Residents of tower blocks across the UK have been dealt a series of devastating blows in 2017. Firstly, the horrific events surrounding the discovery of non fireproof cladding and insulation at Grenfell Tower, which was followed by hundreds of high rise buildings failing fire safety tests involving cladding, insulation, sprinkler systems and emergency stairwells.

Even as the occupants of tower blocks everywhere were trying to come to terms with the likelihood that their lives were, and still, could be in danger from one type of insulation, there were reports of another equally lethal material – asbestos – found in three separate tower blocks in a South coast housing estate.

The latest shock news concerns another tower block, this time in Motherwell, in Scotland where once again, asbestos was discovered by building contractors, and which led to a court hearing.

Thousands of innocent people are likely to be affected when asbestos awareness of the hidden health risks arrives unexpectedly. Not just occupants of tower blocks, but also many housing estates, which still exist containing the deadly legacy of 20th century building decisions.

Tower blocks, local authority housing and council estates can all contain asbestos

In the post WW2 period of reconstruction, there was a tower block “building boom”. Following the first residential tower block, which was built in Harlow, Essex in 1951, there was a dramatic increase in tower block construction, and 55,000 were built between the 1950s and the late 1970s as local authorities tried to reduce the ongoing housing shortage.

Asbestos was a readily available source of low-cost insulation and fireproofing, with around 170,000 tons of asbestos imported every year. Tower blocks, high rise buildings, local authority housing and council estates can all contain asbestos by up to 10 per cent and at least 5 per cent could also be present in fire protection materials.

In the case presented in Scotland, the court heard that asbestos was discovered at the tower block when four contractors drilled through door transom panels to fit electric cables into more than 40 flats in the property.

No measures put in place to control exposure to airborne dust

While an asbestos survey had been carried out ahead of the works, it did not include a survey of the transom panels above each flat entrance door. Consequently, no measures had been put in place to control exposure to airborne dust as the contractors were not aware that the panels contained asbestos fibres.

It was only when a tower block resident became suspicious and raised a concern that the work was halted and samples removed for laboratory testing, which confirmed as positive. Residents were immediately asked to leave while asbestos decontamination was carried out at the tower block.

Following an investigation, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the contracting firm had “failed to provide and maintain a safe system of work” to identify the presence of asbestos in the transom panels. They had also failed to “carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of risk to their employees” from asbestos when carrying out cable routing work. The court fined the company £6,000 after pleading guilty to the safety breaches.

Any premises up until 2000 should always be suspected of containing asbestos

Nearly two decades have passed since the UK banned the imports of white “chrysotile” asbestos in 1999, although the building industry had begun to reduce the use of asbestos as an insulation / fireproofing product from the late 1970s onwards. It wasn’t until 1985 that the first UK ban on the most lethal brown and blue asbestos fibre types came into force.

Despite of campaigns to ensure the protection and safety of building workers and the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR), which clearly sets out the procedures for identifying and safely removing the hazardous materials, we continue to see a number of small, independent building/demolition firms brought to court. In most cases, there will be a failure to carry out any asbestos survey, and when asbestos is discovered, it is either not recognised or just ignored and removed alongside other material waste.

Currently, there are over 270 high-rise buildings and tower blocks around the country. Nearly three quarters are in London and are occupied by around 1 in 12 of those resident in the capital. The construction industry repeatedly caution that any premises built or refurbished up until 2000 should always be suspected of containing up to 30 per cent of asbestos containing materials (ACMs).