HC Deb 14 April 1976 vol 909 cc1437-48

2.35 p.m.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of insulation workers and asbestos and I am pleased that the newly-appointed Secretary of State is in the Chamber. Insulation workers, who are called laggers, are specially important at a time when the Government are pursuing their "save-it" campaign to cut down on the use of indigenous and imported fuels. About 10,000 men may be employed as laggers in all parts of the country and unquestionably laggers are amongst the 130 to 140 people who die each year from asbestosis as a result of industrial contact.

There are large numbers of firms which vary in size, and laggers may work for several of these. That makes claims, for either breach of statutory duty or negligence, particularly difficult. The industry is a high-risk industry. Although there are good firms, the insulation industry is one of the unacceptable faces of capitalism and it is, by and large, a capitalist jungle.

Many of the workers, and the General and Municipal Workers' Union, have attempted to clarify and improve the position. They have recommended to my hon. Friend the Minister a licensing system for lagging firms, a scheme of compensation for abestosis sufferers and the right for safety representatives under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act to stop work when conditions become hazardous pending investigation by the Health and Safety Executive. I cannot too strongly recommend these courses of action to my hon. Friend, who is deeply concerned about the asbestos industry.

I want to emphasise the need for stern measures to be taken. There is a large gap between the administration of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act and reality. For example, the then Secretary of State for Employment, in a statement following the excellent work accomplished by my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden), said: New regulations to control the health risk from abestos came into force in 1970, backed by stringent hygiene standards for the control of asbestos dust. These regulations are being rigorously enforced by the Factory Inspectorate."—[Official Report, 30th March 1976; Vol. 908, c. 1103–4.] I wish that that was absolutely true, because my evidence is that there is a gap between his statement and reality. There is still too much indifference to the risks of asbestos and related materials by those in the board rooms and who are responsible for administration.

The situation at CDN Ltd., which is currently engaged in insulation work for the Central Electricity Generating Board at the Isle of Grain power station, illustrates my argument. Work should be covered by the Regional Engineering Memorandum No. F9, February 1971. The memorandum requires that a colour code be used but in this case no colour code has been used, although written assurances have been given to employees that asbestos is not present in the materials which they are asked to use. It is vital that the colour code should be applied because the site is large and asbestos might be used in some other part of it. The memorandum, which appears to be largely ignored, says that: Contractors who carry out heat insulation work for the Region are required to comply with this memorandum as a condition of accepting the work. The appendix of the memorandum sets out the procedures to be followed to meet the dust monitoring requirements of the Asbestos Regulations and of the South-Eastern Region for Non-Asbestos Heat Insulants. It reads: Asbestos-free materials are accepted as being outside the scope of the Asbestos Regulations 1969, but until more is known about their behaviour, the general precautions as to prevention of dust in atmosphere are to apply in South-Eastern Region. The appendix also says: All manufacturers of asbestos-free magnesia, calcium silicate and similar compositions are colouring their products for present and future identification. Various colours, including yellow, blue, and a pink and brown mixture have been used according to individual choice but manufacturers are aiming at a common colour coding through a British Standards Committee. The workers at this plant were asked to use material which was white and not colour coded. After repeated protests, laggers insisted on protective clothing, but CDN refused. The workers went on strike and were locked out for 10 weeks. That lock-out is now over but the protective clothing has to be paid for by the workers who also have to pay for cleanning. That might cost them £1 a week, and in view of the 3 per cent. pay increase proposition by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that is a considerable sum.

On the first day back at work the firm was so expert that it offered painters' overalls. The regulations say that protective clothing should be fastened at the neck, ankles and wrists and be hooded.

What makes the position worse is that CDN is a combination of Cape Asbestos, Darlington Insulation and Turner and Newall, and Cape Asbestos ran Acre Mill at Hebden Bridge, in my constituency. The firm already has blood on its hands through the operation of that mill, yet it is prepared to resist the provision of basic protective garments because of the cost.

A further example can be found at Mondial House, which is being constructed for the Post Office. There, repeated action by laggers about asbestos and related materials—in particular, a known skin irritant called "Niflam"—led to changes in contractors, including one previously totally obscure firm, to take over the work. Licensing of lagging firms would stop that sort of evasion of responsibilities.

Cubitts, the contractors dealing with the insulation, have informed the laggers that the Post Office will abandon insulation work on the site and accept more heat loss if they continue to seek the protection of the law by calling in factory inspectors. There is thus an implied threat of unemployment for laggers who are merely seeking to protect their health.

