It’s one issue that can quickly reignite local levels of heightened asbestos awareness and concern. In 2016, there is still the persisting, widespread risk of exposure to asbestos insulation laying hidden in millions of properties around Britain, yet the deadly materials may only be unexpectedly discovered during local repairs or renovation. Rarely a week passes without one report at least of a builder, plumber or electrician disturbing asbestos insulation at a school, housing estate or another public premises, such as a library, council offices, sports centre or even a swimming pool.

Unfortunately, in a number of cases the discovery is just the beginning of any number of ‘red flag’ issues. Recently, a gas engineer discovered asbestos insulation board surrounding an old warm air heating system he was removing at a residential property. But instead of carrying the required safety procedures for secure asbestos waste removal, the engineer ignored all concerns raised by tenants at the property and simply treated the boards as ordinary building materials, which were then stored at his yard.

Failing to recognise the materials during removal

The problems of small firms appearing to wilfully disregard the rules, as set out in the Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR 2006/12), are often the result of neglecting to carry out a pre-works asbestos survey, “cutting corners” to quickly complete the job or simply failing to recognise the materials during removal.

After worried tenants alerted the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), a subsequent investigation found that the engineer failed to wear any protective clothing or special breathing apparatus when he was removing the asbestos boards. HSE also pointed out that no safety measures were put in place to seal off the affected area, which is required to prevent the spread of airborne asbestos dust posing a health threat to others, in this case, tenants and nearby residents.

At the court hearing, the engineer pleaded guilty of breaching Section 3(2) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, and was fined a total of £1371 inc. costs.

Panelled over or hidden under layers of plaster or paint

Overwhelming evidence that breathing in the fibre dust can eventually cause mesothelioma, asbestos-related cancer, and other asbestosis conditions, such as pleural plaques led to increased workplace legislation and a decline of imports from the late 1970s. However, both the HSE and the professional building industry repeatedly warn that no property built or renovated at any time up to 2000 – public, private or commercial – should ever be considered free of asbestos materials.

Asbestos boards, textured coatings, tiles or infill can often be panelled over or hidden under layers of plaster or paint since first being installed decades earlier.

Despite the subsequent UK ban on using the most dangerous brown and blue asbestos types in July 1985, the building industry was still allowed to continue using up their stocks of white asbestos for at least another 10 years. White asbestos was finally banned in late 1999.

Following the hearing, a spokesman for HSE said that “Tradesmen should be aware that asbestos can be found in any industrial or residential building built or refurbished before the year 2000”.

Occupational contact with asbestos materials

The HSE regularly create awareness campaigns specifically aimed at informing construction workers, plumbers, electricians and heating engineers of the daily risks of exposure to asbestos. Many professional construction bodies also constantly provide access to numerous asbestos training courses, which are displayed online and widely available at all times.

One nationwide tradesmen survey previously found that more than half said they “never asked if the site they are working on has been checked for asbestos before they start the job” and one in ten said they have “felt under pressure to continue working even if they thought asbestos was present”.

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, according to the 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.

Greater emphasis to manage and monitor work

On 6th April 2015, The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015) came into force with the aim of improving health and safety standards. Updating the CDM 2007 regulations, a greater emphasis is placed upon the primary duty of any building or demolition contractor to manage and monitor the work under their control in a way that ensures the health and safety of anyone it might affect (including members of the public).

The key guidelines not only include the “planning and managing risk from start to finish” but also, the coordination and “effective communication” of all risks, works and information with “those who need to know”.