Cases of asbestos exposure and failure to properly manage and dispose of the potentially fatal health hazard continued to be heard in courtrooms across the UK in 2013. Yet, time and time again it seemed that it was less an issue of asbestos awareness and actually identifying the materials when they were uncovered but more a systemic failure to either recognise the seriousness of the risk or a neglect in carrying out the required action.

Thus, building contractors would simply fail to undertake an “asbestos” management survey before commencing works or if a previous building survey had found asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), the reports failed to be passed to all parties involved in the renovation due to a “breakdown of communication.”

In a number of extreme cases, building firms were seemingly unaware of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12. There were witnesses reports of contractors simply ripping out interior wallboards, ceiling tiles or roofing sheets, breaking the materials down by hand and dumping in a skip without any site restrictions or equipment to protect against the release of airborne, fibre dust particles.

However, failure to take any action at all even when one or more surveys had been carried out and instructions to manage and monitor the potential risks were given, seemed to regularly feature in reported cases. In several instances, it was either schools, colleges or hospitals that were the premises involved.

Three asbestos surveys

In December 2013, a Scottish health board was prosecuted for failing to properly manage the risks of asbestos in a ground floor plant and switch room at one of their general hospitals. Despite three asbestos surveys, which on each occasion identified the same ACMs in the ceiling of the room as being “high risk” and a recommendation for “removal and environmental cleaning”, the health board failed to take any action. Consequently, it was found that hospital workers were being potentially exposed to breathing in the invisible asbestos fibres over a seven-year period.

The initial asbestos survey, which first discovered the asbestos hidden in the ceiling took place in 2004. But no action was taken either then or after a second survey. As a result, the ceiling became increasingly contaminated with the unsealed asbestos debris. The lack of sufficient monitoring meant that by 2011, when a third survey was carried out in advance of planned electrical installation work, the condition of the ceiling was so severe that the room was immediately sealed. Air monitoring tests subsequently showed a high level of atmosphere contamination from fibre dust particles.

Employees exposed to airborne fibres

Following an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) the Health Board pleaded guilty to a breach of Regulation 4(10)(b) of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 and fined £10,000. According to the HSE, there had been a “failure of the health board’s duty to properly manage the risks of asbestos in its premises”, which led to a number of employees and external contractors to be exposed over a number of years.

In the immediate aftermath of WW2, and right up to the 1970s and 1980s, the construction industry extensively used building materials manufactured with asbestos fibres in public buildings for acoustic and thermal insulation, and fire protection of structural steel work. In hospital and other healthcare facilities built or refurbished during this period, asbestos can still be found in pipe insulation, wall board, floor and ceiling tiles, HVAC duct, boiler and electrical wiring insulation.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there is an estimated half a million properties around the UK still harbouring hazardous levels of ACMs. As courts cases increasingly show, there are still key issues for contractors, premises owners or local authorities from conducting an asbestos survey and identifying the presence of asbestos in a building to communicating the findings, the quality of the management plan and maintaining an effective asbestos register.