The day after my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his announcement there was a strike at Barking power station by scaffolders and others working near some insulation workers, again asking for protective clothing. Both the CEGB and the Post Office, if the claim by Cubitts is correct, must share some responsibility for the position of contractors.

On that same date, 31st March, I met a group called Women Against the Dust in one of the interview rooms in the House. I learned that some of those women used their maiden names to prevent their husbands from being victimised by contractors. Laggers work for many firms. As one contract finishes, they obtain employment with another. It has been known for laggers who bring in the factory inspectors not to be able to obtain a job on a future contract with different firms, because the word goes round that "So-and-so is keen about the regulations." Some employees have had to change their names in order to obtain a job with another firm of contractors. Such contractors are putting profit before health.

I should like to comment briefly on the rôle of the Factory Inspectorate. In this context the factory inspector must be the policeman of industry. The numbers of factory inspectors are insufficient to carry out their manifold tasks. If they have the choice of being consultants or policemen, they must take the rôle of policemen.

In the CDN dispute an inspector wrote: as far as I am aware without further analysis and research Calcium Silicate and Rocksil dust is not likely to be injurious to health. That is not very helpful to those working with it. The letter continues: He would therefore not be in a position to issue a notice prohibiting the work as he saw it on the tanks in the control building where Calcium Silicate slabs were being fitted. I agree that there is a nuisance dust problem which should be resolved in the interest of the welfare of the workers. But no improvement or prohibition notices were issued to have standards improved immediately.

There needs to be a much greater emphasis by inspectors on the improvement and prohibition notices. In addition, they need to provide much more information on the site. For example, in one visit all that the inspector provided to the employees was the name of the employer, the premises visited, the names of representatives of the employers seen and of representatives of the employees seen. The report on the decision stated: Numerous examples of defective and deteriorating asbestos lagging were noted on the premises of Ruberoid Paper Ltd. and Ruberoid Building Products Ltd. The dangers exist, yet the only action was: A letter has been sent to the occupier and a further visit is proposed. To overcome the indifference of some of the insulation companies, the licensing system is essential, as is the right of safety representatives to take action. A scheme of compensation would be the barest justice to workers, some of whom are having their lives taken from them in the pursuit of profit.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

I remind the House of Mr. Speaker's ruling that the timetable should be strictly adhered to.

2.45 p.m.

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

I am greatly indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) for the opportunity to contribute to this short debate.

The secrecy with which the health dangers of asbestos have been concealed from the public has been stripped away over recent weeks. Now that public attention has been drawn to these matters, the public will not tolerate the veil of secrecy descending again, ploys by the asbestos industry to minimise or ignore the risks, or any further dragging of feet by the Goverment and bodies responsible for taking action in these matters.

There are about 120 types of thermal insulation material and 20 are known to contain asbestos. There is no doubt about the dangers of working with these materials. In a paper presented to a World Health Organisation conference in 1972, headed: Cancer Risk of Insulation Workers in the United States ", Professor I. J. Selikoff said: A serious cancer risk has been demonstrated among asbestos insulation workers in the United States. Approximately one death in five, an extraordinary incidence, has been the result of lung cancer. Gastro-intestinal cancer was more than doubled in incidence, and mesothelioma was responsible for 7 per cent. of all deaths. A report in 1965 showed that 41 per cent. of the newly-certified cases of asbes- tosis during the period 1955–63 in the United Kingdom came from the insulation industry. By 1970 the proportion had passed 50 per cent. Another report, in 1963, pointed out that in 1960 and 1961, 32 of the 67 men certified for asbestosis in the United Kingdom were employed as insulators or as asbestos sprayers.

In the period 1967–70, in a study of 2,219 asbestos-exposed workers in the Netherlands, including 712 insulating workers, more than 7 per cent. were diagnosed as having asbestosis. That was a larger proportion than was found in workers manufacturing asbestos cement or asbestos floor tiles, or in shipyard work.

Studies carried out in California, New York, New England and elsewhere all point to the same dangers. Only last October Sweden's National Board of Occupational Safety and Health issued a whole series of directives applying to the use of asbestos. I shall quote briefly from two. The first says: Asbestos and dust-emitting material containing asbestos may not be used for insulations, irrespective of how the insulations are made. The second says: Special precautions must be taken in connection with demolishing and dismantling work where the handling of asbestos or material containing asbestos is involved. Protective clothing and safety breathing equipment should be used. That is the sort of example that many hon. Members believe the United Kingdom should follow.

