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HSE voices concerns over UK’s 66% drop in asbestos training

Posted on 5th Nov, 2020 | By Lorretta Tatham

Over the course of 2020, the entire world has become all too unpleasantly familiar with a new ‘invisible killer’ – Covid-19. But while this is understandably the one that’s occupying all the major headlines, now the UK Asbestos Training Association and the HSE are both highlighting the dangers of a much older but no less dangerous invisible killer – that of asbestos. It’s a particular threat to anyone working on the structure of a building, and a lapse in training has given rise to the fear of a spike in cases further down the line. Here, we’ve explained exactly what these concerns are in more detail, and how a renewed focus on training can help.

(Our latest Covid-19 update – as another lockdown begins from 6th November 2020, here at Browns Safety we’ve made sure that you can still access our training courses online, including asbestos awareness.)

Why is the UKATA and HSE concerned?

According to the UK Asbestos Training Association, training in the handling and removal of asbestos materials has sunk to a third of pre-Covid levels. Back in the UK’s first major lockdown of 2020, construction sites opened a little earlier than non-essential businesses, and were active again in May.

However, despite the fact that it’s now been six months since they reopened, the number of attendees at asbestos training courses remains at their lowest for five years. Before Covid-19, an average of 18,000 people per month completed asbestos training. In the months since, an average of only 6000 a month have now been completing that same training. That’s a fall of more than 66%, which has become a source of concern for the UK’s official safety bodies.

Why is this drop so potentially dangerous?

It comes down in large part to the latency involved in developing asbestos cases. Every year, there is an estimated 18,000 new cases of self-reported breathing or lung problems which have been caused (or aggravated) by work-related activities. Asbestos is a key factor in a significant number of these.

The British government banned the material in 1999, but only after having been used in construction for more than 100 years. So while it’s not being used in the construction of new buildings, an estimated 6 million tonnes of it remains embedded in countless buildings across the UK. Therefore, anyone whose work involves the structure or fabric of these buildings is potentially at risk.

When asbestos is disturbed, it can send up microscopically thin fibres, which are so small they can remain airborne for days. These can be easily (and unknowingly) inhaled by humans, at which point they become lodged in the lungs, causing conditions such as mesothelioma and lung cancer. Tragically, these conditions often prove to be fatal. Since 2018, these diseases have been responsible for killing more than 5000 people annually in the UK, which makes asbestos the single largest industrial killer our population has ever seen.

asbestos and ppe

As we touched on above, one of the most problematic aspects of asbestos-related conditions is that symptoms normally don’t display until years after exposure, typically somewhere between 15 and 60 years – when it’s far too late for effective treatment. This latency period, combined with the lower levels of training the UK is currently seeing, is what’s concerning the UKATA. Deaths in Britain have risen dramatically in the last 15 years – largely due to widespread use of asbestos between the 1950s and 1970s – and the UKATA is worried that the current training lapse will ultimately result in a similar spike in preventable deaths in future.

How can you keep yourself and your employees safe?

Well, we could give a number of detailed answers to that question, but they all come down to one simple thing: training. Above all, advanced knowledge of the specific risks involved, and how to account for them, has been shown as one of the most effective ways to mitigate the danger.

The HSE recommends that asbestos refresher training courses are undertaken at least once every year by anyone whose work has the potential to expose them to asbestos. This includes electricians, heating and ventilation engineers, builders, and more. The industry body has taken particular care to highlight the risks to self-employed tradespeople. Slightly cavalier attitudes to asbestos risks are notably more common amongst people who chiefly work for themselves, but the truth is that asbestos-related diseases kill 20 tradespeople in the UK every week – ultimately accounting for about a fifth of all asbestos deaths.

As the UK enters another lockdown, effective from the 5th of November 2020, the UKATA has already approved 200 member companies and individuals to deliver asbestos awareness training courses online. That includes us here at Browns Safety – you can book your own place on our dedicated Asbestos Awareness Training Course page, or find our full list of online training courses here. Alternatively, you can enquire by emailing us on

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