Lunch time sandwiches, baby wipes and a cold water hose were all items found being used on a building site where asbestos was being removed without any health and safety precautions in place to protect the workers from exposure and contamination.

Mesothelioma victims support groups and asbestosis lawyers continue to be concerned at the monotonous regularity of court cases in which a building firm appears to have little or no asbestos awareness to the health risks and the mandatory regulations of working with the toxic materials.

Often a court will hear how a domestic vacuum cleaner was used to remove asbestos dust or a cheap paper breathing mask was worn. Both items are totally inadequate to prevent airborne fibres from contaminating every work surface or from being inhaled by those on site or by other people close-by.

No licence to remove asbestos

In the present example, a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that the building company did not possess a statutory licence to remove asbestos, despite informing the property owner that they did hold the necessary approval documents. None of the firm’s employees had received any training of working with asbestos nor provided with correctly specified respiratory equipment to safeguard against inhaling the dust particles.

A sealed, enclosed area for asbestos removal, as required under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, had not been set up nor a full three-stage decontamination unit for ensuring staff would not carry tiny asbestos dust particles away from site on work clothes, overalls, boots, hair, skin or equipment.

Instead, the crew – who simply ripped the asbestos insulating boards away from their fixings by hand – were simply issued with baby wipes and the use of a cold water hosepipe to remove the potentially deadly asbestos fibres. The HSE also reported that asbestos contaminated overalls were being worn over normal clothing while the staff took their lunch break on site.

The Suffolk- based building firm was fined a total of £13,365 including court costs after pleading guilty to separate breaches of the Control of Asbestos Regulations and the Work at Height Regulations. After the hearing, a spokesman for HSE pointed to the “incompetent actions”, which could have caused the employees to be exposed to asbestos fibres at a “much higher level” than might have been possible had a competent licensed contractor been used.

Lack of understanding

Despite of the continuing efforts of HSE awareness campaigns and building trade organisations, there is much lack of understanding of how to correctly protect against asbestos exposure. In particular, property owners or builders may decide that to avoid additional time and expense, they will simply remove any asbestos without observing any of the legal disposal procedures.

A survey conducted by HSE in September 2014 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.

According to The Great British Asbestos in Buildings Survey 2011, only one in six of building maintenance contractors said they possessed asbestos training qualifications and just one in eight claimed to have a good working knowledge or qualifications in asbestos.

Secondary exposure

Equally worrying is the risk of “secondary” exposure caused by workers returning home with asbestos contaminated overalls and workclothes. Throughout much of the peak years of Britain’s industrial use of asbestos between the 1950s and late 1970s, thousands of wives, daughter and other family members also contracted mesothelioma following years of shaking out and washing asbestos marked clothes, boots and hair.

Under the Regulation 8(1) of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, “An employer must hold a licence granted under paragraph (2) before undertaking any licensable work with asbestos.” In addition, 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.