A new app for use on smartphones, tablets and laptops has been launched by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as a key feature of a new safety campaign to help tradesmen identify and handle asbestos materials in their everyday work.

Asbestos awareness and training courses for builders and tradesmen continue to highlight the very real risks of exposure to asbestos while working in any one of the estimated half a million or more public or private properties around the UK believed to still contain the deadly materials.

In addition, HSE have continued to mount campaigns, such as “Hidden Killer” and “Asbestos Essentials”, which provide detailed information and vital advice for those who are most likely to be at risk of direct contact with hidden asbestos materials.

Nevertheless, cases are regularly heard in court in which building firms have been found to disregard the requirements of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12, and in some instances, repeat notifications by HSE.

Firm disregards HSE asbestos training notice

In one recent example, HSE visited a building firm on two consecutive occasions in response to concerns raised by local people over site health and safety and the risks to passers-by. Despite being asked to provide information about the company procedures for managing on-site asbestos risks HSE did not hear further from the firm.

On the return visit, less than three weeks later, an improvement notice was served by HSE, which allowed four weeks for the onsite workers to receive adequate asbestos training, with another week later added to the deadline. Once again, it appears the firm disregarded the notice and despite all assurances were seen to repeatedly fail to comply with HSE requirements.

The court found the company in breach of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined a total of £6,500, including costs.

HSE survey finds lack of asbestos knowledge

Building firms who regularly flout the regulations by deliberately choosing to ignore the potential health risks of asbestos to both themselves and others are always a concern. However, a survey conducted by HSE in September also found many tradesmen were simply unaware of key asbestos knowledge.

While more than five in ten tradesmen who were questioned said they were aware that asbestos containing materials can still be found in properties built before 1970, fewer than two in ten said they knew that a property built up to 2000 may also contain asbestos.

When the most dangerous asbestos types – brown amosite and blue crocidolite – were banned in the UK from 1985 onwards, so-called “low risk” white chrysotile was allowed to continue being used until imports were stopped by EU directive at the end of 1998.

Imports of white asbestos were considerably reduced from nearly 120,000 tonnes in 1976 to just under 2,000 tonnes by 2000, and subsequent building use also fell during the same period, nevertheless, the HSE survey found that more than eight in ten were not aware that white asbestos was still being used beyond the 1970s.

Worryingly, only three in ten tradesmen were able to identify all the correct measures for working safely with asbestos, and nearly six in ten “made at least one potentially lethal mistake” in trying to identify the proper safety procedures.

While a number of common asbestos-containing materials, such as corrugated roofing, insulation wallboard, sprayed coatings or pipe lagging, were more likely to be recognised, nearly one in five were unaware that asbestos could be hidden behind many common building fixtures, and within plumbing and heating systems.

More frequent exposure

HSE have previously estimated that more than 1.8 million people still come into occupational contact with asbestos materials, the significant majority being those employed in the building industry and related skill trades, such as joiners and electricians. According to the HSE  latest survey figures, plumbers and heating installers asbestos are more frequently exposed to asbestos than nearly all other tradesman – an average of 140 times per year, or nearly three times a week.

Although proper asbestos training is always essential, it is hoped that the new app will aid tradesmen to deal more safely with asbestos and prevent the long term health risks of asbestosis disease and mesothelioma cancer.

Click here for more information about the new asbestos app at the HSE website.