The presence of asbestos in many of Britain’s more older hospitals is not a new issue. But problems associated with airborne dust and an apparent lack of adequate asbestos management are regularly reported. Most recently, wards were shut, operations cancelled and even ambulances diverted from a Wrexham hospital after air quality control tests recorded high levels of “ an unconfirmed substance” in the corridors, and asbestos management controls were put into place.

The incident, which one hospital visitor described as “chaos” follows a report of asbestos, which needs to be cleared from the site of a delayed community hospital project just a hundred miles away in Market Harborough. NHS Property Services has admitted there are traces of the potentially mesothelioma or asbestosis-causing material on the site of the proposed £7.8million St Luke’s Hospital. According to a NHS spokesman, some traces of asbestos identified “have been found to be non-hazardous”, which posed no risk to the public and an appropriate action plan has been developed to manage the site.

Not worn, damaged, or in a state of disintegration

Asbestos declared as “non-hazardous” usually refers to asbestos-containing materials found to be in good condition and not worn, damaged, penetrated by moisture or in a state of disintegration. The material is likely to be a rigid board or tile where the asbestos fibres are “bonded” with another material. If “traces” of asbestos are found, then the material might be dispersed fibre dust, broken up material shards or even remains of asbestos ‘lagging’, a mixture of asbestos fibres and cement commonly used to insulate hot water pipes in public buildings, such as hospitals.

While the term “non-hazardous” or more often, “low risk”, tends to be applied if white asbestos is found to be in a strictly undisturbed state, nevertheless, white asbestos has been confirmed as a Class 1 carcinogen at the Government Office for Science who have said there is “no threshold level”, below which, exposure would not be considered a risk to health. Asbestos judged to be in good condition, and which is to be left in place, must be properly contained and managed.

Just recently, however, a spokesman for another hospital trust said its investigation into the presence of asbestos found that management policies were in place but were “not always being followed.”

Every Hospital Trust has a duty to manage asbestos

In 2014, three hospital trusts, which had also identified the presence of asbestos materials at their sites more than a decade earlier, continued to carry out maintenance work but failed to put in to place a management or monitoring plan to control the risk of dust. It was also found that the NHS Trust maintenance staff could have disturbed asbestos fibres without knowing they were at risk of exposure or possessing the correct protection equipment.

Under Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, every Hospital Trust has a duty to manage asbestos within all of its properties. In addition they must provide all staff with appropriate information regarding the presence of asbestos in the buildings where they may be required to carry out their daily duties. Any individual who may risk contact with asbestos must also be given relevant awareness training.

The problems of hospitals with quantities of asbestos insulation, which is not being properly managed are regularly the subject of health and safety investigation. At a time of ever greater pressures on the NHS, news of disruption to hospital services caused by the health hazard does more than spark local community concern. It’s a reminder which raises asbestos awareness to everyone of the ever-present health risks fifteen years after white asbestos was banned from use in the building industry.