Innocent people continue to be exposed to asbestos hidden in the fabric of commercial and residential properties around the UK.

It was recently reported that up to thirty employees at a furniture refurbishment firm based in Rochdale were exposed to airborne asbestos fibres for up to five years. Despite concerns being raised over its suspected presence employers failed to carry out a proper asbestos survey, as recommended by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors.

General asbestos awareness of its likely presence and potential health risks in public buildings, such as schools, college and hospitals built or renovated before the 1980s and 90s have become more well known as a result of cases regularly being reported. In the majority of instances, it is AIB (asbestos insulating board), wall board, soffits, ceiling tiles or cement asbestos materials, such as corrugated roofing sheets and shingle tiles, which are commonly found.

Sprayed asbestos overlooked

However, both residential and commercial properties can still harbour ACMs (asbestos containing materials) in key areas. While the existence of textured asbestos surface coatings (e.g. Artex) is also more well known, in many instances, the presence of “sprayed” asbestos insulation in a warehouse roof or attic interior may be overlooked or simply not recognised.

When the upholstery firm first moved into a work unit in September 2007 a mezzanine storage area for the furniture foam was created in the eaves of the roof where, subsequently, sprayed asbestos insulation was found. For five years, employees would drag the foam “through the eaves” before stacking onto the floor, which caused asbestos fibre dust particles to become airborne.

Notice ignored

In 2012, a HSE inspection noted that the mezzanine roof material looked similar to sprayed asbestos and was also in a poor condition. Discovering that an asbestos survey had not been carried out previously (despite employee suspicions and health concerns), an Improvement Notice was then issued. Following a later asbestos survey and the positive identification of the sprayed asbestos, a Prohibition Notice was served in July 2012 banning access until the building had been decontaminated.

However, the terms of the Prohibition Notice were breached when the building was entered by the employer and a worker to remove furniture on the evening of the same day that the Prohibition notice was served. At the prosecution hearing, the firm was fined £30,000 after pleading guilty to two breaches of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 by failing to ensure the health, safety and welfare of workers, and a further £10,000 for a deliberate breach of the Prohibition Notice.

Sprayed asbestos peak period use

The peak period of sprayed asbestos use was until the mid 1970s commonly applied to the underside of roofs (and floors) on steel and reinforced concrete beams/columns, and sometimes the sides of buildings and warehouses. However, until the first ban on the most dangerous asbestos types in the mid 1980s and a full ban enforced at the end of the 1990s, asbestos fibres could still be used in the production of building materials.

Sometimes over-painted, sprayed asbestos is usually white or grey in colour with a rough surface, can contain between 55 per cent to 85 per cent asbestos fibres with a Portland cement binder but can still easily disintegrate. Even minor disturbance of sprayed coatings can release large quantities of airborne asbestos fibres if the material is “unsealed” and the released dust deposited on false ceilings, wiring and within ventilation systems.

According to HSE, around 4,000 people die every year as a result of breathing in asbestos fibres – the biggest single cause of work-related deaths in the UK.