Asbestos – The Biggest Killer in UK Workplaces

image of lungs which are affected by asbestos exposure
Health Effects of Asbestos

Nowadays the risks from asbestos are well accepted and understood. However in late 80’s guidelines were not so clear.

Howard’s Story

Many year ago, I was head nurse and, in those days, we allowed drop ins or, the proper name, self referrals. Howard, a young worried engineer, came to occupational health saying he’d watched a programme on television about the risks of asbestos.  He’d been drilling into asbestos boards for insertion of electrical sockets and maintenance of piping for years.  I pointed out that the programme was entirely correct, and asbestos exposure is dangerous; he shouldn’t continue working that way. The task needs a full review and risk assessment of work from his manager and the safety department.

Howard’s manager was a strict disciplinarian and ruled the department with a rod of iron.  He was bombastic and scathing, he also held grudges and worked a programme of revenge on anyone who stood in his way.  I didn’t envy Howard as he went off, promising to come back later and tell me how he had got on.

Asbestos Facts

Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring minerals used in certain products, such as building materials and vehicle brakes, to resist heat and corrosion.

It includes many types of fibre such as chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, actinolite, and any of these materials that have been chemically treated and altered. Asbestos was regularly used in buildings from the 1950s until 1990 until finally banned from use. However, it remains a part of many building structures today, mixed in with other products making it hard to know if it’s there or not.

Inhaling loose asbestos fibres caused several severe and fatal lung disease, and although banned in 1999, you may still come across asbestos while you are working.  But as long as the asbestos is in one solid piece and well maintained, it is not an immediate risk to your health.

Different types of asbestos need to be dealt with in different ways. The most important thing is to understand the facts before you start work. Even small levels of exposure, if repeated day after day, can lead to diseases later in life. So don’t begin work with asbestos if you’re not sure how to handle it safely.

To help you find asbestos, take a look at the Health and Safety Executive online image gallery showing photographs of typical asbestos-containing materials still found in buildings today

Asbestos Today

  • Currently, asbestos is the world’s biggest occupational killer with 20 tradesmen a week dying from past exposure in the UK alone.
  • Asbestos still kills around 5000 workers each year; this is more than the number of people killed on the road.

Occupiers of buildings must undertake surveys and have plans for managing asbestos safely. Those who work with or near asbestos containing material become subject to the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.


Asbestos fibres are present in the UK environment, so everyone is exposed to very low levels of fibres.

One key reason for developing an asbestos-related disease is how much a worker inhales. Working on or near damaged asbestos-containing materials or breathing in high levels of asbestos fibres, increases the chance of disease. Inhaling loose fibres cause several severe and even fatal lung diseases that develop over many years. Even small levels of exposure, if repeated day after day,  can lead to diseases later in life.

Workers may come across asbestos while at work, but as long as the asbestos is well maintained and not disturbed or disintegrating the fibres remain locked in the material and there is no risk to health. Despite the fact asbestos is no longer used in UK industry, asbestos related deaths continue to rise. Mainly due to exposure of workers and others to asbestos in existing installations such as older buildings, industrial plant and older vehicles.

Appointed Doctors

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) appoints registered and licensed medical practitioners to undertake statutory medical surveillance.  Under the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations employers must protect workers by arranging medical supervision by an appointed doctor.

The doctor informs employees of early signs of potential health problems caused by work, and whether further exposure to asbestos is right. They also alert the employer who should then check the risk assessments, looking to improve the control methods.

The HSE appoints doctors by issuing a Certificate of Appointment covering one or more regulations, valid for a stated period.

Appointed doctors are accountable to the HSE for the work they do.

The Outcome

Howard returned later that week saying his manager said I was ‘scare-mongering’ and it was all a load of bunkum.  He’d been working with asbestos for years, and there was nothing wrong with him.  He was furious that I had upset Howard and to keep my nose out of his department.

I shook my head at Howard, who was in an awkward position now.  Did he believe his manager or me?

He went with his manager’s advice, and I suppose I can’t blame him as he’d only ever worked in that department. From apprentice to a senior project engineer.  He couldn’t undermine his manager especially such a bully as this one.

I reported the incident to the safety manager but left out Howard’s name.


The Manager’s reaction upset me then and still does today.  True, asbestos floats in the atmosphere too and yes people inhale it naturally all the time. But even then, many were aware that working with asbestos was extremely hazardous.

Without management support, you cannot carry out proper practice, and this is one of those times when I had to remember that I am an adviser and in the eyes of the law it is the manager/employer who is responsible.

I did my job.

I lost contact with Howard but often wonder if he thinks about this incident and if is healthy.

Further Reading on Asbestos Related Disease

A video showing lung disease due to Asbestos, and how the accumulation of fibres causes damage

Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012

HSE Appointed Doctors: full information here

The Health and Safety Executive asbestos online image gallery shows photographs of typical asbestos-containing materials found in buildings today

Take Five and Stay Alive Website for workers on how to prevent inhaling asbestos


• Asbestos related disease is the world’s biggest occupational killer. Every week 20 tradesmen die from a past exposure in the UK alone.
• Around 5000 die each year which is more than the number of people killed on the road.

Work with asbestos is covered by the new Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations in the UK

Further Reading and Information on Asbestos

HSE website – all about the risks and how to control asbestos

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