In the same week that Action Mesothelioma Day 2013 commemorated the countless thousands of men and women who lost their lives to the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer, a flurry of court cases demonstrate why asbestos exposure continues to be a real risk in twenty-first century Britain.

In the latest reported cases, either local authorities or construction companies seem to have a complete disregard or lack asbestos awareness of the deadly health risks as they repeatedly fail to carry out the required follow-up actions required under law.

Asbestos in hospital

In the first case, the court heard how Greater Glasgow Health Board failed to properly manage asbestos risks in a basement plant room of a hospital. An asbestos survey identified the presence of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) but was considered to be in “a good condition and low risk.” The Health Board was advised to label the asbestos and its condition observed for future management requirements.

Two years later, a second asbestos survey, which was carried out prior to the installation of a new MRI scanner found that the asbestos had deteriorated to a point where it was considered “poor condition” and “high risk”. Following confirmation by laboratory testing of both material and air samples, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the Health Board had not taken any action. At the hearing, they pleading guilty to a breach of Regulation 4(10) of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 and fined £6,000.

Lack of asbestos survey

In the next case, building contractors failed to carry out any pre-works asbestos surveys, where in one instance, casual labourers renovating a domestic property in Bedford removed soffit boards containing asbestos fibres, but had not received any advance training or information.

Builders didn’t wait for survey results

Another case found that an asbestos survey was carried out at a house refurbishment in Birmingham but the building contractors failed to wait for the laboratory results and proceeded to remove and “smash up” asbestos boards with a hammer. Cases are often brought to court where there has been an apparent breakdown in communication over asbestos information between a property owner / duty holder and a visiting contractor.

Lack of asbestos licence

In this specific example, an asbestos survey was carried out by Birmingham City Council who had paid a grant to a householder in order to convert a garage into a bedroom and bathroom for his disabled father. In addition to not asking to see or wait for the results of the survey tests, the contractors did not possess the necessary licence to remove the asbestos boards.

According to The Great British Asbestos Survey 2011, around one in six of building contractors say they have asbestos qualifications in and only one in eight claim to have a good working knowledge or qualifications in handling the deadly materials. Eighty per cent of those in construction trades, such as builders, plumbers, electricians, plasterers and tilers, run the highest risk of exposure alongside property clearance / demolition services followed by homeowners and tenants.

Duty of Care

Builders and decorators working on domestic premises have a duty of care to ensure that any potential ACMs are not disturbed during refurbishment work and a survey is required to identify and plan for the uncovering of asbestos.

Under Regulation 5 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 (updated April 2012), an employer also has a duty to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment for asbestos prior to any works, and which could be liable to expose employees to asbestos. There is an additional obligation to inform any person liable to disturb ACMS of its presence and condition.

It has been estimated that there’s probably half a million residential or commercial premises constructed or renovated up until the 1990s, which still contain undiscovered ACMs. Once asbestos is disturbed and fibre dust breathed in, the fibres embed in the lung linings, eventually causing mesothelioma or other asbestosis diseases.