The potentially deadly health risks of asbestos exposure continue to make the press headlines. Most cases reported highlight the lack of asbestos awareness by building contractors or duty holders to the safe removal procedures as required by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.
In a recent case, the failure to carry out a properly managed asbestos waste disposal by a licensed operator led to a number of asbestos-insulated pipes being removed from a training vessel and left at the roadside until they were placed in an open skip to be transferred to a salvage yard.
The incident was particularly aggravating as the incident took place at a Southampton naval training base.
Until the first bans were introduced in the mid 1980s, use of asbestos as an insulation / fireproofing material was widespread across most major engineering and manufacturing industries. Britain’s shipbuilding industry, in particular, has a long history of using asbestos materials in both naval and commercial fit outs.
Asbestos was used to insulate hot steam pipes and water lines, fuel lines on pumps, turbines, compressors and condensers and the lining of boilers. Elsewhere on board, asbestos was used to line exhaust systems, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves, packing assemblies, insulation felts and adhesives, etc
From the 1940s to the 1980s at least, thousands of dockyard workers were continuously exposed to asbestos, which would eventually cause asbestosis disease and the fatal, incurable malignant mesothelioma cancer.
Surveys conducted in the 1960s found that nearly 4 per cent of a 10 per cent sample taken from dockyard workers in Chatham, Portsmouth and Rosyth were shown to possess abnormalities directly caused by the inhalation of asbestos. As recently as February 2012, the second highest mesothelioma fatality rate of 104 deaths or just over 6 deaths per 100,000 people was recorded between 2006 and 2012 in the Medway area of the South East, including the towns of Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham.
A subsequent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation into the incident at Southampton found both the naval flagship, the removal contractors plus a further firm of pipe welders had neglected to identify the presence of asbestos in the pipes “as a result of inaccurate assumptions and failures to undertake thorough checks and surveys … and safely remove and dispose of by a licensed asbestos removal specialist.”
It was also established by the HSE that all contracted employees, passing Navy personnel and “anyone else” in the vicinity of the contaminated pipes were placed “at risk” to asbestos exposure. At the court hearing, a total fine of £39,487 (inc.costs) was imposed among all three parties who pleaded guilty to breaches of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.
Regulation 5(a) of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 states: “An employer shall not undertake work in demolition, maintenance, or any other work which exposes or is liable to expose his employees to asbestos in respect of any premises unless either (a) he has carried out a suitable and sufficient assessment as to whether asbestos, what type of asbestos, contained in what material and in what condition is present or is liable to be present in those premises.”