AN INQUEST has found that the former Labour MP for Halifax, Alice Mahon, died of an industrial disease linked to asbestos exposure. Following her death from malignant mesothelioma, Bradford Coroners Court stated on 13 April: “Mrs Mahon came by her death as a result of an industrial disease.”

Alice Mahon’s death was one of thousands of deaths each year linked to asbestos exposure in workplaces. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), asbestos remains the biggest cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with 5,000 deaths recorded in 2022. And Britain has the highest rate of mesothelioma cases in the world.

Mahon stated before her death that she was exposed to asbestos when she worked in Nissen huts at Northowram Hospital, and when she worked in the House of Commons, which contains three types of asbestos and has an asbestos management plan.

A report published on 17 April by legal firm Irwin Mitchell estimated that 87,000 public buildings in the UK still contain asbestos. This affirms similar research published in 2022 by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Labour Research Department (LRD), which found that tens of thousands of local authority buildings contain asbestos.

And in January this year, the TUC and LRD published research finding that asbestos is present in at least 1,146 NHS buildings in London and Scotland – more than half of those surveyed.

The current legal framework allows for asbestos in buildings to be managed in situ, rather than removed. But this approach was criticised by MPs last year in a report from the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which called for a 40-year deadline to remove all asbestos from public and commercial buildings.

The TUC says that an even faster timetable is needed for the removal of asbestos, and it should be done alongside upgrading buildings for energy efficiency to meet net zero targets. To make this happen, the TUC is calling for a new legal duty to safely remove asbestos, with a clear timetable for its eradication.

TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said: “Everyone should be safe at work. But thousands of people die every year from industrial diseases caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos is still with us in workplaces and public buildings across the country, putting hundreds of thousands of workers at risk of exposure every day. The only way to protect today’s workers and future generations is through the safe removal of asbestos from every workplace and public building. Ministers must commit to removing all asbestos to keep future generations safe.”

Adrian Budgen, Partner at Irwin Mitchell said: “Most people associate asbestos with historical exposure in factories or construction work, but these latest figures highlight the extensive risk still posed by the deadly substance across the UK in everyday buildings used by the public.

“At Irwin Mitchell, sadly, we come across families and individuals affected by asbestos most often after coming into contact with it in their workplace, and to have it confirmed that it’s not yet been eradicated from a large number of public buildings is incredibly concerning. One of the main problem areas is revealed to be schools, which are obviously densely populated with pupils, teachers and other school workers for long hours at a time. It’s extremely worrying that so many still contain asbestos, essentially putting children at risk every day.

“While some of the asbestos may not yet be deemed harmful, once it’s disturbed or in a state of disrepair it can quickly become very dangerous, and with many of our public buildings being old and maintenance budgets being stretched, it’s a huge concern.”

* The report on asbestos in public buildings from law firm Irwin Mitchell is available to download here.

* Sources: Trades Union Congress and Irwin Mitchell