Even during the strange times of this pandemic, there has been a persistent desire to ensure that awareness of asbestos risks is maintained. There is no doubt, however, that the pandemic has curtailed those endeavours. Large sections of the workforce have been placed on furlough and redundancies may well follow. 

It was thus unsurprising to see, in late September, the UK Asbestos Training Association (“UKATA”) raise significant concerns about the depleted numbers of workers and employers who have embarked on asbestos risks training this year.

For those to whom its role is unknown, UKATA is a not-for-profit training organisation that has delivered asbestos-related training since its inception in 2008. The concerns raised come after the figures for the number of people undertaking its ‘Duty to Manage’ programme (aimed at ensuring that premises with asbestos are appropriately managed and risk assessed, and that asbestos is regularly inspected for deterioration) were at their lowest level for five years following the imposition of the ‘lockdown’ in March 2020. To put that into context, UKATA estimates that the general uptake for such training would usually average 18,000 workers per month, whereas between March and September this year the average plummeted to 6,000 workers per month across a whole variety of industries and despite the training being moved to online platforms so that it could be delivered remotely.

These concerns are obviously well-founded. It remains a regulatory requirement that asbestos training is conducted for both non-licensed and licensed work that concerns asbestos on an annual basis. Slippage in that training could lead to vital inspections in premises and on sites not taking place or the adoption of inadequate checks and procedures, with possible exposure to asbestos fibres in consequence. Given the length of incubation periods for asbestos-related diseases, these may not be manifest for many years. An increase in exposure may particularly follow the reopening of premises to workers post-lockdown. This is something I expect the Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”) will look at with great interest, and it will be interesting to scrutinise any material coming from them on this subject.

The UKATA article can be read here.

Finally, and speaking of the HSE, on 24 September 2020 it was announced that from 5 October 2020 they will be targeting construction firms and focusing on how they deal with respiratory risks from asbestos and other construction dusts, including silica and wood dust. The announcement comes as the HSE continues to estimate that around 3,500 construction workers die each year from construction-related respiratory conditions.