WW2 artefact causes asbestos concern for BBC

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A World War Two gas mask shown on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow contained lethal asbestos in its filter, according to news reports this week. Health and safety groups said the BBC should have included a warning on the programme, to highlight the dangers of asbestos.

Asbestos Heritage campaigner, Sarah Walters, expressed her dismay at the BBC’s lack of awareness of asbestos use in World War 2 gas masks:

“We were shocked at the casual way the asbestos mask was handled without even the slightest warning to viewers.”

During the war and beyond, the dangers of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were relatively unknown, and sometimes deliberately hidden from workers by their employers. Asbestos was used for its fire-retardant properties, but members of the public would have been largely unaware of the risks of breathing in asbestos fibres via the gas mask filters.

Increased asbestos awareness leading up to its UK ban

As awareness of the life-threatening effects of asbestos became more widely known, specific training for workers became more widespread, although a total ban on asbestos was not brought in until the end of 1999 in the UK.

By this time, the 1960s and 1970s boom in construction and shipbuilding meant the substance was present on a large scale. Workers in the shipbuilding industry were particularly affected due to the restricted space onboard ship, and lack of fresh air to disperse the fibres and dust.

HSE asbestos education

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the body responsible for worker safety in the UK. They have the power to enforce asbestos legislation, and offer recommendations for training people who could encounter the substance at work.

Tradespeople including plumbers, central heating engineers, electricians and roofing contractors, are all at risk of disturbing asbestos during their normal working day. The subsequent risk to health is currently managed via asbestos awareness training, plus potential prosecution for employers who fail to provide this type of training to their workers.

UKATA online training

The UK Asbestos Training Association (UKATA) audit their members’ training courses for relevance, and make sure all necessary information is included and up-to-date. E-learning is a popular way to undergo this type of training, as candidates can work at their own speed.

The requirement of course providers to meet the high standards imposed by HSE and UKATA, means that worker safety is prioritised. There are still many instances, however, of contractors and individual tradespeople failing to follow the requirements laid down in the Control of Asbestos Regulations, 2012.

HSE prosecutions

HSE takes any breach of health and safety regulations very seriously, and regularly prosecutes those failing to meet their requirements. Prosecutions are sometimes brought under the Health and Safety at Work Act, 1976, as well as the asbestos regulations, with those involved receiving fines and sometimes prison sentences in the most serious cases.

Although the BBC was unaware of the presence of asbestos in the Antiques Roadshow gas mask, it demonstrates the pervasive nature of this substance, and the fact that we will not be able to ignore it for decades to come.