Failure to make a thorough risk assessment to determine the presence of asbestos in a building before proceeding with demolition seems to be a regular headline in local and, sometimes, national press headlines.

Deliberate or part negligence and simple oversight have long been associated with a lack of asbestos awareness to the fatal long term health risks, by company employers and their workers, stretching back to the mid twentieth century and before asbestos use was banned.

With around four million premises around the UK built or renovated before the mid 1980s, when the most toxic types of asbestos were finally banned, and can still harbour asbestos containing materials (ACMs), it is often building contractors, tradesmen and demolition workers who are most likely to come into direct contact with the deadly material and are most at risk.

White asbestos fibres can still be found which were used in building materials, such as wallboards, cement roof shingles and sprayed insulation and pipe laggings until importations were ceased in 1999. While considered a relatively ‘low level’ risk, worn, fragile and unstable fibres are easily inhaled once disturbed and released into the air.

Fibres trapped in the lung linings lead to asbestosis disease or the fatal incurable tumours of mesothelioma cancer. A long gestation period often means that asbestosis symptoms may only appear up to 50 years or more later when the disease may have spread to an advanced stage.

These days the penalties for either not undertaking a proper and sufficient survey or implementing a comprehensive asbestos management and disposal plan can be stiff, as a local authority recently found to its cost.

Recently, a building, which was to be demolished as part of an ongoing regeneration project in Stockton-On-Tees had actually been subject to an asbestos survey to identify asbestos-containing areas. Yet one month later, eight workmen belonging to a council managed group completely stripped and cleared the premises in preparation of the demolition, including all fixtures and fittings.

It was during the removal of the fixture and fittings that a contractor appointed to dispose of the asbestos discovered at the original survey, realised that the workers had already disturbed and subsequently removed asbestos contained in the fabric of the building from eight different locations. A second asbestos survey confirmed the findings and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) contacted.

As a result of the HSE investigation, it was found that the council had failed to carry out a risk assessment prior to the work clearance and ensure organisational competence. In addition, there was an absence of exposure prevention measures or provision of asbestos awareness training and safe disposal procedures. As result the Borough Council was fined a total of £20,000 plus £5,555 costs after entering guilty pleas to two breaches of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have just issued ‘Asbestos Essentials’, a basic guide which gives direct instructions on what actions needs to be precisely taken when asbestos is discovered during a survey and the types of removal work that should only be undertaken by trained individuals with the correct equipment.