A flurry of asbestos exposure cases in the first days of 2016. Sadly, breaches in health and safety procedures have produced familiar stories of exposure to potential risk recounted again and again during court hearings.

Builders have been found not carrying out a pre-works asbestos survey or passing on important asbestos information  to other contractors. Instead, tradesmen carried on working with or amongst potentially dangerous materials simply because of a lack of asbestos awareness to the existence of the hazardous fibres. In one case, the presence of asbestos was only discovered by chance when a contractor spotted broken up asbestos sheets dumped in a skip on site.

Contractors failed to ask for a more detailed asbestos survey

The court heard how “no asbestos survey had been carried out” prior to the removal of tanks from a factory, which required the demolition of an external wall. Despite only having access to carry out a management survey – mostly involving a visual inspection only – the contractors failed to ask for a more detailed asbestos survey. Either small material samples are taken for laboratory analysis or a full ‘intrusive’ survey is undertaken where floors, walls or ceiling must be opened up for investigation.

The lack of a proper survey led to contractors demolishing a brick wall while not knowing that they were also breaking up asbestos insulation board, which they simply placed unsealed in a skip. A positive identification by a detailed survey should have led to the appointment of a licensed asbestos removal contractor to carry out the work under controlled conditions prior to the wall being demolished. Procedures would include sealing off the area, securing the waste for removal and the wearing of personal protective equipment, as set out by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012).

Lack of information and failure to consult the asbestos register

In a second case, an organisation also failed to complete a pre-works survey, which would have ensured that contractors could identify the location of asbestos before carrying out refurbishments on a public premises. Despite not knowing the survey was incomplete, the contractor was aware that an asbestos register was available to help determine the condition of the materials and prevent the risk of exposure. Unfortunately, the contractor failed to consult the register before proceeding with the work.

Lack of information provided to contractors detailing the location of asbestos within a premises was once again highlighted in a another case heard at court. There was also a failure to create an asbestos management plan or update their register following an original asbestos survey years earlier, which uncovered the deadly insulation. Also, the company did not carry out a fresh survey prior to engineers beginning work on a building extension.

In all of these cases, the people responsible were brought to account by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and handed fines of between £30,000 – £60,00 plus costs for breaching the requirements of the law regarding asbestos, including those set out in the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 or the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015.

Duty holders responsible for commercial, non-domestic premises

Eight in ten of those working in the building and construction trades, such as builders, plumbers, electricians, plasterers and tilers, run the highest risk of exposure alongside property clearance / demolition services. Those duty holders responsible for commercial, non-domestic premises are required to know about the location, condition and the management of any asbestos materials on their premises, with an asbestos register and management plan available for each building on site.

Cases are continually being brought to court where there has been an apparent breakdown in communication over asbestos information between a property owner / duty holder and a visiting contractor. While all duty-holders claim to supply the required information, and four in every five contractors make an initial request, only three in five actually receive the information for commercial buildings, dropping to two in five for residential properties.

Despite of awareness campaigns by HSE and building trade organisations, there is a continued lack of understanding of how to correctly protect against asbestos exposure. In some cases, it may not even be a failure to carry out a survey or ensure all “who need to know” are supplied with asbestos location data. 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.

More frequently exposed to asbestos than nearly all other tradesman

More than 1.8 million people continue to come into occupational contact with asbestos materials, most of whom are employed in the building industry and related skill trades, such as electricians and carpenters (HSE). Plumbers and heating installers are more frequently exposed to asbestos than nearly all other tradesman – an average of 140 times per year, or nearly three times a week.

Plumbers and electricians also have a one in 50 risk of developing mesothelioma, according to Cancer Research UK. Carpenters under 30 years old who work with asbestos for ten years or more are estimated to have a one in 17 chance of contracting the fatal cancer. The HSE suggest that between 1970 and 2050, of a total of 90,000 cases of diagnosed mesothelioma in Britain around 15 per cent, i.e. 15,000 will have been employed in the building industry.