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Workers' Memorial Day, 28.4.2017 – reflecting on the ongoing impact of asbestos

As lawyers specialising in asbestos disease claims, we are only too aware of the terrible toll of this potentially deadly mineral on the lives of workers in the UK. HSE produce annual statistics showing numbers of recorded deaths from mesothelioma and asbestosis, as well as numbers of cases of asbestos diseases for which Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit has been awarded.

Whilst the numbers of those affected in the UK are still shockingly high and greater than, for example, those killed on our roads every year, the worldwide scale of the problem is truly awful.

Exposure to asbestos

The WHO estimates that around 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace and further, that approximately half of the deaths from occupational cancer are estimated to be caused by asbestos. WHO also reminds us that all forms of
asbestos, including chrysotile, are carcinogenic to humans, contrary to the “alternative facts” promoted by the chrysotile industry, which continues to export its product to those countries which have not already banned the substance.

The WHO’s response to the ongoing problem of workers continuing to be exposed to asbestos around the world is as follows:-

The World Health Assembly resolution 58.22 on cancer prevention urges Member States to pay special attention to cancers for which avoidable exposure is a factor, including exposure to chemicals at the workplace and in the environment.

With resolution 60.26, the World Health Assembly requested WHO to carry out a global campaign for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases “…bearing in mind a differentiated approach to regulating its various forms – in line with the relevant international legal instruments and the latest evidence for effective interventions…”. Cost-effective interventions for prevention of occupational lung diseases from exposure to asbestos are among the policy options for implementing the “Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases” (2013-2020), as endorsed by the Sixty-sixth World Health Assembly in resolution WHA66.10 in 2013.

The elimination of asbestos-related diseases is particularly targeted at countries still using chrysotile asbestos, in addition to provision of assistance in relation to exposures arising from historical use of all forms of asbestos.

WHO, in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation and other intergovernmental organisations and civil society, works with countries towards elimination of asbestos-related diseases by:-

  • recognising that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos;
  • providing information about solutions for replacing asbestos with safer substitutes and developing economic and technological mechanisms to stimulate its replacement;
  • taking measures to prevent exposure to asbestos in place and during asbestos removal (abatement);
  • improving early diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation services for asbestos-related diseases;
  • establishing registries of people with past and/or current exposures to asbestos and organizing medical surveillance of exposed workers; and
  • providing information on the hazards associated with asbestos-containing materials and products, and by raising awareness that waste containing asbestos should be treated as hazardous waste.

Whilst in the UK we have regulation of asbestos which is designed to protect our workers from future exposure, on this International Workers’ Memorial Day 2017, we think about all those who have already been affected by asbestos as well as those who are still at risk from past exposure at work.

We are reminded of the need to do more to prevent future exposure, both at home but perhaps more urgently, in other countries around the world where asbestos is still being used and where we are likely to see an explosion of incidence of asbestos disease in the future.