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Asbestos – there’s no need to make a song and dance about it

It’s showtime.

Like most folk, I do like a musical to watch and relax to and I almost do not want to admit to it, but sing-along to it as well.  I do not mind admitting that I do actually like watching the onscreen or movie versions.

During the performances do you hear the people sing? Listen to the words they are saying, what is the story they are telling?  I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey, whether it be Hairspray, Les Misérables, The Blues Brothers, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, they all seem to have iconic songs that either make you want to dance, cry or just listen to again and again.

This is the power that music can have, and each and every one of us interprets it in a different way.  Each musical has its own unique ending, and it is this part of the musical that I seem to be able to recall.  Whether it be the foot tapping ear rocking end number of Jake and Elwood playing Jailhouse rock during their prison concert, the house flying away to Magenta’s home planet or the joy, happiness and energy that everyone has at the end of hairspray.

One that is right up there is 42nd Street.  Just because this is a health and safety blog, do not think I will only be talking about Dorothy’s broken ankle.  Instead, I want to focus on the very final scene after the 42nd Street number.  You may recall Billy and Peggy waving to the audience at the end of the final number, the camera zooms in on their faces, they smile at each other, look up, and pull down the closing curtain.  Now if I were to ask you what was written on this curtain, you may say “that’s all folks” or “the end”.  But to my shock and surprise with the letters arranged in an arc fashion the word asbestos in capital letters is clear for all to read.

Now back in 1933 this would probably be normal or familiar to many theatre goers.  We forget that this material was used as amongst others it had good thermal properties making it particularly useful as a fire resisting material.  Back in 1933 the risks of asbestos were not known.

In December 2021, the Health and Safety Executive published their summary statistics for 2021.  Its summary details over 5,000 asbestos related disease deaths per year currently.  This includes mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.  It is prudent to remember that it can take as long as 60 years from first exposure for asbestos related disease to develop.

Annual mesothelioma deaths are record at 2,369.  As asbestos has now been totally banned since 1999, we can expect the annual figures to reduce in the next decade.  However, if you still have asbestos in your premises, you should act now and manage the risk of exposure to your employees and any sub-contractors that may carry out works on your building.

As touched on above, it was during the mid-1980s and the late 1990s that legislation was introduced in the UK to ban the supply and use of the different types of asbestos.  This means that any building built before 1999 may have asbestos containing materials used within their construction or it may have been installed into plant and machinery within the building.

So, what are our legal obligations as an employer? 

Straight to the point, the law requires us to protect our employees and building occupants from being exposed to asbestos.  We are hopefully aware of the general duties that Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 and The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 place on us to protect our employees and those that may be affected by our work activities and the requirement to carry out risk assessments.  In addition to these there are specific legal duties to asbestos, and it is the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 that defines these.

The person in control of a premises has a duty to manage asbestos within their building. The duty holder is required to ensure that:

  1. reasonable steps are taken to find out if and where asbestos containing materials (ACMs) are present, what condition it is in and how much there is.
  2. A written record of the location and condition of the asbestos is made and kept up to date
  3. To ensure risk of anyone being exposed to the asbestos is assessed.
  4. A written asbestos management plan is prepared.

In simple terms consulting an asbestos specialist and subjecting your premises to a management survey will determine the location and condition of asbestos within your building.  From this and with their support you will be able to draw up a risk assessment and an asbestos management plan to manage the asbestos within your premises.

Theatre Curtain