Over my time as a consultant, I have noticed that asbestos management remains a constant area of neglect.
Little is thought about asbestos in many situations unless in construction. But our duty to manage asbestos exists in all sectors, not only the building trade. It is a worrying situation when you consider that it remains the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK.
Asbestos has been used as far back as roman times and since the industrial revolution has been used extensively throughout the UK for its many amazing qualities such as being tough, heat resistant and chemical resistant. Common applications were Asbestos cement, insulation, roofing and flooring, brake pads and linings, seals and gaskets. Whilst asbestos was a fantastic, versatile product, these attributes came at a price.
Sadly, asbestos is still used and mined today in other countries. Countries that still permit asbestos to be imported, exported, and used include the United States, China, Russia, and India & Russia, China and Kazakhstan still mine asbestos to this day.
Asbestos becomes extremely dangerous to health when it breaks down or becomes airborne, and the fibres are so small that the lungs cannot process them and they become stuck. When this happens it can cause life changing and life threatening illnesses such as Mesothelioma (a cancer which affects the lining of the lungs; it is almost always fatal), Asbestos-related lung cancer, Asbestosis (a serious scarring condition), Pleural thickening (restricts function of the lungs causing breathing problems).
Asbestos was used in the UK until the importation, supply and use of all asbestos was banned in 1999. Amphibole (blue and brown) asbestos is much more hazardous than serpentine (white) asbestos, and the use of blue and brown asbestos was banned in the UK in 1985. It is therefore the correct assumption that any building built prior to the year 2000 may contain asbestos (and it is likely).
What are my duties?
In accordance with the ‘Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012’, anyone responsible for a commercial premises/ workplace must ensure that a management survey has been undertaken on any building built prior to the year 2000. A management survey is for buildings to be occupied, not for any works to be undertaken on the fabric of the building. Once the survey has been completed, you should receive a survey report. Should any asbestos be found or suspected, recommendations will be made based on location, condition and type to determine if it requires removal or may be left in place and monitored. As the responsible person for your workplace or premises you are now required to ensure that for any asbestos containing materials remaining in situ, it is suitably managed. This involves performing routine visual checks to ensure the condition has not deteriorated and protecting it from further degradation. Usually, your survey report will advise if you need to ‘encapsulate’ which creates a barrier around the material to prevent further damage. This can be a spray coating, boxing or other. Asbestos containing materials left in situ, especially those in common or prominent areas may also require marking as asbestos, and this is also usually included as a recommendation in your survey report.
It is a good idea to ensure that employees are aware of any known asbestos containing material and the dangers surrounding it; this does not always need to be a long or accredited course, but communicating with the workforce to raise awareness will help to ensure the safety of your staff.
It is also worth bearing in mind that a survey report that does not identify asbestos in a building pre 2000 is not a guarantee that it is asbestos free, and any building prior to this construction ear should be presumed to contain asbestos.
Landlords and building owners will be responsible for having a survey completed on their building but if you occupy, you must ensure that your workplace is safe for your employees. You should ask for a copy of the survey, or for details of any known asbestos. In addition to this, rental and leasing contracts vary greatly, and the extent to which you can modify or change your premises is usually detailed within your contract. You must ensure that considered all risks pertaining to asbestos and the way in which your activities may affect it.
Working on the fabric of the building.
A management survey is only for occupation, and is not intrusive. It is intended only to enable you to identify and manage asbestos within your premises. If you are having any works done that affect the fabric of the building, such as walls, floor, ceilings and fixtures, or are extending, modifying, demolishing or constructing, then a refurbishment/ demolition survey will be required. The survey is more in depth and often involves taking samples to test to confirm or deny the presence of asbestos. Even with this type of survey though, it cannot be guaranteed that no asbestos is present even if it is not found, nor can it confirm all of the asbestos present.
When working on the fabric of the building, in most cases asbestos containing materials should be completely removed prior to works starting, especially where it exists in an area that will be accessed or where it will be disturbed. You should then ensure that removal is completed by competent persons, and clean air tests are conducted prior to proceeding. The asbestos survey and any clean air certification should be available on your CDM site. It is worth bearing in mind that sufficient time needs to be allowed in the planning stage of your project to ensure removal of any required asbestos containing material can be achieved, in sufficient time to enable works for your chosen start date.