Protecting the NHS workforce from asbestos exposure

As our country eases out of lockdown, the UK Asbestos Training Association (UKATA) is urging health and safety managers in the National Health Service, to continue to protect the workforce from the dangers of asbestos exposure.

Established in 2008, UKATA is a highly respected, leading authority on asbestos training. Its remit is to maintain and improve asbestos training, ensuring the highest standards are upheld by means of continually monitoring UKATA training provided by its members.

In August 2020 the NHS announced the launch of a new £500 million procurement framework by NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS) to offer high-quality soft facilities management services to the NHS and wider public sector. The framework covers asbestos management and removal.

It remains the duty of the NHS, the largest public sector employer in the United Kingdom, to ensure that any employee or NHS subcontractor who may potentially come in to contact with asbestos in their day-to-day work, including those in NHS estates services, electricians, joiners, plumbers, painters, tilers, caretakers and grounds staff to name but a few has legally received the correct level of information, instruction, and training. Asbestos awareness training is intended to help workers avoid carrying out work that will disturb asbestos containing materials.

However, for those workers who are planning work that will intentionally disturb asbestos fibres, then a higher level of asbestos training will be required.

The current situation
A 2018 BBC inquiry showed nine out of ten NHS trusts have asbestos in hospitals. The BBC also found 352 claims were made against health trusts between January 2013 and December 2017 by people who had developed asbestos-related diseases in NHS buildings.

According to the trusts, those claims resulted in pay outs of about £6.8 million, though three legal firms told the BBC they had won compensation claims totalling more than £16.4 million in the same period.

Asbestos is considered safe if not disturbed, however the lack of awareness of the dangers by users of buildings has turned it into one of the biggest threats to human health in recent years.

UKATA training providers ordinarily deliver asbestos training to circa. 200,000 delegates per annum, providing the opportunity to raise awareness of the risks associated to working with asbestos, including mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops in the lining that covers the outer surface of some of the body's organs. It is usually linked to asbestos exposure. Latest figures published by the HSE show over 5,000 asbestos-related disease deaths per year in the UK, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis - the largest single industrial killer ever seen in the UK.

UKATA saw a dip in asbestos training in 2020, with less than half the average delegates completing the essential training.

Craig Evans, Chief Operating Officer of UKATA, commented: “Our concern is health and safety training is being overlooked as NHS trusts push to make up for time lost during the lockdown. This not only increases NHS workers’ risk of exposure to deadly asbestos but also the buildings’ users, including vulnerable patients and their visitors.

“Asbestos-related health issues, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, are not identified immediately after exposure to asbestos. It takes between 15 years and up to 60 years before deadly asbestos-related diseases present themselves. The latency period of asbestos, coupled with a substantial drop in training numbers, could mean that the UK will be facing a greater number of deaths from asbestos over the next 15 – 60 years. To reduce this risk, it is important that the delivery of asbestos training returns to pre-Covid levels.”

Deaths from asbestos exposure have increased dramatically in the last 15 years after widespread use between 1950s and 70s. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends that asbestos refresher training courses should be undertaken to help ensure knowledge of asbestos awareness is maintained. The asbestos regulations also make it clear that asbestos training for non-licensable and licensable asbestos works should be carried out at least annually.

To ensure asbestos training continues to be accessible during the pandemic, UKATA approved its 200-member companies and individuals to deliver asbestos courses by video conference technology.
UKATA-approved training providers are audited regularly by UKATA to ensure the training they deliver is of a consistently high standard. They are also authorised to award industry recognised and respected UKATA certificates following successful completion of training.

The NHS have worked tirelessly to care for patients and staff who are most vulnerable, which has been recognised with the #HiddenHeroes campaign, acknowledging those working behind the scenes, including those in facilities management teams who maintain the internal and external physical assets of NHS buildings.

The NHS has been widely praised and recognised throughout the events of the last year, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst celebrating their achievements and success, it is important to acknowledge their rights to a safe working environment, ensuring the right level of training has been delivered and refreshed accordingly.