My hon. Friend has outlined some matters of grave concern to many of us involving a limited number of firms in this country. We must recognise that the problems of asbestos face not only workers in the asbestos industry and in building, demolition and insulation work but those engaged in many other activities throughout the country. We must face the fact that there is a danger to the public.

I trust that the proposed inquiry into asbestos will be wholly independent and will sit in public to consider these and other matters. I hope that it will show determination in recommending possible action, which should have been taken long ago. If it had been, I believe that we could have avoided the disasters and tragedy of Acre Mill. The Ombudsman's Report on that factory has done a great deal to contribute to the concern felt today. I hope that at long last we can begin the job of ensuring that the risks of asbestos are known, and seeing that positive action is taken to avoid such tragedies in the future.

2.50 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Harold Walker)

I regret that the necessary time limit must curtail the speech that I might otherwise have made in reply to my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) and Sowerby (Mr. Madden).

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley has raised an issue which is an important part of a much broader subject—namely, the health risks from asbestos to people at work and to members of the public. That is an issue that was touched upon by my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby. As he reminded us, it is a matter on which public attention has been focused consequential upon the Parliamentary Commissioner's Report on the Acre Mill situation at Hebden Bridge.

As my hon. Friends know, I have visited Hebden Bridge and I have met many of the former workers who have been tragically afflicted with this grim disease, as well as members of the public. As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley knows, I am familiar at first hand with the grim tragedy that has afflicted his constituency. My right hon. Friend who is now leader of the House announced on 30th March, in a statement to which reference has been made, that the Health and Safety Commission was setting up a committee to advise it and Ministers on what further action should be taken to deal with the health risks from asbestos.

Immediately afterwards he had the fullest discussion with the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission and the Director General of the Health and Safety Executive on all the issues involved. As the House will recall, a further statement has been promised, which we shall be making in due course when the Health and Safety Commission has had time to consider what we have discussed with it.

When asbestosis first began to be diagnosed and recognised as attributable to work with asbestos, the cases were associated with the then predominant manufacturing aspects of asbestos products. The scope of the 1931 Asbestos Regulations was limited to specific manufacturing processes, insulation workers not being included. That omission, among other things, was corrected when the Regulations were revoked and replaced by the 1969 Regulations, which required stringent precautions to be taken to prevent workers, including insulation workers, inhaling asbestos dust.

Ideally, the best method of achieving this aim is to use an alternative material which will do the job just as well, yet present no hazard, or at least a much reduced hazard, to the health of those exposed to it. I shall deal with substitution in a moment, but there is a very large quantity of asbestos still in use for heat insulation, and regrettably the workers involved will still be potentially at risk for some time to come.

What does asbestos dust mean? It is defined in the Regulations as dust consisting of or containing asbestos to such an extent as is liable to cause danger to the health of employed persons ". In 1968 the British Occupational Hygiene Society, after carefully considering all the medical and scientific evidence available at that time, recommended a hygiene standard of two fibres per millilitre for chrysotile asbestos. It considered that that standard would reduce the risk of contracting asbestosis—that is, the earliest demonstrable effects on the lung due to asbestos—to less than 1 per cent. of people who are exposed to this level of dust constantly for a period of 50 years.

The standard was adopted by the Factory Inspectorate for the purposes of enforcing the Asbestos Regulations although, in addition, a level of one tenth of that was set for crocidolite—that is blue asbestos—which was considered to present a higher risk. This was a far more stringent standard than any other then in use throughout the world.

How effective has the current hygiene standard been in the prevention of asbestosis? Unfortunately, since asbestosis takes so long to develop, it will be some years yet before this question can be answered with any degree of certainty. Stringent enforcement of the hygiene standards has undoubtedly resulted in considerable improvements, and the Employment Medical Advisory Service set up in 1970 a continuing survey to monitor the health of asbestos workers in order to produce the necessary information to validate the standard. Further medical and scientific evidence is beginning to become available and a review of these standards will be one of the first tasks of the committee to which I have already referred.

Before leaving the subject of asbestos and turning to other related materials I shall reiterate the importance of employers and employees complying strictly with the precautions required by the Regulations. Much work in the insulation industry is of a short-term nature. There is always a tendency to fail to take appropriate precautions when the job is of brief duration and, for the same reason—namely, the brevity of the job—it is very difficult for inspectors to see the operation in progress. They may arrive before the contractors are on site or after they have left.

