A target of 4,000 hours of free asbestos awareness training has been set in a new joint initiative to help tradespeople protect themselves from the deadly dust.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE), in partnership with the training industry, is calling for those who run training course to pledge free hours during September to hit a target of 4,000 – the approximate number of deaths each year from asbestos-related diseases.

It is hoped training providers will offer 4,000 face-to-face training hours and an additional 4,000 hours online training. The free training will be available in October and November and is aimed at plumbers who are most likely to disturb the fibres as they go about their work. Around 20 tradespeople each week lose their lives to asbestos-related diseases.

Karen Clayton, director for long latency health risks at the HSE, said: "Our Hidden Killer campaign is helping tradesmen understand the lifesaving fact that asbestos exposure is not just an historical problem – around half a million public buildings still contain it.

"This new initiative, a continuation of the campaign, is all about tradesmen finding out exactly what they need to do to protect themselves by taking advantage of free training.

"There is sadly little we can do to help those who are already suffering the often fatal effects of asbestos exposure in the workplace, but we can prevent this hidden killer claiming another generation.

"Through industry playing its part and asbestos support groups helping us to get the messages out about the importance of training, we can all do something practical to ensure that the risk to workers is minimised."

More than 40,000 people have died from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma in Britain since the late 1960s – and the numbers dying are increasing. Latest annual figures show that 2,249 people died from the disease in 2008 alone, up 3% on the previous year.