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Focus Archive

Asbestos legislation developments in the UK

November 2002

There has been some decisive action this past week in the UK concerning the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations including the "duty to manage". There was a debate in the House of Commons on 24 October 2002, following the debate the regulations were signed by the Minister.

These regulations should then be laid in Parliament in the coming week and come into force in approximately a month's time, except for those with a lead in time. The duty to manage (regulation 4) will have an 18 month lead in period and regulation 20 will have a 24 month lead in period.

An official Health and Safety Executive press release will be shortly released, giving more details and further information will be included on the website within the next few days.

Meanwhile, just before the debate there were activities from a number of organisations, unions and others adding their voice of support for changes in the regulations. The following letter, which summarises the current thought was sent on the 23 October 2002 by the British Safety Council (BSC), Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) to The Rt Hon Nick Brown, Minister of State for Work (in his capacity as health and safety Minister). The regulations had been held up due to objections from the Opposition, who requested an Adjournment Debate.

Dear Minister

We are writing to you to express our concern about the delay in the passage of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations, following a request from the Opposition for an Adjournment Debate.

We recognise that it is your duty to respond to requests of this sort, but are concerned that an important piece of legislation, which has received broad support from a wide range of organisations, should be delayed in this way, despite wide consultation leading up to this stage.

We three leading occupational health and safety organisations support the Commission's proposals for an explicit duty to manage asbestos in commercial buildings and would like to address the concerns raised by the Opposition.

The main points raised by the Opposition are that:

As independent professional organisations primarily concerned with improving and raising standards in occupational health and safety, it is our view that the consultation period of almost four years was more than sufficient and that the HSC represents all areas of interest on this issue, including business interests.

The proposed duty simply makes explicit what is already implicit in the relevant Approved Codes of Practice and guidance issued by the HSC or Health and Safety Executive HSE, both of whom should be congratulated for being realistic and pro-active, as well as supportive of business needs. The HSE is currently running a very good campaign on these issues, supported by excellent material and documentation, to educate stakeholders and businesses cost effectively.

White asbestos, despite being relatively less harmful than blue and brown varieties, is a Category 1 carcinogen and can and does kill. Due to the health effects of white asbestos, its new use and supply has been banned in the European Union. Indeed, a Canadian challenge to the original French ban was upheld by the World Trade Organisation WTO. This implies that even the WTO agreed that white asbestos was harmful enough to justify the ban. In any case, it is not practicable to exclude and have a lower standard of duty for managing white asbestos, as it is often present in combination with brown and blue varieties.

There may be a difference of opinion about the health effects in some quarters, but HSC decisions are based on peer-reviewed scientific studies. Past experience of the denial of the effects of smoking on health and, initially, the health effects of asbestos suggests that the HSC proposals are, in fact, proportional and necessary.

The potential for unscrupulous business practices should not be used as an excuse for not implementing regulations and protection for all. The solution to this must be to clamp down on such practices. This would be helped by good communication and partnership, an example of which was the Federation of Small Business seminar in conjunction with the HSE and representative interests, which addressed such concerns. We strongly support the advice and guidance subsequently released by the HSE and the Federation, highlighting the need for businesses to avoid spending scarce resources unnecessarily.

Considering past and current trends in asbestos-related disease claims worldwide, it is evident that the benefits of legislation such as this outweigh the costs to businesses. The insurance industry and individual businesses worldwide have already been severely affected by claims from people whose health has been affected by asbestos.

Asbestos-related disease is the greatest work-related health problem the UK has ever experienced. Currently, 3,000 people a year are dying as a result of asbestos-related disease. By 2011, it is predicted that 10,000 people will be dying every year as a result of such diseases. Twenty-five per cent of those people who are dying now have worked in the construction industry, and many of them contracted diseases as a result of unknowingly working with materials that contained asbestos.

These are the very types of workers who would be protected by the new Regulations in future. Owners of premises in which asbestos is present would be obliged to provide information to enable people to carry out risk assessments and take appropriate precautions.

In conclusion, we would say that the Regulations are designed for the protection of everyone in the workplace and any others who might be affected. Asbestos, including white asbestos, can be and is a killer. We are convinced that the regulations should be implemented as swiftly as possible. We respectfully hope that you will consider these views and ensure that this very necessary legislation is enacted without any further delay.

You have our assurance that our respective organisations will continue to work in partnership with the HSC/E and others to raise awareness of the need to manage the risks associated with handling asbestos in existing buildings and installations.

We are copying this letter to the Leader of the Opposition.
We have the honour to be, Sir

Yours sincerely
DE Ballard, Director General, British Safety Council
RWH Strange, Chief Executive, IOSH
John Hooper, Chief Executive, RoSPA

Health and Safety Executive press release see