There could be around four million properties – both public commercial and private residential, still containing hidden asbestos material around Britain, according to the Health and Safety Executive. It is further claimed that more than 1.8 million people are exposed to asbestos every year – from primary school teachers and housing estate tenants to ordinary office workers and shop assistants.

However, it is the builder, plumber or electrician who today is most likely to face the risk of asbestos exposure and breathing in of the deadly fibre dust. Reported almost daily, a continuous stream of cases pass through the law courts, which reveal the deliberate disregard or lack of asbestos awareness to the very real health dangers that exposure, handling and inadequate disposal can inflict.

Shortfall in asbestos awareness and knowledge

Around one in six of building contractors say they have no “asbestos” qualifications and only one in eight claim to have a good working knowledge or are qualified in handling the deadly materials. This apparent shortfall in knowledge is all the more remarkable since Regulation 10 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 instructs that “asbestos awareness training must be undertaken by trades who are liable to disturb asbestos while carrying out their normal everyday work”, which also includes those in a position to manage/advise on how the work is undertaken.

The regulations list an extensive number of tradesmen and related occupations, to which the training should be directly applicable, including electricians, plumbers, plasterers, tilers, gas fitters, joiners, plasterers, painters and decorators, demolition workers, construction workers, roofers, heating and ventilation engineers, telecommunication engineers, fire alarm and home security installers, shop fitters, computer installers, architects, building surveyors, maintenance staff, ground workers, etc.

No pre-1990 property is guaranteed asbestos-free

While the most lethal forms (brown amosite and blue crocidolite) were banned in the mid 1980s, white chrysotile continued to be used in over 300 commonly-used construction materials, such as wallboard, insulation and surface coatings in both building and renovations until importation was banned in November 1999. Owners or occupants cannot be guaranteed that their properties do not harbour asbestos-containing materials and must presume its presence unless an asbestos management survey proves otherwise.

Once asbestos-containing materials are disturbed and released into the surrounding air, the inhaled fibres particles adhere permanently to the lung linings, leading to asbestosis disease or the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer.

All asbestos is considered a Class 1 carcinogenic and is, therefore, potentially dangerous despite previous “low risk” assessments of white chrysotile. The legal requirement is for a proper and authorised survey/risk assessment to be carried out before any works are begun. Asbestos survey reports are made to create asbestos registers, which help dutyholders to ‘manage’ contained asbestos – and provide information and training – aimed at protecting all building occupants from asbestos exposure.

Asbestos Survey Types

There are broadly three types of survey, in which the first two categories are now generally known as management surveys and the third type as a refurbishment/demolition survey.

Type 1 management survey – intended for dutyholders who are looking for a quick and inexpensive method to identify the possible location and condition of potentially harmful asbestos containing materials (ACMs) within the properties they manage.

Known as a ‘presumptive analysis’, no actual samples are taken for laboratory analysis and where a positive identification cannot be made, the presence of asbestos should, therefore, be presumed. This type of survey is best applied to buildings built or renovated after the 1990s where the presence of asbestos is highly unlikely.

Type 2 management survey – is an ‘intrusive survey’, the most commonly used and most applicable to properties constructed before the 1990s. Positive identification of the presence of asbestos within a building is carried out by the use of bulk sample analysis where samples of suspect materials are collected and sent for laboratory tests.

The third type of asbestos survey is undertaken before a property is due for major renovation or demolition and is more ‘intrusive’ than a type 2 management survey. All areas within the fabric of the building – including underfloor areas, roof and other cavity spaces will be investigated, with holes being extensively drilled.

Consequently, the surveyor must be supplied with a full ‘plan of works’ before the survey work commences.