Asbestos may be hidden from sight in many buildings but should never be banished from mind – and assumed that it doesn’t exist. Cases where building contractors and duty holders, whose failure of asbestos awareness to the likely presence of the insulating material and the potential fatal health risks, continue to be regularly heard in court.

Asbestos containing materials are more likely to be suspected of being present when they are in full view, such as in wall or ceiling textured coatings, insulation board, wall board, ceiling tiles, pipe lagging or garage roofing sheets. However, asbestos materials could be used in a variety of different ways to insulate a building and was often concealed in inaccessible voids, recesses and surfaces in any property built or renovated up until the 1980s and 90s at least.

The discovery and persistent presence of asbestos in schools and educational institutions, in particular, are a constant reminder of the potential health risk. Several studies suggest that around three quarters of all schools across Britain still contain asbestos either hidden or inadequately managed, exposing pupils, teachers and other school workers to the invisible, fibre particles.

Failure of duty

In a recent case, both the owner of an academy trust premises and the contractor failed in their legal duty under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 to undertake the required asbestos survey before starting refurbishment work nor manage and dispose of the material according to the required procedure.

At the outset, the school’s site manager told the contractors, who were employed to replace the building’s windows, that ‘to the best of his knowledge’ there was no asbestos containing materials in the window area.
Consequently, none of the contractors received a site-induction nor was any information provided to the contractors on the possible presence and location of any asbestos containing materials.

However, during the removal of the window frames two strips of asbestos insulating board (AIB) packers were discovered. When properties were first constructed, builders would also often insert individual strips and off-cuts of asbestos boards as packing and filler, which may also be hidden within walls, cavities or recesses.

Lack of asbestos training or protection

As a result of the lack of asbestos training, the window contractors simply removed the asbestos packing strips from the frame using a crowbar and then broke up the strips into waste material. A subsequent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation also found that the glass contractors had not been provided with any form of PPE (personal protective equipment), such as face masks or protective clothing when breaking up the asbestos packing. In addition, no asbestos management plan was in place at the academy if asbestos was disturbed.

Both the Academies Trust and the window contractors pleaded guilty of breaching sections of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and fined a total of £10, 500 and £ 7,000 inc. costs, respectively.

HSE estimate there could be around four million properties – both public commercial and private residential, still containing hidden asbestos material. It is also thought that more than 1.8 million people, from builders and teachers to home owners and housing estate tenants are exposed to asbestos every year in the UK.

While the most lethal forms (brown amosite and blue crocidolite) were banned in the mid 1980s, white chrysotile continued to be used in many different forms of wallboard, insulation and surface coatings in building and renovations until imports were finally halted at the end of the 1990s. The use of white asbestos fibres found in building materials, such as insulation wallboards, surface coatings and cement products continued for at least another ten years.

Once disturbed and released into the surrounding air, inhaled asbestos fibres adhere permanently to the lung linings, leading to asbestosis disease or the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer.