The horrific Grenfell fire really brought home the dangers of tall buildings with small exits and what can happen in the event of a fire.
High-rise office blocks are part of the corporate landscape, and following Grenfell, both workers and their bosses are expressing concerns as to whether or not these buildings are safe.
The TUC is calling for urgent advice for employers.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:
“Millions of people across the UK work in high-rise buildings, many of which could have cladding and insulation similar to that used in Grenfell Tower. Those workers need urgent reassurances about their safety, and if there is any risk to them, there must be immediate action.
“The government should give advice to employers on how to ensure that their buildings are safe. That includes information about what types of cladding and insulation material may be dangerous, how to get samples tested and what remedial action they should take if their cladding fails safety tests.
“The government needs to ensure that ALL high-rise buildings are made safe.”
Other risks to health also being overlooked in our workplaces
Sadly, the unsafe cladding used on high rise blocks is far from the only incidence of unsafe materials being used on buildings.
Cancer charity The Mesothelioma Alliance fear that while the tragedy has highlighted the fire risk from unsafe materials, another potential killer is being overlooked as many of our schools, homes and workplaces still contain dangerous amounts of asbestos.
A spokesman for the charity said:
“We welcome the fire safety checks, and our hearts go out to the victims of the disaster, but once the publicity dies down, continuing to check homes and workplaces for ALL unsafe materials is vital.
“Though asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999, and despite plenty of publicity directly after the ban, exposure to the toxin is still a huge issue. Despite businesses no longer relying on asbestos for their products, the mineral still lingers in many older buildings, homes and schools. While undamaged and undisturbed asbestos poses little threat to health, once these materials become broken or damaged, the fibers can become airborne and can lead to several health issues once inhaled.
“Exposure to asbestos in the workplace is the most common cause of asbestos-related diseases. The World Health Organization estimated that 125 million people are exposed to asbestos at work each year. Once these airborne asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can become lodged into the lung tissue, leading to irritation, inflammation and over time, tumors and scarring.“
What are the risks?
Asbestos exposure can cause a rare cancer called mesothelioma, as well as lung cancer, pleural effusions, and a chronic lung disease called asbestosis. According to Cancer Research UK, mesothelioma incidence rates have increased by 71% since the 1990s, and reports show that asbestosis cases are also on the rise. While asbestosis is also quite rare, it accounted for over 400 deaths in 2014. Up until the 2000s, asbestosis had only accounted for a little over 100 deaths per year.
Asbestosis is usually caused by the inhalation of loose asbestos fibers that over time causes scar tissue in the lungs. This impairs breathing and lung function in varying degrees of severity. Similarly to mesothelioma, asbestosis can be diagnosed in different stages of severity, though it is not a form of cancer. Diagnosis will still generally require the efforts of a mesothelioma specialist using x-rays and other diagnostic tools like a breathing test. Fortunately, those diagnosed with asbestosis can often manage and live with the disease for decades, while mesothelioma patients have a typically poor prognosis of just 12-21 months.
Which buildings are at risk, and who is likely to be affected?
Whilst even modern high rise buildings will need to be checked for unsafe cladding, the charity say that those working in and around buildings built prior to the 1970s could all potentially contain asbestos, as use of the material was widespread. As buildings are repaired, replaced or upgraded, the risks of inhaling the dust increase, as well risks from natural deterioration.
Those working in construction trades and around heavy machinery are generally considered the most at risk. However, employees working in office settings have the potential to be exposed as well if they are in an older building. For example, office workers, schoolchildren and teachers can be exposed through drywall, insulation, popcorn ceilings and other similar materials containing asbestos.
Those working in industrial settings and manufacturing could be at risk through asbestos-wrapping of machinery and insulation. Plumbers, electricians, and tradespeople are often exposed through their work on existing homes and buildings during repairs and renovations.
What can be done?
There are several steps that can be taken to minimize employees’ risk of exposure, and ways to spot potential issues to be more proactive in preventing exposure. Recognizing common places and items asbestos has been used and when the workplace was constructed can help determine whether or not there could be asbestos present.
Ensuring that spaces have been tested for possible asbestos-containing items and materials is the first step to minimizing the risk of exposure. A licensed professional asbestos contractor should be called in to survey any suspected asbestos-containing materials and perform any abatement or encapsulation necessary. A survey is especially important for any building owners considering renovation or construction, which could lead to damaged asbestos materials.
Sadly, the unsafe cladding at Grenfell Towers led to a horrific death for many of the residents – we need to pay more attention to the materials used in our homes and workplaces and ensure that they nurture, not endanger, the inhabitants.