As MPs debated ‘Asbestos in workplaces’ on Wednesday, the TUC called for a national plan to remove asbestos from all public and commercial buildings.
The parliamentary debate took place just days after an inquest found that former MP Alice Mahon died of an industrial disease linked to asbestos exposure.
Following her death from malignant mesothelioma, Bradford Coroners Court stated: “Mrs Mahon came by her death as a result of an industrial disease.”
Alice Mahon’s death was one of thousands of deaths each year linked to asbestos exposure in workplaces.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), asbestos remains the biggest cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with 5,000 deaths recorded in 2022. And Britain has the highest rate of mesothelioma cases in the world.
Asbestos in public buildings
Mahon stated before her death that she was exposed to asbestos when she worked in Nissen huts at Northowram Hospital, and when she worked in the House of Commons, which contains three types of asbestos and has an asbestos management plan.
A report published two days ago by legal firm Irwin Mitchell estimated that 87,000 public buildings in the UK still contain asbestos.
This affirms similar research published in 2022 by the TUC and Labour Research Department (LRD), which found that tens of thousands of local authority buildings contain asbestos.
And in January this year, the TUC and LRD published research finding that asbestos is present in at least 1,146 NHS buildings in London and Scotland – more than half of those surveyed.
New legal duty needed for asbestos removal
The current legal framework allows for asbestos in buildings to be managed in situ, rather than removed. But this approach was criticised by MPs last year in a report from the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which called for a 40-year deadline to remove all asbestos from public and commercial buildings.
The TUC says that an even faster timetable is needed for the removal of asbestos, and it should be done alongside upgrading buildings for energy efficiency to meet net zero targets.
To make this happen, the TUC is calling for a new legal duty to safely remove asbestos, with a clear timetable for its eradication.
TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said:
“Everyone should be safe at work. But thousands of people die every year from industrial diseases caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos is still with us in workplaces and public buildings across the country, putting hundreds of thousands of workers at risk of exposure every day.
The only way to protect today’s workers and future generations is through the safe removal of asbestos from every workplace and public building. Ministers must commit to removing all asbestos to keep future generations safe.”
– Irwin Mitchell Report – Asbestos in Public Buildings: a true picture of the ongoing risk: the full report from Irwin Mitchell can be downloaded here. The estimate of 87,000 public buildings with asbestos is extrapolated from Freedom of Information requests to 20 local authorities.
– TUC and LRD research on asbestos in NHS buildings in London: www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/asbestos-still-widespread-among-nhs-trusts-and-boards
– TUC and LRD research on asbestos in local authority buildings: www.tuc.org.uk/news/thousands-local-authority-buildings-still-contain-asbestos-new-tuc-research
– Asbestos in the House of Commons: more information on asbestos in the House of Commons and the asbestos management plan is here: https://www.parliament.uk/site-information/foi/foi-and-eir/commons-foi-disclosures/estates-information/asbestos-2019/