Domestic vacuum cleaner and brush used by waste removal firm to clean up asbestos dust. A very familiar headline repeated yet again in the press as another small sized contractor completely disregards what they must do by law when dealing with asbestos.

There can be few builders, plumbers, electricians, waste and demolition contractors operating in Britain today who would not have heard about the continued risk of discovering asbestos still remaining in some half a million or more properties around the country.

Firms are often ill-equipped

The issue of asbestos awareness and the potential fatal health risks of mesothelioma or asbestosis disease forms a significant part of knowledge and qualified skills training required by the construction trades industry. Courses are run by trade organisations and campaigns rolled out by bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), who also carry out regular worksite inspections. An exhaustive body of knowledge about asbestos is available and accessible online.

Sadly, all efforts to help prevent the risk of exposure to asbestos and its consequences persistently fail to be engaged with by firms who take on any job but are often ill-equipped or have little interest to properly handle the task in the correct manner.

In the latest case, a small waste removal firm based in the North East was asked by a Newcastle householder to remove a garage roof constructed with asbestos sheeting, a typical exterior application up until the late 1970s and 80s. The firm’s owner deliberately mis-informed the owner that he was licensed to remove asbestos, as is required under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12.

Paper overalls and mask

The task proceeded with the firm’s owner, wearing only paper overalls and a face mask, removing the asbestos roof boards with a hammer and chisel. Using a brush and domestic vacuum cleaner two assistants collected the waste debris in twenty bags, which were then loaded into their van.

A nearby resident alerted the Health and Safety Executive who issued a Prohibition Notice to the firm to immediately cease work. At the subsequent court hearing, it was found that the firm’s owner who was neither qualified or nor licensed to remove asbestos had, unsurprisingly, failed to carry out nearly all the legal requirements necessary when asbestos is suspected or is known to be actually present.

No risk assessment, air sampling analysis or notification to the local authorities had taken place. A written plan of work describing how the work would be carried out had not been prepared. The working area has not been securely sealed off and the equipment/clothing used was not to a standard, which would ensure proper protection from airborne fibre dust. In addition, a certificate for reoccupation once the work was complete had not been produced.

Approach flawed from the outset

The court also heard that the firm owner’s approach to the task had been flawed from the outset. There had been a failure to conduct a pre-work visit without a qualified person, who would have advised that the removal of the asbestos roof required a license, and specialist asbestos disposal equipment and procedures.

The firm pleaded guilty to two breaches of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and fined a total of nearly £ 3,000 including costs.

Since 2012, new procedures have been in force, known as the ‘Asbestos licence assessment, amendment and revocation guide’ (ALAARG), which sets out the conditions for when special permission is required for asbestos removal, as well as the standard license types.

The majority of asbestos work has to be undertaken by a licensed contractor but any decision on whether particular work is licensable is always based on the evaluation of risk.

HSE guidelines

According to the guidelines issued by HSE, exemption from requiring a license is based on a threshold factor of “sporadic and low intensity” exposure and at least one of four conditions must be met:

  • Removal must be a short, non-continuous maintenance task, with only non-friable ( fragile and disintegrating) asbestos materials.
  • Removal involves asbestos-containing materials in a ‘reasonable’ condition, which must not be deliberately broken up. All asbestos fibres are firmly encapsulated within a matrix, e.g. coated, covered or contained within another material, such as cement, paint or plastic.
  • Removal involves asbestos-containing materials, which should be in a ‘good’ condition and are to be sealed or encapsulated to ensure they are not easily damaged in the future.
  • Removal involves the collection and analysis of asbestos samples to confirm the presence of asbestos in a material or is an air monitoring and control task to check fibre concentrations in the air.