What lies beneath – working with Asbestos

Written 7th September 2023 by James Claughton

The dangers associated with exposure to asbestos cannot be overstated and it is for that reason that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has made it a primary focus in its series of “Work Right” campaigns. The “Work Right – Asbestos & You” campaign aims to help reduce asbestos related deaths and in this piece we explore the key areas that all responsible tradespeople ought to consider so that they and their employees are aware of the risks and how best to manage them

Background

Although asbestos was banned in 1999, it is still present in many homes, business premises and public buildings and are 5000 asbestos related deaths every year. The reality is that at any point, someone may be exposed to possibly lethal asbestos fibres. There is no level of exposure to asbestos which can be considered safe and unfortunately there is no cure for asbestosis once it has developed. Asbestos fibres are very difficult to detect or cannot be seen or felt. It can take decades for the symptoms of asbestos exposure to appear. Given that every tradesperson is likely to work on a building containing asbestos at some point in their career, it is absolutely crucial that the risks associated with working on such sites are properly considered and managed, with appropriate action taken not only before but during any work being undertaken. The Asbestos and You campaign targets tradespeople to inform them of the risks with a focus on younger tradespeople. HSE’s acting head of construction policy sector, Tim Beaumont, said the following: “Asbestos can be found in things like Artex, cement boards under eaves, garage roofs, old bath panels, boiler houses and fires and even mortar between bricks can contain asbestos. “There is no known safe level of asbestos exposure but that’s not to say it can’t be managed safely. “All tradespeople should make sure they know the basics about identifying asbestos. Before carrying out any construction work, there’s a legal requirement to identify whether asbestos is present and could be disturbed. “Younger tradespeople need to know the dangers behind asbestos as it could affect them in later life like it is affecting older tradespeople now.” The campaign  sets out some practical steps for every job including:

Before starting works

  • Undertake basic asbestos awareness training.
  • Check if a survey has been conducted and if an asbestos register is available.
  • Ascertain whether the building was built/refurbished prior to 2000.
  • Plan the job to avoid disturbing any asbestos, where possible.

During the works

  • Be mindful that asbestos could be present even if a survey has been conducted.
  • Watch for asbestos and be aware of where asbestos could be hidden.
  • If asbestos is suspected, assume it is present until confirmed otherwise.
  • Stop work immediately if you are not trained or prepared to work with asbestos.

Training

Tradespeople should only work with asbestos materials if they are adequately trained and have a risk assessment and plan in place for that particular material. If you and your business are planning to work with asbestos then be sure to make your insurer aware as insurance will not cover this work or those involved in it unless specifically included and all regulations fully complied with.

What should you do if asbestos is disturbed?

If asbestos is discovered or disturbed, stop work so that it can be dealt with as soon as possible and in an appropriate manner. A warning sign must be put up and nobody should enter the area. The asbestos should be reported to whoever is in charge and a sample should be sent for analysis (see here for detailed guidance). Only once it has been confirmed what the material is should work recommence and only then with appropriate safety measures put in place which may mean instructing a licensed contractor. Anyone who has or may have been exposed to asbestos must be made aware and again appropriate action taken which may include destroying contaminated clothing or decontaminating equipment. You should also ensure that any asbestos management plan is updated.

Non-licensed asbestos work

Lower risk materials can be worked on provided the following is in place:
  • Appropriate training;
  • A plan of work and risk assessment compliant with Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012;
  • Company insurance to do so.
If in doubt – assume works are licensed until it is established that the works are non-licensed.

Licensed asbestos work

Only a licensed asbestos contractor can work on high risk materials which include the following:
  • Asbestos loose fill insulation.
  • Asbestos sprayed coating, i.e. limpet.
  • Pre-formed insulation e.g. asbestos pipe lagging.
  • Asbestos insulating board (AIB) e.g. removing ceiling tiles or panels, where the job takes more than two hours from start to finish.
  • Large amounts of asbestos-containing debris or material e.g. clearing up after a fire, flood or water leak.

Enforcement

As noted, tradespeople are urged to take care and be aware of the risks of asbestos. The HSE will not hesitate to take action against those who continue to fall short and breach health and safety legislation. It is important that tradespeople take note of this guidance as well as the associated materials available on the HSE website and do their part in reducing exposure to asbestos. Besides the obvious human considerations and desire to keep employees and non –employees safe from the effects of asbestos, it is also worth remembering that awareness of and adherence to health and safety legislation is important for the success of any business. Compliance is far better than facing enforcement action which can very easily spell the end given the sanctions available to both the HSE and the courts in the event of a prosecution.

What should you do if the HSE get in touch?

If you or your business comes under investigation, it is important to seek legal advice and assistance as soon as possible. The team at Olliers will help you navigate the process and ensure that everything that can be done is done to secure the best possible outcome. Whether the HSE decides to prosecute or not, the team at Olliers have a wealth of experience in providing advice and assistance to employers, employees and companies facing investigation and prosecution, so get in touch with our experts.
James Claughton

James Claughton

Solicitor

Manchester

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