Builders taking a “cavalier” attitude to asbestos. It’s always seriously disappointing to see cases where employers have shown an almost total lack of asbestos awareness to health and safety, and the risks posed to their workforce. Invariably, many of the firms seem to deliberately ignore regulations and appear to be more interested in cutting corners to save time and money.

Sadly, cases like these undermine the work of the professional building industry and the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) who constantly strive to bring the necessary training, information and guidelines to all those likely to be at daily risk of exposure to asbestos containing materials (ACMs). One in 20 tradesmen – mostly carpenters, electricians and plumbers – are on average, diagnosed every week with debilitating asbestosis disease or fatal mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

Company repeatedly ignored all advice and official warnings

However, the idea still seems to persist that asbestos can – if really necessary – be removed simply by hand and without any protection, just to get the job done as fast and cheaply as possible. One recent case highlights a company who repeatedly ignored all advice and official warnings to adhere to the  safety measures. Incredibly, the firm who ended up in the dock was in the business of asbestos waste removal itself.

More astonishingly, the company was not even licensed to remove asbestos yet for years had annually earned nearly a million pounds by offering to remove the deadly material at “half the cost” of other firms. Despite not possessing a license, it was found that the firm had agreed to carry out dangerous tasks such as, removing asbestos pipe lagging from a hotel, carrying out an incomplete asbestos survey of a care home and even asbestos removal work at a former police station.

HSE first sent a warning letter followed by an interview

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.

In response to concerns raised by several of the asbestos removal firm’s customers, the HSE first sent the owner a warning letter followed three months later by an interview to discuss the identified “failings”. These included, working while unlicensed, inadequate risk assessments and training, and unsafe removal methods. Unfortunately, the firm continued its work while still unlicensed and a month later, were issued by the HSE with a prohibition notice to prevent any further work with asbestos from being carried out.

Received no training in handling asbestos

HSE has stated that more than 30 years after asbestos was first banned in the UK, more than 1.8 million people are still annually exposed to the insulation fibres, many of whom are employed in the building, demolition and waste removal industries. One builder’s survey carried out ten years into the 21st century found that one in four of tradesmen were unaware of when they come into direct contact with asbestos and only one in eight claimed to have a good working knowledge or qualifications with the deadly material.

In the present case, one of the firm’s employees said in a statement that he had received no training in handling asbestos and had been instructed to simply “pull the lagging off by hand” when working at the hotel site. He described “using hammers” to remove asbestos panels, while the ceiling was “pulled down with crowbars” despite official advice to keep asbestos intact to minimise airborne fibre dust.

Contractors simply wore their own normal work clothes

Despite apparently clearing up after the work, the hotel manager later found asbestos dust, which was then cleared by the employee using only “wet wipes”. The employee also highlighted that the firm’s contractors simply wore their own normal work clothes with no personal protection equipment. Apparently, a prior management survey indicated that the asbestos present was the so-called “low-risk” chrysotile type. In addition, there was no “decontamination” station provided, which meant employees just returned home wearing their asbestos contaminated clothes.

The employee’s statement reads like many of the accounts heard in court from elderly claimants who worked in asbestos industries throughout much of the middle decades of the 20th century. The firm’s owner pleaded guilty to six charges of negligence, fined £100,000 and sentenced to a six month prison sentence suspended for two years.

Three quarters of a million involved in non-licensed work

The HSE estimate that there are still some millions of properties around the UK, which are likely to contain hidden asbestos materials. Any attempt to remove can result in fibres becoming airborne and inhaled by anyone in close proximity, from home owner or tenant, company employee to public visitors, as well as building and demolition workers.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, is aimed at around three quarters of a million workers in companies involved with non-licensable asbestos work. If the work is exempt from the need for a licence, it must be then determined if it is notifiable non-licensed work or just non-licensed work. The HSE advise that the key factors to consider are based on the type of work planned, whether maintenance, removal, encapsulation, or air monitoring and the collection and analysis of asbestos samples.