Assure 360

Many readers will know that the sixth European Asbestos Forum conference took place in Brussels on 1 December. We enjoyed a fabulous event – founder and president Dr Yvonne Waterman really pulled out all the stops for this occasion, making it the best EAF yet.

EAF is different from other conferences: more policy-focused than FAAM, less showy glitz than some, yet it retains a level of friendly warmth and classy delivery.

There were two reasons it was so different this time round, the first was that it was a joint event, co-hosted by the Dutch state. The conference’s USP was even stronger and more obvious this year, with policy maker after MEP after government minister lining up to talk. But EAF is also collegiate, with Martin Keve of the Dutch Ministry for Infrastructure and Water Management also putting a lot of personal effort into making sure the event was a success.

It will come as no surprise that the morning session was devoted mostly to the EU’s new Asbestos at Work Directive, which actually was published on that very day. I’ve written before about the main changes this will bring about, but they bear repeating:

  • Prioritising removal over encapsulation 
  • Electron microscopy only
  • A new occupational exposure Limit (OEL), equivalent to our Control Limit, of 0.01 asbestos fibres per millilitre of air (f/ml)

European Union member states have two years to implement these new rules, but there are bigger changes down the line. In six years’ time, analysts need to start counting fibres as narrow as 0.2 microns (two ten thousandths of a millimetre). That’s much too fine for optical microscopes, or even most scanning electron microscopes (SEMs), and thus beyond the effective limit of today’s widely used techniques.

The directive allows for an alternative: don’t count these super fine fibres, but drop the OEL even further to 0.002f/ml. What this essentially means is that if you want to continue to operate at 0.01f/ml – transition electron microscopes (TEM) are really your only answer. 

We often talk about political will, and that quality was personified by two people in particular: Zuhal Demir (Flemish Minister of Justice and Enforcement, Environment, Energy and Tourism) who ensured that the Flemish Asbestos Safe policy became a reality, and Nikolaj Villumsen MEP, the architect of the directive, and opening speaker on the Thursday – which already felt like an age ago.

I’ll come back to the directive at the end of this piece, but I wanted to try to sum up everything else that happened or was discussed at EAF – and it’s a lot. One highlight to mention from the morning is that Frederica Paglietti, senior researcher at Italy’s National Institute for Insurance against Accidents at Work (INAIL), was able to give us hints about a completely new style of respirator they’re working on that will rise to the challenge of the new lower OEL.

The afternoon sessions

In the afternoon I had the honour of hosting session B, where we examined innovation. EAF’s afternoon sessions are pretty whirlwind affairs, with each talk lasting only 20 minutes. The ideas and discussions came thick and fast: Sean Fitgerald on defining asbestos – and whether we can, Thomas Muller of Eurofins talking about using AI and automation to help with TEM analysis, Wayne Bagnall on discovering asbestos cement in poured reinforced concrete, Stefan Kempeneers on his project to harness AI analysis of high-res aerial photography to map the extent of asbestos roofs in a whole region. And all of that before the first break!

After the break Sven de Mulder gave us an update on the incredible progress that Flanders is making in its Asbestos Safe policy. To finish off we had Graham Gould and Inez Postema both talking about asbestos eradication from different angles. Graham made the case for the thermal destruction of asbestos rather than burying it in landfill. In the second, Inez focused on her use of water and the natural alkali pH of cement to denature the material.

Whilst Graham did indeed touch on his own thermal approach, his main thrust (echoed by Inez) was a call for action. It’s much easier to commercially destroy asbestos when there is still lots of it in the built environment. If we continue to bury it, it will create a problem that’s far harder and more expensive to solve.

Using AI

While it was a frenetic afternoon, full of ideas and innovation, two different uses of AI stood out for me. Thomas Muller gave a review of the lab group Eurofin’s project to harness robotics and AI. The way it’s being used to address ergonomic hazards for its analysts, at the same time as reducing the time spent by 70%, is impressive. The timing of this work is ideal: we need to massively increase the productivity of TEM analysis to implement the new directive. 

The second was the use of AI to study photographs of huge acreages of roofing. This would allow analysts to understand the likely extent of asbestos roofing in a given town or region. It’s been shown by numerous reports now that asbestos cement roofing is not nearly as safe as we have historically thought in the UK. When we do finally start to do something about it, this seems like the perfect way to get a handle on the problem. 

The format of the EAF is always to come back together to conclude the conference, and this time it was particularly special as there was an award. This was in recognition of Tony Rich – a jobbing analyst by day, but also a spectacular photographer. Based in the US, his nom de plume is Asbestorama, and you can find his work here on Flickr.

What of the directive?

To return to the directive, we in the UK can of course ignore it. But we do so at our peril.

I recall going to my first EAF in 2015. Back then there was a feeling that the UK was pretty good at managing asbestos, and that we could in fact teach our European cousins a thing or two. Over the years, though, it’s become increasingly obvious to me that we’ve been static and have become complacent.

The approach in many EU countries is already outstripping us. I can point to recent European innovations including a fully automated robotic disassembly plant for asbestos-contaminated train rolling stock, AI-driven TEMs that are three times faster than the manual equivalent, gel technology to capture asbestos dust at source, and brand-new respiratory protective equipment (RPE) concepts – rather than the converted WW2 gas masks we essentially use.

Now we can even put a number on how far we risk falling behind – if we ignore the directive (or at least its intention), we would be offering our workers 50 times weaker protection.

In the past, when writing about the Asbestos at Work Directive, I’ve been sceptical as to whether it has been thought through sufficiently. Particularly, I wondered whether the practicalities had been fully considered. Current removal methods are nothing like good enough to meet the new exposure limits. Current RPE doesn’t perform well enough, so essentially everything we do would have to change.

Now as I leave the conference, I realise that it’s the way we think that needs to change. The new directive is the law that should make us reimagine everything.

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