Two in five building sites “fail to properly protect workers”, according to findings from the latest round of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspections. Inadequate health and safety measures, once again, included a lack of asbestos awareness to the risks of exposure, handling and disposal of the deadly insulation materials known to cause mesothelioma and asbestosis disease.

Over four weeks, between Sep and Oct 2014, HSE carried out its ninth series of “unannounced” inspection visits of sites where repairs and renovations where in progress. The HSE inspection teams were particularly focused on checking on-site procedures and control management of high-risk activities with a direct impact upon worker’s health. As on previous visits, the inspectors were also monitoring whether contractors were aware of risks to health from exposure to dust, such as silica and asbestos, and the proper way to deal with the fibre dust, if discovered.

According to HSE, nearly 50 per cent of the 1,748 sites they visited were found to have “unacceptable conditions and dangerous practices.” Enforcement notices were issued to one in five sites described as being particularly “poor” and inspectors ordered work to be immediately stopped on over 200 occasions.

Firms simply disregard the dangers

More than three and five of the notices issued related to management of asbestos, failure to control exposure to harmful dusts, noise and vibration. The HSE stated they would focus on potential health risk because some firms simply disregard the dangers if they are “not immediately visible” and fail to provide basic measures, such protective equipment and dust suppression.

Neglect of basic health protection measures appears to have hardly improved since the last HSE “unannounced” site inspections. In 2013, nearly half of the sites visited were issued with Improvement Notices and one in four failed statutory checks.

Frequently, it is the smaller sites where safety standards are often neglected and nearly three quarters of fatal accidents and serious injuries occur. Many small to medium firms are also not licensed to undertake asbestos work. In a number of cases, building contractors simply fail to undertake an “asbestos” management survey prior to proceeding with renovations or demolition. Alternatively, if a previous building survey had found asbestos-containing materials, the reports failed to be passed to all parties involved in the renovation due to a “breakdown of communication.”

Unaware of any formal procedures or regulations

In more extreme cases, building firms appeared to be unaware of any formal procedures or regulations, whatsoever. Witnesses state that contractors simply rip out interior wallboards, ceiling tiles or roofing sheets, break the materials down by hand and dump in a skip without any protection against the release of airborne, fibre dust particles.

Asbestos-related diseases account for around 4,500 deaths every year and continue to be the single biggest cause of work-related death. Those who are most at-risk are the 1.8 million construction industry workers who are in direct daily contact with buildings, which still contain significant quantities of white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos.

Up until the end of 1999, when white asbestos was banned in the UK, there was still around 2,000 tonnes being imported for use as insulation and fireproofing in the fabrication of building materials. Trade organisations and other industry bodies generally consider that any buildings built or refurbished before the year 2000 could potentially contain asbestos materials, including many domestic properties as well as industrial, commercial and public buildings.

Failure to recognise risk

Achieving a ‘behaviour change’ among builders and tradesmen who are most vulnerable to risk from exposure to asbestos is ongoing at HSE. Many of the negligent practices of Britain’s industrial past, which led to a lack of protection and exposure to asbestos risk by thousands of workers have been reformed.

However, recent HSE research has found that there may be less of an issue with workers actually identifying asbestos when it is uncovered but more a persistent failure to either recognise the seriousness of the risk or a neglect in carrying out the required procedures. Many workers simply believe that the health risks are minimal or consigned to Britain’s industrial past.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, requires statutory training for all those who are likely to come into occupational contact with asbestos containing materials. According to HSE, while half of trade workers said they knew that asbestos can still be found in properties built before 1970, fewer than two in ten said they were aware that a property built up to 2000 may also contain asbestos.