers responsible for maintenance—will not be good enough. We need a pan-government and ‘system-wide’ strategy for the long-term removal of asbestos, founded on strong evidence of what is best from a scientific, epidemiological, and behavioural point of view.

The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Chloe Smith, told us on 2 February that the Government has “a clearly stated goal” that “it is right to—over time and in the safest way—work towards there no longer being asbestos in non-domestic buildings.”2 Sarah Albon, Chief Executive of HSE, also said that “we should look to remove it”.3 We agree with this ambition but greatly regret that neither HSE nor the Government has articulated a clear and comprehensive strategy for achieving this. There is no written down, fully developed, and long-term plan to match the Government’s goal, one that is founded on an analysis of costs and benefits and integrates with wider government policy. Moreover, the Government has so far failed to signal its intent by setting a clear timeframe for the removal of most, if not all, asbestos.

We recommend that a deadline now be set for the removal of asbestos from non-domestic buildings within 40 years. The Government and HSE should develop and publish a strategic plan to achieve this, focusing on removing the highest risk asbestos first, and the early removal from the highest risk settings including schools. This plan should, in the first instance, commit to improving urgently the evidence base for safe asbestos removal and disposal, considering relative costs and benefits. It should integrate with—and take full account of—proposals for the upgrading of the built environment linked to net zero targets and wider waste management strategies.

Compliance with the duty to manage asbestos

In the meantime, we heard that HSE is not doing enough to monitor compliance with the current asbestos regulations. HSE collects some data from its inspections, but these cover a tiny fraction of the non-domestic premises that contain asbestos. HSE said that its recent inspection results showed that four out of five construction firms were fully complying with the regulations. Other data we heard is, however, less positive. For example, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health told us that of 500 construction workers responding to its survey, a third had never checked the asbestos register—a key source of information on the location of asbestos—before starting work on a new site. Industry experts told us that there was a real gap in knowledge about asbestos regulations compliance. A central register of information on asbestos in buildings could help to shed light on the true level of compliance and could contribute to a more effective risk-based and targeted enforcement regime. It would also provide important background data to support a longer-term strategic approach to managing the asbestos legacy. We recommend that HSE works with others in government to develop a central digital register of asbestos in all non-domestic buildings. In the first instance, the concept of a central register could be tested using asbestos data from public buildings such as schools and hospitals.

HSE enforcement

HSE experienced a near halving of its government funding, in real terms, between 2010/11 and 2019/20. This was partly mitigated by changes which enable HSE to recover some costs from people and organisations found to be in breach of the law. Nonetheless, it is not entirely surprising that HSE asbestos enforcement activity has reduced in recent years. What is surprising, however, is that the level of decline is much greater than for HSE’s enforcement work overall. HSE says that part of the recent reduction in asbestos enforcement activity stems from it diverting fully trained inspectors to help train new inspectors. It says that it expects to increase the number of asbestos-related inspections in 2022/23. This is welcome but now needs to be sustained over the longer term. We recommend that HSE commits to a sustained increase in inspection and enforcement activity. Repeating our recommendation from June 2020, the Government and DWP should ensure that it provides adequate funding to HSE to support this increased programme of work over the medium term.

International developments

The direction of travel in Europe is towards tighter regulation of asbestos and lower exposure limits for workers. HSE has said that European proposals may not necessarily be grounded in the real-world experience of asbestos exposure. It also told us that part of the problem in Great Britain is that asbestos is so widespread. Our concern is that an asbestos regulatory policy which prioritises only that which is immediately practical risks tolerating poorer health standards and higher costs over the longer-term. HSE should ensure that its current review of the Control of Asbestos Regulations includes a thorough written assessment of moves towards more stringent asbestos occupational exposure limits in Europe.