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IOSH asbestos policy position

Summary

IOSH promotes urgent action on tackling the huge global toll from work-related exposure to asbestos. As all types of asbestos fibres are potentially harmful, IOSH believes people must be protected from inhaling them and that risk management principles should be embedded throughout national administrations and education and training systems worldwide. We urge international support for the asbestos phase of our No Time to Lose campaign on prevention.

The facts

  • Asbestos is a major cause of work-related deaths worldwide with an estimated 125 million people exposed at work. It has been estimated that asbestos causes 255,000 deaths annually, with 233,000 of these work-related. Of that toll, the UK accounts for more than 5,000 deaths, based on Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies all forms of asbestos as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1) and has concluded that in addition to mesothelioma and lung cancer there is sufficient evidence that asbestos can cause cancer of the larynx, ovary, pharynx and stomach.
  • The four main diseases associated with inhalation of asbestos fibres are asbestosis, mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer and diffuse pleural thickening.
  • Asbestos remains banned in 60 countries, according to IBAS. In the UK, import, supply and use of all forms of asbestos are illegal, as is re-use of second-hand asbestos products like asbestos cement sheets, boards and tiles and regulations impose controls for managing existing asbestos safely.
  • An estimated six million tons of the deadly carcinogen remain inside 1.5 million buildings in the UK, including schools and hospitals, many of which were built prior to the 1999 ban.
  • Asbestos is the greatest single cause of UK work-related deaths, with past exposure causing around 5,000 annual deaths, including 2,542 mesothelioma deaths in 2015 and thousands of other asbestos-related deaths.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) considers asbestos one of the most important occupational carcinogens, causing about half of deaths from occupational cancer. It promotes recognition that stopping the use of all types of asbestos is the most effective approach for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases.
  • The asbestos phase of IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign was launched in 2018.

Our position

Asbestos is the biggest cause of occupational cancer, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives a year worldwide. It remains a global challenge to both occupational and public health and must be addressed through improved public policy and occupational safety and health (OSH) management.

Regrettably, it can be challenging to secure individual, corporate and national action on asbestos, as one of its characteristics is that it can take decades for past exposure to lead to asbestos-related disease. Other contributing factors are the number of buildings containing asbestos that create a hazardous legacy and the widespread lack of awareness and uncertainty on how to manage it safely, particularly among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in both industrialised and non-industrialised countries.

Sadly, as a result of this unmanaged situation, many people, and workers in particular, will continue to become seriously ill and die prematurely in years to come. It is vital that further exposure and harm are prevented through urgent joint action and improved OSH standards. So, IOSH is calling for this action and for public policy-makers and organisations worldwide to manage asbestos risks more responsibly and to stop people being exposed to this potentially fatal work-related health hazard. We urge international support for the asbestos phase of our No Time to Lose campaign on prevention.

IOSH resources

Asbestos-related materials:

Consultation responses:

Research reports:

  • Asbestos awareness in construction – IOSH 2018 Opinium survey of 500 UK construction workers on asbestos awareness.
  • Return to work after cancer research that identifies what employers can do to facilitate return to work after cancer and what is good practice in dealing with health and safety issues.