No one should need reminding that there is still a potential risk of exposure to asbestos in many buildings around Britain today. Not least, those in the building and construction industry who should have sufficient asbestos awareness to ensure they always follow the regulations for its safe removal. Unfortunately, rarely a month passes without reports of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) being called in to investigate builders ignoring the safety procedures and exposing themselves and others to the potential long term health risks of asbestosis.

One of the most recent examples involves the improper removal of asbestos insulating board (AIB) ceiling panels from a store room at a construction site in the Derby city centre. Building contractors were found to have removed asbestos insulating board (AIB) ceiling panels, which should have been carried out by a licensed asbestos removal contractor under fully controlled conditions.

Asbestos must be expected in any building constructed up until 2000

The professional construction industry warns that there are probably at least half a million or more of public, commercial and residential properties, including schools (an estimated 80 per cent), hospitals, town halls and council estates, which still contain hidden asbestos. The industry also warns that asbestos materials must be expected to be found in any building constructed or renovated up until 2000, following the ban on white asbestos in November 1999.

Up until that time, white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos continued to be used in over 300 commonly-used construction materials, such as wallboard, ceiling and floor tiles, soffits, pipe insulation, roofing, cement and surface coatings in both construction and renovations. It therefore, cannot be guaranteed that building contractors will be working in premises that do not contain asbestos materials, and must presume its presence unless an asbestos management survey proves otherwise. All asbestos is considered a Class 1 cancer-causing agent and potentially dangerous despite previous “low risk” assessments of this fibre type.

The legal requirement is for a proper and authorised survey/risk assessment to be carried out before any asbestos removal works proceed. Asbestos survey reports are used to create asbestos registers, which help duty-holders to ‘manage’ contained asbestos – and provide information and training – aimed at protecting all building occupants from asbestos exposure.

In addition, Regulation 8 (1) of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 states: “An employer must hold a licence before undertaking any licensable work with asbestos”, which includes work on AIB, millboard, removal of sprayed coatings and pipe lagging, loose fill insulation, and the clean-up of loose debris containing asbestos fibre dust.

Unlicensed asbestos removal work was allowed to go ahead

An HSE investigation into the incident at the Derby site found that an asbestos survey had been completed prior to construction work starting, which clearly showed that the lower ground floor store room contained a ceiling made from AIB. However, the unlicensed asbestos removal work was allowed to go ahead. During the removal the ceiling was accidentally damaged, and two young labourers were then instructed by the site manager to remove around 4-6 square metres of the damaged asbestos tiles.

The HSE also found that the required asbestos control measures had not be put in place and the contractors involved were not trained in asbestos removal. It was only after the intervention of the HSE was a licensed asbestos removal contractor brought in to properly clean the area, including asbestos floor tiles at various areas around the site at risk of damage from construction work. At the subsequent court hearing, all those directly involved in the failure to carry out the required procedures were found to be breach of the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and a total fine of £21,399 was imposed, including costs.

Over the years, more legislation has been introduced designed to provide better protection for building and demolition contractors who are most likely to be frequently or regularly exposed to asbestos. From 2004, every non-domestic building is required by law to undergo a regular Management Survey for asbestos. If any part of a non-domestic property is to be refurbished or demolished, then a Refurbishment / Demolition survey is compulsory. Following the survey, it is necessary for all of the asbestos discovered to be removed before refurbishment or demolitions start, regardless of any perceived assessment of relative risk.

15 per cent of mesothelioma victims employed in the building industry

In 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”.

It is sometimes suggested that the widespread dangers of asbestos are often exaggerated. However, more than half of all 8,000 occupational cancer deaths each year is related to asbestos exposure in England and Wales. Many victims are employed in the building industry and related skill trades, such as electricians and carpenters. 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.