“Asbestos: Hidden Killer” campaign to be resurrected

Asbestos Hidden KillerThe HSE’s successful “Asbestos: Hidden Killer” campaign ran from 2008 till 2010. During that period there were four phases and the HSE evaluated the impact. The campaign was particularly targeted towards trades people and construction workers. Overall, the HSE used a variety of media and promotional outlets to promote the campaign and it is supported by a dedicated HSE website.

While the previous evaluations indicated that there was a need to maintain the campaign communications, the promotional work stopped in 2010. This halt was prompted as part of a Government review of all campaigns; however, it was indicated at the time that the next stage of the campaign would need to be reviewed.

At its Board Meeting on 30th October 2013 the HSE confirmed that it would now develop the next phase of the campaign. As well as reviewing previous phases of the “Hidden Killer” campaign, the HSE also considered some recent research (Insight Research to Inform the Asbestos 2013–14 Campaign: Final Report, HSE October 2013) on attitudes and practices among the target audience — trades people, construction workers and caretakers.

In this article the research report identifying issues will be reviewed and key points outlined. However, details of the communications section will not be reviewed. The findings may be useful for managers to consider when reviewing how to raise awareness among their own workers. The article will conclude with how the HSE thinks the next phase of the campaign will be undertaken.

What the workers think

The Insight report was aimed at looking how the next phase of the “Hidden Killer” campaign could be best developed to change the behaviour of workers — and others — to protect them from exposure to asbestos fibres. While it identified that the campaign had been “highly successful” so far, it wanted to identify whether changes to the campaign may be needed in future.

The campaign objectives had already been established and these are to:

  • Support the policy objective to reduce the overall number of trades people dying from asbestos-related diseases
  • Inform and educate the target audience that the risk from asbestos is current and relevant to them and the work that they do
  • Encourage the target audience to actively seek information about asbestos and the ways they can protect themselves by undertaking a tailored call to action.

Two specific aims were set out for the research.

  1. To identify audience barriers and drivers to taking action to protect themselves against asbestos.
  2. To support development of the communications strategy to meet its objectives.

The researchers sought a number of respondents who had been trained on asbestos work, were not involved with licensed contracting work and were from a range of different sized organisations. There were 64 respondents and they were dealt with in two stages. Various scenarios and questions were put to them to identify how they dealt with asbestos at work. The main findings were as follows.

Asbestos at work

The respondents had a broad knowledge that asbestos was hazardous and they should not disturb it or work with it. While there appeared to be little awareness of what the health risk posed by asbestos actually was, there was a great deal of variation in detailed knowledge.

Actions to avoid working with asbestos included having conducted a risk assessment; the supervisor or employer, for example, had stated the work area contained no asbestos; or they themselves decided no asbestos was present. Others stated they would take “appropriate measures” to deal with asbestos, or use a licensed asbestos contractor.

Barriers to preventive action

While awareness of the dangers related to asbestos was recognised, there was a perception that it was not a threat to the respondents personally. It was also indicated that people may not be taking appropriate measures to protect themselves from exposure to asbestos fibres. Of significant concern was the finding that:

  • “Looking at how the risk of asbestos is assessed it was clear that for a good range of respondents their assessment of both appropriate measures and position of relative safety (versus risk of exposure) was wrong.”

Even where the risk assessment process had identified appropriate control measures, “protective practice was not always undertaken appropriately or safely”.

The main barriers were related to respondents not believing their personal health was at risk, for example:

  • It was not their responsibility to check if asbestos is present (particularly those in the larger companies)
  • The cost of identifying where asbestos was and taking action may be too high (particularly those in small companies or sole traders)
  • There was a lack of understanding as to how to reduce the risks associated with asbestos
  • There were issues around the provision and use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Drivers for the new phase of the campaign

In addressing these barriers, the researchers suggested “drivers” that should be considered in working out how a campaign could be targeted. The key factors that were identified that should be used to “drive” the new phase of the campaign include:

  • Making the issue relevant to the target workers by showing that asbestos may be present in the buildings they are working on, ie those built before the year 2000
  • Making clear what the health risk is and how asbestos could impact on their health
  • Pressing workers to accept responsibility for taking preventive action
  • Reducing the opportunity cost of taking action
  • Stating clear advice on dealing with preventive asbestos measures
  • Empowering the audience to use PPE.

The researchers also identified that the respondents were concerned about the issue emotionally as well as technically, i.e. they wanted to improve control measures to reduce the risk of asbestos-related diseases affecting them and their families.

Overall this research has indicated where future efforts need to be targeted. While there undoubtedly has been progress made on raising awareness, it still seems apparent that actual working practices need to be improved. In the report the researchers also discussed the type of communication messages that should be included in the campaign. It may be worthwhile for managers to study the communication ideas in the report and contrast them with their own.

HSE plans for the future

At its meeting on 30th October, the HSE discussed the “Hidden Killer” campaign and agreed to implement the next stage. While the details of the measures were not given, the HSE did indicate that the following is expected to be included in the campaign.

  • Asbestos information kits — following testing, these will be distributed to trades people through a commercial partner.
  • Pilot regional radio advertising — this was successfully applied in the first phases of the campaign.
  • Partnership marketing — working with suppliers and retailers regularly used by trades people to deliver information and encourage behaviour change.
  • Public relations activity — this will be used to promote the campaign.
  • Production of other materials for use by stakeholders and interested parties.
  • Use of digital channels, for example the HSE website.

Initially, the HSE is looking to develop the “information kit” and identify commercial partners. This indicates that it will not be fully funding the whole initiative itself. Perhaps as a result of this, the HSE has made clear that the next phase of the campaign is unlikely to be launched before April 2014.


It is clear that there is still a need for asbestos issues to be promoted specifically for workers most at risk of asbestos exposure: trades people and construction workers generally. The fact that the next phase of the “Hidden Killer” campaign will be starting in 2014 should provide a prompt for managers to review their asbestos policies and procedures now.

For more information on Asbestos “The Hidden Killer” and free downloads, visit the dedicated HSE site.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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