Why do so many building contractors seem to always use a domestic vacuum cleaner to clean up dust and debris, which could contain dangerous asbestos fibres?

Where in previous decades asbestos awareness to the long term health risks was less well-known in many British workplaces, today it’s likely to be routine negligence or even deliberate ignoring of the safety rules that could put people at risk of asbestos exposure and asbestosis disease.

Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s when asbestos use as an insulation material was at a peak level, there was often little or no information, protective equipment or means of safe handling and waste disposal that is now a legal requirement today.

Nevertheless, cases regularly appear in court where there has been a lack of communication and delays surrounding the carrying out of the most basic of safety recommendations when working in premises where asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are found to be present.

Safety recommendations ignored

In a recent case, as many as 200 people could have been exposed to asbestos fibre dust when a company based in north east England ignored recommendations from its own safety advisors following the discovery of the material when holes were being drilled into wall panels.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the subsequent investigation, two subcontractors – who had previously been told that the building was free from asbestos – drilled through an insulation panel containing asbestos while installing fire sensors.

Unaware of the asbestos present in the drillings, they then used a domestic vacuum cleaner to clean up the dust and debris. As the subcontractors continued working in several different areas of the building, repeated use of the vacuum cleaner spread the released asbestos fibres into the air and around the premises.

Failure to take action

It appears that not only was there incorrect or mistaken information supplied regarding the possible presence of asbestos within the building, once the material the subcontractors had been drilling into was identified as asbestos there was a failure by the company to take any appropriate action for at least nine days after the incident occurred.

It was also revealed that the company’s own health and safety advisors had strongly recommended that the area should be securely sealed and emergency clean-up and air clearance tests to be made. As a result of the delay in taking action, as many as 180 workers and a further 16 visitors were said to have been at risk of exposure to a substantial quantity of asbestos contaminated dust, which was later collected.

At the Magistrates Court, the company pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) and Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £20,000 plus £12,638 ordered to be paid in costs.

The most dangerous forms of asbestos were banned from use from the mid 1980s onwards but white asbestos fibres continued to be used in building materials, such as wall-panels and roofing sheets as well as other type of insulation cladding for at least another ten years before imports were finally stopped.