The United Kingdom (UK) is one of 55 countries that has placed a ban on asbestos use. Sadly, the country’s mesothelioma rate is still one of the highest in the world and has been increasing steadily since the 1980s. According to the Health and Safety Executive, about 2500 residents in the UK have died from mesothelioma each year since 2012. For this reason alone, UK workers have expressed concern about asbestos exposure in the workplace. However, now there is an additional concern that the newly appointed Brexit minister will push for weaker asbestos laws.
Unite is Britain’s largest trade union with close to 1.5 million members. They recently made a bold statement against Brexit minister Steve Baker accusing him of lobbying in favor of asbestos. This accusation is due to his comments and questions about asbestos regulations.
In 2010, Baker asked the Department of Work and Pensions’ then secretary of state three questions:
- “If he will bring forward proposals to amend the provisions of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 to distinguish the white form of asbestos and the blue and brown forms of that substance.”
- “If he will commission an inquiry into the appropriateness of the health and safety precautions in force in respect of asbestos cement.”
- “If he will bring forward proposals to amend existing regulations governing the safe use of asbestos cement in line with the evidence cited in the Health and Safety Commission Paper HSC/06/055.”
In 2015, the Conservative Rural Affairs Group (CRAG) created a report on asbestos regulations. Within that report, it mentions Steve Baker and correspondence he had with Lord de Mauley, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs at that time. The correspondence was about asbestos cement and how farmers should handle and dispose of the materials. The CRAG was not pleased with the response from Lord de Mauley and claimed the regulations place too many burdens on farmers trying to remove asbestos cement. The final statement of the report states, “The writer thinks it important that we in the [CRAG] should be actively pressing for the review of regulations governing the use and disposal of asbestos cement which had been requested by the Rt Hon Owen Patterson MP and which may become the subject of an Adjournment Debate to be requested by Steve Baker MP.”
As the Brexit minister, Baker is responsible for negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU). Politics aside, Unite is focused on the welfare of workers and is demanding that government leaders provide their guarantee that existing regulations for asbestos will not be changed or weakened in a way that would place anyone at risk.
Weakened Asbestos Laws Could Affect Progress on a Global Scale
If we look at asbestos throughout the world, the known carcinogen kills more than 190,000 people each year, yet remains legal in almost 70 percent of the world. Even in the United States, our government has placed regulatory controls on the substance, but has not declared a total ban on it. A few months ago, we applauded Congress’s decision to declare April 1-7 National Asbestos Awareness Week. However, we also support the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization and their efforts to eventually recognize Global Asbestos Awareness Week and encourage a full ban on asbestos worldwide. If one of the countries already imposing a ban weakens their laws, it would be a major step backwards on all of the progress that has been made.