By Charles Faulkner
Asbestos - not an issue in the UAE? Think again. Charles Faulkner explains how the region is at extreme risk of exposure.
Each year almost 100,000 people die worldwide due to asbestos related disease, which is more than the number of lives taken by skin cancer. Asbestos related diseases are now the greatest occupational killer in world history and the figures continue to rise.
In the UAE there is a commonly-held belief that asbestos is only a problem in Europe and North America, where the horror stories of exposure, litigation, compensation and death - not necessarily in that order - are well publicised. But, asbestos is not perceived as an issue for the Emirates.
As a construction risk management consultant, it initially shocked me to find out that there was not an absolute prohibition against the use of all Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs) in the UAE as recommended by the World Health Organisation, especially as the UAE is at the forefront of many aspects of building design and new technology. It is still legally permitted to import asbestos for the manufacture and subsequent use of asbestos cement pipes for the purpose of water supply and sewerage.
Furthermore the use of asbestos board in the Emirates has only been banned since November 2006, shattering the myth that asbestos is only present within older buildings. In fact over 17,000 tonnes of asbestos was imported and consumed in the UAE in 2007* - its most evident utilisation being the construction industry.
Any work with ACMs can present a risk to human health, and it is well established that there is no known safe level of exposure to any type of asbestos fibre. Those most at risk from the harmful effects of asbestos include construction workers, particularly those involved in demolition and refurbishment activities and asbestos water pipe installation, and tradesmen such as electricians, plumbers and carpenters.
It is not uncommon for those unknowingly exposed to asbestos to spread the deadly fibre through contaminated equipment and clothing, leading to the so called "secondary exposure" of work colleagues, family and friends. The American and European press regularly report the tragic stories of families whose lives have been devastated by asbestos related deaths, usually in women and children, attributed to contaminated clothing and second hand asbestos exposure.
The only way to reduce the hazards of ACMs in the construction industry is to prohibit the use of ACMs (voluntarily and legislatively), use safer substitute materials, and proactively manage the remaining residual risk from each of the activities that are associated with asbestos exposure.
From a legal and ethical point of view, employers must understand that prevention to exposure is paramount and where this is not possible they must assess the work and provide their employees with the appropriate procedures, control measures, personal protective equipment and respiratory protective equipment. Current legislation must be adhered to, and a best practice guideline implemented.
WSP Environment and Energy in association with the non-profit health and safety organisation Buildsafe UAE will form a focus group this month to produce workable guidelines that will not only comply with both local and federal legislation but also develop industry health and safety best practice procedures. The procedures will detail the safe systems of work for asbestos related activities and then be distributed to Buildsafe UAE members.
Only by collectively acknowledging that there is a risk from ACMs in the UAE construction industry and addressing that risk can we play our part in putting an end to unnecessary asbestos related deaths.
The opinions expressed in this column are of the author and not of the publisher.