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Transcript - Asbestos: The Hidden Killer

Welcome to the HSE Podcast.

In this episode Stephanie Power talks to Steve Coldrick about HSE's Asbestos - the Hidden Killer campaign.

The trades people think it's granddad's disease. It's a legacy material. When they're drilling into walls for example they may be drilling into asbestos containing materials which are high in asbestos and of course if they're doing it on an almost daily basis they're going to inhale a significant amount and it's those people who are at risk.

And HSE Infoline's Rachel Jones outlines female employees rights and responsibilities at work when they fall pregnant. But first here's the latest health and safety news.

Sugar giant Tate and Lyle has been fined more than a quarter of a million pounds after the death of a contractor working on one of its ships. The company admitted breaches of health and safety law after the worker died when the bulldozer he was riding in was dropped from a crane that was lowering him onto a ship. A sixteen year old schoolgirl for Lincolnshire lost 6 fingers and both her thumbs when she tried to make a plaster cast of hands at school. The governing body of the foundation school was fined £16,500 after pleading guilty to breaching health and safety rules. HSE inspector Jo Anderson said this showed risk assessments in educational establishments must not be viewed as burdensome but paramount to pupil safety. Landlords are being reminded of their responsibilities to tenants after a landlord in Cambridgeshire was jailed for 16 months for breaking gas safety laws and perverting the course of justice. The landlord had failed to adhere to an improvement notice issued by HSE inspectors about gas appliances and provided a false gas safety certificate to the court.

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Asbestos related disease accounts for around 4000 deaths a year. That's more than the number of people killed on the roads and it's the biggest single cause of work-related deaths in Great Britain. It's sometimes seen as a granddad's disease affecting older workers but there's still a risk to tradesmen if they don't take adequate precautions. HSE's Asbestos - the Hidden Killer campaign aims to make a difference to these perceptions. Steve Coldrick explains.

This campaign is targeted at principally people who work in the trades associated with buildings, building refurbishment. That's what it's about and the whole purpose of it is to help address a problem we discovered that when we were speaking to them about their knowledge about asbestos we were very shocked by what they told us because in essence they were saying it's all gone therefore it's safe. Actually they were much more concerned about medium density fibreboard MDF. Asbestos was not a problem to them and yet even though we've got 4000 plus deaths a year from asbestos and that number's going up as a result of exposures some decades ago the fact that in about half a million non domestic that is public, commercial, industrial and retail premises contain asbestos materials in them and these are the people who are doing work then they remain at risk unknowingly and therefore aren't going to take the precautions so it's their health that is at risk today.

So asbestos hasn't been used as a building material since 2000 and what you're saying is that there's perhaps a notion that because it was banned in 2000 it now doesn't exist.

Well that's the impression that we're getting. The trades people think it's granddad's disease, it's not relevant to them. What they fail to appreciate is that because it's a legacy material and it's in many, many buildings apart from those built or refurbished after the year 2000 when they're drilling into walls for example they may be drilling in to asbestos containing materials which are high in asbestos and then doing that work means they inhale that and of course if they're doing it on an almost daily basis they're going to inhale a significant amount and it's those people who are at risk.

But then people panic when they hear that it hasn't gone away because people think any contact with asbestos and that's it.

One can understand the concern and I think that the key point is that the notion that if somebody inhales one fibre of asbestos then they are doomed is not credible. What the doctors tell us is that those who suffer the dreadful cancers from asbestos are people who've inhaled substantial amounts and that's either because over a prolonged period or over a reduced period but at very high concentrations. But they also think that any material containing any amount of asbestos is dangerous and again that's not necessarily true. We have material which most people are familiar with if they look at various roofs or of their garages at home or, or other buildings of asbestos cement. That contains very low concentrations of white asbestos and providing people don't do silly things in terms of drilling, sawing and therefore don't release it the risk is not very high at all. At the other end you've got material which is called asbestos insulation board which contains very high levels of brown asbestos which is very dangerous and in fact only people who are licensed by HSE are allowed to work on that material because it requires very special precautions indeed.

