The results of the latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspections of work sites clearly flagged up a continuing lack of care and attention to ensure contractors are protected from potential health risks, including exposure to asbestos. Around half of all sites inspected even revealed “dangerous practices” and more than three in five failed in their duty to properly deal with asbestos dust.

Asbestos information campaigns are regularly mounted by HSE, and there many asbestos training courses run by building industry professionals. Nevertheless, a persistent number of smaller building firms continue to display a shocking disregard for the correct procedures and a lack of asbestos awareness to the risk of direct contact with the deadly fibre particles. Cases of on-site negligence are a regular feature of court proceedings, where it’s also regularly heard that there’s been a failure to carry out an authorised survey/risk assessment before work begins.

A precise and detailed record

Asbestos survey reports are used to create a precise and detailed record of where asbestos containing materials are to be found throughout an entire premises, the condition of the asbestos, and is aimed at protecting all building occupants – not just building contractors – from asbestos exposure. Where a decision has been agreed that asbestos is not to be removed, the survey provides key information for ongoing control management and awareness training to ensure all building occupants are safe from any asbestos contamination or airborne fibres.

There are broadly three types of survey, in which the first two categories are now generally known as ‘management surveys’ and the third type as a refurbishment/demolition survey.

Management Survey: A visual inspection only “where it is presumed that any suspect material found on a premises will contain asbestos, unless there is strong evidence to conclude that it is highly unlikely to contain asbestos.” Photographic evidence is collected, along with material type, extent and condition data recorded on a main survey document.

Sample Survey: Provision of a laboratory confirmed sample analysis. Similar to a Management Survey, but a small sample of the potential ACM is collected to be tested at a United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) Laboratory.

Refurbishment and Demolition Survey: A full ‘intrusive’ survey where it asbestos is suspected to be present under the floor, in the walls or between layers of the ceiling, and which must be opened up with possible damage to the fabric of the building. Consequently, the surveyor must be supplied with a full ‘plan of works’ before the survey work commences.

Where asbestos materials are discovered and to be removed, it is mandatory that only licensed contractors for waste asbestos removal undertake the necessary procedures for the secure handling and disposal. Non-licensed contractors must also follow a specific set of HSE guidelines for correctly dealing with asbestos, including personal protective equipment and cleaning materials.

Fail to understand the extent of the health risks

In some cases, a firm may deliberately flout procedures simply to “save time and costs.” However, it has also been found that there can be a number of building industry and related trade workers who fail to understand the extent of the health risks they are exposed to every time they encounter asbestos materials on-site.

When disturbed, asbestos fibre dust can be released into the air and inhaled, with the potential to remain within the lung linings, causing inflammation and eventually asbestosis disease. Over a period of time ( up to 50  years) the tissue cells can turn cancerous, forming incurable malignant mesothelioma tumours.

In the Great British Asbestos in Buildings Survey 2011, it was found that one in four tradesmen were unaware they came into direct contact with asbestos, and just one in eight claimed to have a good working knowledge or qualifications in asbestos handling and disposal procedures.

The challenge of protecting trade occupations as well as others on site from asbestos exposure continues to be a crucial task. As many as half a million commercial, public and residential properties built or renovated before the 1980s and 90s are thought to still retain hidden asbestos-containing materials, and more than 1.8 million people with occupational access to asbestos are annually exposed.