The provision of adequate precautions to protect the health of insulation workers is a matter which has caused the unions involved some considerable concern. It was only on Monday of this week that for the second time I met a delegation of heat insulation engineers—namely, the laggers to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley has referred—from the General and Municipal Workers' Union. The delegation was led by my hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Radice).

My hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street raised the possibility of licensing insulation contractors. That is one of the issues raised at the meeting which I have undertaken to draw to the attention of the Health and Safety Commission. Certainly there are powers in the Third Schedule of the 1974 Act. I know that the House will appreciate that it is primarily a matter for the Commission to decide the extent to which such a proposal might contribute to a diminution of the risks. I hope that when the Regulations on safety representatives, which the Health and Safety Commission has proposed, are made in the near future, safety representatives will make a significant contribution to a more effective monitoring of and compliance with the Asbestos Regulations.

It is often impracticable to control the dust from insulation work by exhaust ventilation, and in such circumstances the Regulations set out detailed requirements regarding the provision, use, storage and cleaning of protective clothing and respiratory protective equipment. If these requirements are fulfilled, there should be no question of workers breathing asbestos dust or of taking home overalls or other clothing contaminated with asbestos dust. If there are situations and circumstances such as my hon. Friend has described, we deplore them. They appear to be matters that deserve public inquiry. They may have to be examined in the light of the statutory obligations laid down in the Regulations.

I have mentioned, as has my hon. Friend, the use of alternative materials as safe or less hazardous substitutes for asbestos. My hon. Friend reminded us that various insulation materials such as glass fibre, calcium silicate or magnesia reinforced with glass fibre and mineral wool fibre have been used as substitutes for asbestos.

My hon. Friend posed the question that immediately arises—namely, whether those fibrous materials, too, are likely to give rise to similar diseases such as those which are associated with asbestos. One of the earliest materials used as a substitute was slag wool. It was first made in this country in the late nineteenth century. There is no evidence of any cases of fibrosis of the lung similar to asbestosis having arisen from the use of that material.

Several limited epidemiological studies have been carried out both in this country and in the United States on glass fibre workers, but no evidence of a respiratory hazard attributable to these fibres was found other than possibly an excess of bronchitis among retired workers that was found in one study. However, laboratory work has indicated that if very fine mineral fibres, including glass fibres, are artificially injected into the pleural cavities of rats, cancers may be induced. In the light of these laboratory studies, further work is needed.

Research into the health hazard to man of inhaled man-made mineral fibres is being sponsored by the International Committee on Synthetic Fibres and the European Insulation Manufacturers Association. The International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organisation in Lyons has announced that it will co-ordinate an independent epidemiological study to establish whether or not there is a cancer hazard to workers in man-made mineral fibre plants in Europe. In addition, the Health and Safety Executive is also sponsoring research.

Until these results are available, calcium silicate, glass fibre and other man-made mineral fibres are at present treated by the Health and Safety Executive as nuisance dusts, inhalation of which ordinarily produces little or no adverse effect after prolonged inhalation. Nevertheless, medical opinion is that the human respiratory system should not be overburdened with dust of any size or kind if the possibility of injury to health is to be avoided. Respiratory protective equipment must be provided if it is impractical to control the dust by exhaust ventilation.

We are not certain whether substitutes for asbestos are safe. But we know that asbestos is highly dangerous. Taking into account the needs of industry, as we must, I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that it would be wise, until we know the outcome of the research to which I have already referred, to continue to prefer the use of materials which at least seem, in the light of present knowledge, to be safer than asbestos.

In conclusion, I should like to assure my hon. Friend that I and the Health and Safety Executive fully realise the importance of ensuring that the precautions provided for insulation workers are entirely adequate to prevent the risk of injury to their health from the inhalation of dust.

During the last two years I have inevitably and necessarily worked closely with the Factory Inspectors—perhaps more closely than any of my predecessors. During that time I have learned to respect their expertise, ability and dedication to the work that they have to carry out. They have my fullest support and confidence in the difficult work that they have to do. They see themselves, as I see them, as guardians of the interests of workers in the industries which they examine and monitor and in which they enforce these necessary statutory provisions.

I am sure that the Committee, which was announced in the House on 30th March, which the Health and Safety Commission is setting up, will carefully consider the highly technical, medical and scientific evidence which will be put before it and will give the Commission and Ministers its considered opinions and recommendations as soon as possible.

I shall ensure that what has been said in the House this afternoon is brought to the attention of the Chairman and members of the Commission. I know that, notwithstanding the reluctance shown by my hon. Friend to meet the Chairman, he will be delighted at any time to discuss all the matters which have been raised.