But also you were saying right at the beginning of this conversation that around 4000 people die every year because of asbestos and that's more than the number of people who are killed on the roads so you're concerned that people aren't taken it seriously enough.

Well that's right and indeed the number is due to go up again because of past exposures. Now we know the numbers will go down because for example not only is asbestos not used as a new building material but also some of the industries in which it was used such as in shipyards and in the railways largely no longer exist so the one population that remains at risk are those who are carrying out work in buildings and it might be the older trades such as carpentry, plumbing, electricians but there may be other people who do for example cable laying. People who disturb the building fabric because the risk only arises when the fibres from the material are released into the air and inhaled in sufficient quantities to cause problems. What we've been concentrating on in this campaign are those people who actually do the work. They need to be able to recognise it which is why on our website we've actually got examples of what various asbestos containing materials look like and where you may actually find it and how high the risk is.

So can you tell me some of the aspects of the campaign you know how are you going to make sure that people are working in these areas are going to be a bit more aware of the risks.

Yeah well we've got an excellent partnership that we've set up because it's not simply the advertising campaign. We're doing direct mailing to the trades people we want. We're working with victim support groups whose loved ones have died from asbestos related diseases so they can understand the human story, the human impact. We're dealing with the suppliers to the trade so that when they go to pick up their materials they will get the information. We're dealing with the professional institutions such as the Institute of Plumbing and those dealing with electrical and the carpentry trades so they get it there and then of course those in trades unions will get the briefing there and we're hoping that in terms of publicity those whose loved ones are trades people will also get the message through the media so they can have a conversation with them about what they understand and what they need to do. Once people know what the issue is then they don't need to be scared, they need to be focussed and to manage the approach to it because the real danger is that people go over the top either in terms of underestimating it or actually overestimating the problem and the whole point about this is to get people to put it into perspective so they do the right thing.

Visit the transcript for this podcast episode at for more information about HSE's Asbestos - the Hidden Killer campaign.

The HSE protecting people's health and safety at work.

Now in our regular feature we put HSE Infoline's Rachel Jones to the test by asking her to answer one of your popular health and safety questions.

Good afternoon HSE's Infoline, Andrew speaking how can I help.

Hello my name's Rachel Jones, I'm here to answer all of your health and safety questions.

So the purpose of this item in this podcast it to cover some of the issues that are asked often here at the HSE Infoline and one of those questions is about pregnancy at work so when somebody's pregnant when do they have to tell their boss and what does their boss have to do.

The employee will actually have to put something in writing and they need to give it to the employer as soon as possible. So basically as soon as they have notification themselves from a doctor and they then need to look at the employer working with them to carry out a risk assessment. They need to look at centring this towards any risks that could affect someone who is a new or expectant mother. If there are no hazards then obviously the working conditions can stay the same. However if there are any specific hazards that can affect the pregnant worker there's 3 steps that the employer has to look at taking if they can't reduce or eliminate them. The first step is to look at identifying alternative work or looking at changing the actual hours of work so the conditions or hours would change. If that doesn't actually work there is a second step which is to identify and offer suitable alternative working arrangements. The third option which is seen as a last resort step is to look at suspending them from work. Under the Employments Rights Act they can actually do this.


But it needs to be on full pay.

So at what point does a woman need to tell her boss in writing?

Yeah. As soon as she has actual notification so ie GP note. It could be notification from the midwife. They need to put something in writing and give that to the employer so it needs to be, it could be any kind of format, the regulations don't specify.

But surely there's a certain number of weeks into pregnancy is it not?

It doesn't specify that in the actual regulations. Of course if the employer would like to question that they can always have a chat to an inspector for clarification but the regulations don't specify a certain timescale.

What about women who've just had babies and are going back to work or going to a new job?

If the employer has someone who is returning to work or they're joining their organisation, they've given birth in the last 6 months the employer still has to implement this risk assessment and look at the steps as required by Regulation 16. They also need to take into account any nursing mothers or anyone who is breastfeeding. They obviously need to look at making sure that the risk assessment covers that particular aspect and takes that into account as well.

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Updated 2011-09-28