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Campaigners call for Zero Asbestos 

JOANNE GORDON reports from a conference exploring what can be done about the killer substance that claims 5,000 lives each year

“ZERO Asbestos” was the campaign message to take forward from the conference, Asbestos — Campaign Against All Fears. 

The joint conference was held on April 16 by Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team (DAST), Asbestos Support Central England (ASCE) and Yorkshire and Humberside Asbestos Support (SARAG), and delegates heard from a number of speakers about the key asbestos problems as well as some of the ways to fight, campaign and win.  

The scope of the problem

Asbestos-related deaths are rising both in men and women.

Greg Byrne from consultants RB Asbestos stated: “The number of mesothelioma deaths has risen from 2,312 in 2011 to 2,446 in 2018 (Mesothelioma Register). 

“When the mesothelioma deaths are added to asbestosis and lung cancer where asbestos is a factor, we are approaching a total death rate of over 5,000 people per annum. Compare this to 1,782 road deaths in the UK in 2018.”

These are shocking statistics and each one of these deaths has a ripple effect on family and social life. Moreover, the deaths could have been prevented. 

Deaths due to asbestos have been known for centuries. Asbestos has been widely used in our homes, public buildings, schools and hospitals and much of this remains in situ. 

Call for Zero Asbestos

Dave Smith from the Blacklist Support Group stated we need to harness this anger, turn it into hope for change and motivation for action. 

He suggested the slogan Zero Asbestos, which delegates thought was a simple but impactful slogan that called for much-needed action. Only with Zero Asbestos can there be no more deaths.

Safe removal of asbestos

National health, safety and environment director for the GMB Dan Shears, who was speaking in the capacity of representative of the TUC, informed delegates that the TUC is campaigning for phased removal of all asbestos from all publicly owned buildings, including social housing, by 2035, though this timescale may change.  

To further this aim, the Labour Research Department has been commissioned to begin work on mapping the asbestos present in public-sector buildings.  

In the current pandemic many buildings are empty which may continue as organisations embrace more remote working and this therefore is an opportunity to begin this work.
 
This builds on the work of Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC), which campaigns for awareness and safe removal of asbestos in schools.  

Bob Groome from JUAC told the meeting about the committee’s work to raise awareness in schools and to ensure teachers and parents are more informed.  

Health and Safety Executive powers

The Health and Safety Executive, the enforcement body for dealing with asbestos legislation infringements, needs more resources and there need to be harsher penalties for breaches to deter companies from taking risks. 
 
HSE statistics cut off at the age of 74; therefore, some asbestos deaths may go unreported. All deaths should be recorded. 
 
Starting in May 2021, the HSE will be consulting a wide range of stakeholders about the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.  

The review will seek to establish if the regulations continue to meet their objectives, remain appropriate and are still the best means to minimise exposure to asbestos. 

We are urging trade unions and other interested parties to respond to this consultation.
 
More innovative awareness 

There needs to be a national campaign for awareness, use of TV adverts and use of some of the innovative ideas which Colin Hampton from Unite Community spoke about, to get the issues high on the media and political agenda.

The conference was only the beginning of the process to campaign for change. 

We hope the messages from the conference are taken back to union branches, politicians and other supporters so that we can work together to achieve these aims.  

We don’t expect change overnight, but by working together and continually raising the issues, we hope to work towards Zero Asbestos.

Joanne Gordon is co-ordinator of Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team.

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