Cases where building contractors, duty holders or local authorities have simply failed to observe the required procedures with regard to the presence of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) before, during or after renovation work, continue to be regularly reported.

It is reasonable to assume that most construction industry tradesmen possess some form of asbestos awareness of the considerable health risks attached to exposure and the potential for falling victim to asbestosis disease or the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer.

In addition, there are the legal requirements of Control of Asbestos Regulations, under which the Health and Safety Executive will conduct an investigation and bring a prosecution where a procedure has either been neglected, ignored or not fully met.

Concealed in properties

In the UK, the import of white “chrysotile” asbestos was finally banned in 1999, yet the fibres can still be found in materials such as wallboard, soffits, textured surface coatings, roofing sheets and cement used in the building or refurbishment of both private, public and commercial properties. It was estimated that in 2003 that there was still around six million tonnes of ACMs concealed in properties throughout the UK.

Control of Asbestos Regulations have been in force since November 2006, with statutory training a key requirement for all those who are likely to come into occupational contact with ACMs and specific “control limits” imposed on exposure levels where asbestos is to be disturbed.

Control limits

According to the regulations, any exposure to asbestos fibres should be below the ‘airborne exposure limit’ of 0.1 fibres per cm³ and a ‘control limit’ imposed, which is defined as “the maximum concentration of asbestos fibres in the air if measured over any continuous 4 hour period.” A continuous “ short term” exposure of over 10 minutes should not exceed 0.6 fibres per cm³.

All exposures must be strictly controlled with respiratory protective equipment and asbestos removal should be carried out by a licensed contractor issued by the Health and Safety Executive. Inevitably, those who are most likely to have direct contact with ACMs will include demolition contractors, builders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and roofers.

But in many instances, such as in schools, hospitals, hotels and housing estates, it will also be children, adult members of staff, and the visiting public who are equally at risk of breathing in the microscopic fibre dust particles.

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.”

HSE also stipulate ten breaches of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, which are as follows:

Regulation 6(1)(a) for failing to carry out an adequate risk assessment.
Regulation 7(1) for failing to have a written plan of how to deal with the work.
Regulation 8(1) for undertaking work with asbestos without holding the required licence.
Regulation 9(1) for failing to notify HSE of the asbestos-related work.
Regulation 10(1)(a), for failing to provide employees with adequate information, instruction and training in the dangers of and removal of asbestos.
Regulation 11(1)(b) for failing to prevent or reduce exposure of his employees to asbestos.
Regulation 16 for failing to prevent or reduce the spread of asbestos.
Regulation 17, for failing to keep his premises clean.
Regulation 23(1) for failing to provide adequate washing and changing facilities or storage for protective and personal clothing or respiratory equipment.
Regulation 24 for failing to ensure that asbestos was contained.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) around 1.8 million people are still at risk of asbestos exposure and at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year. Once the fibre particles are inhaled they remain undetected within the pleural linings for a period of up to 50 years before asbestosis symptoms first appear.