Deaths from mesothelioma reached 2,523 in 2017, largely as a consequence of occupational asbestos exposure before the risks were known, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Although asbestos was banned completely in the UK in 1999, it is still present in hundreds of thousands of buildings.
The publication of the figures prompted the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and charity Mesothelioma UK to warn tradespeople, or anyone else likely to come into contact with the substance, to take precautions.
The HSE, which released the number of mesothelioma deaths alongside its annual workplace fatality figures, said mesothelioma is one of the few work-related diseases that can be attributed directly to exposure to the substance.
The 2,523 figure is broadly similar to the number of deaths seen in the previous five years and is largely a consequence of workplace asbestos exposure prior to the 1980s, when “brown” and “blue” asbestos were banned. Annual deaths from this cancer variation are expected to remain at this level for the rest of the decade before beginning to reduce in number.
Asbestos is a particular problem in schools. Almost 700 schools have been referred to the HSE by the Department for Education over concerns they were failing to safely manage asbestos in their buildings, putting both pupils and staff at risk of exposure. It is estimated that 90% of school buildings in England contain asbestos, in areas such as around pipework, boilers and in wall and ceiling panels.
Fiona Riley, chair of IOSH’s education group, said: “It is deeply worrying that so many schools and academies have failed to provide sufficient evidence that they are properly managing asbestos.
“Asbestos is a killer and we know it lurks in many hundreds of thousands of buildings, including those occupied by schools and academies built more than 20 years ago.
“It is imperative that schools and academies know if asbestos is present in their buildings and, if it is, have a robust management plan in place to ensure staff and students are not exposed to it.”
Last year an IOSH-funded survey found a quarter of tradespeople have been exposed to asbestos, while a third do not check the asbestos register before working on a site.
IOSH and charity Mesothelioma UK have produced a pocketbook detailing how staff and patients can protect themselves, particularly targeting those working in NHS hospitals – where the substance is still present in many buildings.
Liz Darlison, head of services at Mesothelioma UK, claimed the UK has the highest rate of mesothelioma diagnoses in the world.
“There is currently no known cure for the disease and prognosis is poor, with only around half of patients living past one year after diagnosis,” she said.
Mavis Nye was diagnosed with mesothelioma after inhaling asbestos fibres from when washing her husband’s work clothes. She said: “It really worries me that there is a great deal of complacency, especially among younger people, about asbestos. They think it’s just an old person’s disease.
“If you injure yourself at work, you can see the effects immediately. But if you are exposed to asbestos, it most likely won’t impact on you for a lot of years.”
The HSE’s work-related fatal injury statistics for 2018/19 also showed that:
- 147 people were killed at work – six more than in 2017/18;
- the number of fatal injuries to workers in construction (30) is the lowest number on record;
- there were 40 falls from height, making it the most common fatal workplace accident, followed by strike by a moving vehicle (30), and a strike by a moving object (16); and
- a quarter of fatal injuries were to workers aged 60 and over, even though such workers make up only 10% of the workforce.