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October 31, 2009

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HSE steps up Hidden Killer campaign

The HSE has moved on quickly from the furore over its use of unsubstantiated statistics relating to the number of deaths caused by asbestos by launching a new phase of its Hidden Killer campaign.

The campaign, which involves targeted press and radio adverts and the distribution of 500,000 information packs to warn tradesmen – electricians, joiners, plumbers, and carpenters – about the dangers of asbestos, was launched initially as a pilot in April last year, covering the north-west of England.

But last month, the campaign suffered a setback when the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld a complaint by an asbestos consultancy, which argued that the numbers used by the HSE in its earlier radio ads “were based on flawed calculations”.

Four ads stated that more people die from exposure to asbestos every year than in road accidents, while another suggested that, every week, 20 tradesmen die as a result of inhaling the dust fibres. The ASA ruled that the ads could mislead by presenting the figures as definitive when they were “in part, based on estimates”.

The latest £1.2m campaign, which will run nationwide throughout November, follows swiftly on from that episode, and the message has been modified to warn its audience that the figures used are not exact. With asbestos contained in around 500,000 non-domestic buildings in the UK, the initiative is seeking to raise awareness among the building trades that the substance still poses a very real danger to health.

According to the HSE, more than 35,000 people died from mesothelioma – the asbestos-related cancer – between 1977 and 2007. The latest annual figures show that 2156 people died from the disease in 2007 alone, up 5 per cent on the previous year.

The Executive’s asbestos programme director, Steve Coldrick, told SHP that the pilot campaign in April last year had, in the short-term, helped raise awareness among its target audience from a level at which 30 per cent knew of the dangers of asbestos, to a position where four out of five people were aware of the risks.

Follow-up research on the pilot’s success this time last year showed that 60 per cent had remembered the campaign – an excellent retention figure, according to Coldrick.

Describing the reasons for its success, Coldrick said: “It was a very well-defined target group, with good use of images and language. [The tradesemen] were getting their information from all directions – in their mail; in their trade associations when picking up goods, etc. And there was good use of case studies from widows currently suffering with the effects of having lost loved ones as a result of exposure to asbestos.”

He added: “Sadly, there is nothing we can do to stem the tragic loss of workers who were exposed to asbestos in years gone by. But we can listen to their stories – and the one thing we hear time and again from older workers is that they were never told about the risks of working with asbestos.”

The campaign is being backed by the TUC, trades unions, trade associations, training organisations, charities, and victim support groups – all of which will help distribute the information packs through their relevant channels.

Welcoming the campaign, general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, said: “Asbestos has posed a long-running threat to generations of British workers, many of whom have faced an early death because they were not told about the hidden killer in their workplaces. Asbestos cannot be written off as a 20th-century problem, a legacy from our industrial past.”

More information on the campaign can be found on the HSE website at while those interested in finding out more about the ASA’s ruling can find more by clicking here.


Approaches to managing the risks associated Musculoskeletal disorders

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.

Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.

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