Bill Callaghan, Chair of the Health and Safety Commission writing in response to an article on March 30th

I am writing to clear up some of the points raised in the article "White Ban Man", which readers may have found confusing.

The first thing to explain is the difference between the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Health and Safety Commission (HSC). I chair the HSC, and my fellow Commissioners are nine people nominated by employer, employee and local authority organisations and appointed by the Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions. Its job is to advise Ministers about matters connected with occupational health and safety.

The HSE is the operational arm of the HSC and supports it by providing information and advice. The HSE also carries out inspection and enforcement work. Health and Safety Inspectors working for the HSE and local authorities enforce the Health and Safety at Work and so on. Act 1974 and its regulations in workplaces throughout Great Britain.

The regulations
There are three sets of these regulations which deal with asbestos: the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987 (as amended) (CAWR) which cover all work with asbestos; the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations 1983 (as amended) (ASLIC) which require employers to have a license from HSE before they work on the more hazardous forms of asbestos; and, the Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations 1992 (as amended) which prohibit most uses of asbestos.

In 1998, CAWR and ASLIC were amended to tighten them and to refocus them onto the largest group of workers now known to be at risk from asbestos – workers in the building trades. As part of this effort, it was decided to extend the asbestos licensing scheme to include work involving asbestos insulating board. This is a material which often contains a high percentage of brown asbestos in a form where the fibres can be released by any cutting, drilling or sanding .

The change to ASLIC means that employers wishing to work commercially on asbestos insulating board must first get a licence from HSE. HSE only issues these licences to employers who demonstrate that they understand the risks posed by the material, and that they have the equipment and training to enable them to deal with it properly.

Employers do not need a licence from HSE to work on asbestos cement. Asbestos cement is a completely different material from asbestos insulating board. The asbestos fibres are firmly bound into a cement base and are not so easily released, and it usually contains only a low percentage of white asbestos.

However, this does not mean that it is considered safe, only that it is not so hazardous that only licensed contractors may deal with it. All work on asbestos cement must be carried out in accordance with CAWR. In November 1999, some amendments to the Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations came into force to ban most uses of white asbestos, including the manufacture and supply of asbestos cement products, and to place time limits on those few applications for which white asbestos may still be used.

The proposals which led to these amendments were the subject of a full public consultation in the Autumn of 1998. The Consultative Document was published on HSE's website, and around 500 printed copies were issued. One hundred and sixty-two people or organisations based in Great Britain replied and only two of those were totally opposed to the proposals.

Scientific support
Of course, HSC does not base its decisions on weight of numbers alone. There was scientific support for the proposal as well. In July 1998 the Department of Health's Committee on Carcinogenicity concluded that a range of non-asbestos materials was safer than white asbestos. This opinion was later endorsed by the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment (September 1998). White asbestos is a carcinogen, and with any carcinogen the first principle is wherever possible do not use it; use a safer substance instead.

Even so, neither HSC nor HSE advises people to remove asbestos from the fabric of a building unless there is a real need to do so. HSE's advice is that asbestos material which is in good condition should be left in place until such time as you have to remove it because its condition has deteriorated, or because repair or refurbishment works are to be carried out that would disturb or damage it.