Reports of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) discovered in public buildings, most notably, schools and nurseries are never far away from the headlines. Finding asbestos in hospitals also continues to pose potential risk decades after the deadly material was banned from use.

Often, premises duty holders and building contractors are found wanting in their asbestos awareness or an inability to carry out asbestos surveys. If the material is uncovered, almost invariably, there is a wilful disregard of the procedures as required by the Asbestos Regulations 2006, and asbestos is removed with no concern for the release of fibre dust particles.

In a most recent example affecting a public building, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust had carried out the necessary management survey, which led to the discovery of asbestos insulating board (AIB) surrounding the door frames.

However, according to the HSE, “despite several site meetings between the Trust and the contractors, no information on the location or condition of any asbestos was given to the contractors.” As a result of an apparent failure of communication, the building contractors were not prevented from drilling through a ward door and surrounding wall board to install cables.

Consequently, asbestos fibre dust was released into the air with a serious potential risk posed to hospital patients, visitors, nurses, doctors and other hospital staff. Once asbestos fibres are inhaled, they permanently embed in the lung linings and a long gestation period of up to 50 years can elapse before the first sign of the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma or other asbestosis symptoms appear.

City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, Sunderland was fined a total of £7,582, including costs after pleading guilty to breaching Regulation 4 (9)(c)(i) of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.

Between the 1930s through to the 1970s and 80s, the construction industry extensively used building materials manufactured with asbestos fibres in public buildings for acoustic / thermal insulation and the fire protection of structural steel work. In hospital and other healthcare facilities built or refurbished during this period, asbestos can be found in pipe insulation, building materials such as wall board, floor and ceiling tiles, HVAC duct, boiler and electrical wiring insulation.

White chrysotile asbestos was only prohibited from import in 1999 and it is generally considered to be not a health risk if left undisturbed and correctly encapsulated and with a full management plan in place. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 requires “measures to be specified in the plan for managing the risk to ensure that information about the location and condition of any asbestos or any such substance is provided to every person liable to disturb it.”

It has been suggested by some independent observers that asbestos management across the healthcare sector- especially in older buildings – may need a more consistent and decisive approach to the following key areas: identifying the presence of asbestos in a building, the quality of the management plan, maintaining an effective asbestos register and asbestos awareness training for the hospital workforce.