Awareness of asbestos-related risks is growing in many countries, but regulation alone may not be enough to tackle the problem. In our latest edition of Building Sight, we look at the increasing focus on wellbeing from an industry perspective such as how it could impact on the built environments we create, how technology is improving occupational health and the risk of psychological injury due to stress.
For a material known to cause fatal illness, international trade in asbestos is surprisingly brisk.
The International Labour Organization estimates that 100,000 people die annually from a disease relating to workplace exposure to the naturally occurring fibrous mineral — yet, it is still a popular building material.
China is the world’s leading consumer of asbestos, using more than 570,000 tons in 2013, according to the United Nations University International Institute for Global Health.
Even China’s smaller neighbor, Laos, with a population of around 7 million people, imported an estimated 8,000 tons of chrysotile (white) asbestos in the same year.
Asbestosis, along with other occupational health conditions such as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), represents a long-tail risk, resulting in claims and insurance payments long after the original exposure.
Because of the latency period involved in the diseases that accompany exposure, potential claims, illness and deaths are likely to come decades from now in Asia, as experience in the West has demonstrated.
Generally, a country’s understanding of occupational health risks develops with its economy.
In the case of HAVS, for example, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand have guidelines aimed at preventing exposure but there is little awareness in many parts of Southeast Asia.
Some risks are new to both developed and developing regions alike, however, such as claims relating to UV exposure at work, and potential health issues relating to exposure to nanoparticles.
Awareness of the risks of asbestos is growing in Asia. Hong Kong had 36 confirmed new cases of asbestosis and 96 confirmed new cases of mesothelioma, respectively, between 2006 and 2015, according to statistics from Hong Kong’s Pneumoconiosis Compensation Fund Board.
Of the patients concerned, 87% had an employment record in construction.
Similar data for mainland China, where asbestos use has increased dramatically since the 1970s, is hard to come by. Predicting when a peak in such cases may come is virtually impossible.
Encouragingly, Laos could soon count itself among the more than 60 countries around the world to have banned asbestos, including Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Singapore.
Regulation by itself, however, is not necessarily enough culture is also important, according to AIG Risk Consulting. “Unfortunately, even when bans exist, a lack of enforcement can result in regulations not being followed — and sometimes employees themselves will not even report problems because they fear the economic consequences of being unable to work.”
Because workers have had different employers during their career and can’t pinpoint when they were exposed to hazards that caused an occupational health condition, governments in Southeast Asia typically shoulder the financial burden.
But contractors working abroad, in nations where regulations are less stringent than their home country, also need to be alive to the risk of future claims and reputational damage.
Both employers and employees in Southeast Asia are affected by a failure to adequately prescreen and monitor for occupational health conditions, such as pulmonary function tests for those wearing respiratory protective equipment.
Without the adoption of screening for occupational health conditions, employers do not know if employees have a pre-existing condition or if their control measures are effective.
Rapid advances in wearable technology could soon change this, allowing governments and employers to quickly identify where workers are exposed to occupational health risks and introduce measures to protect them.
“Small, internet-of-things-enabled sensors are now available that mean we can study what is happening to workers much more easily and make decisions more quickly,” says AIG Risk Consulting.