Dubious though it may be, claiming a lack of asbestos awareness to the health risks of exposure by individual tradesmen may be one thing but wilful disregard of advice given by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors is certainly another.

Increasingly, cases are coming to court where it’s heard that despite repeated warnings and notices to halt work, building firms appear to be deliberately ignoring health and safety advice when asbestos is suspected of being present. In some cases, employees are simply issued with basic disposable overalls and face masks and no other statutory controls put into place.

Flouting of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 by building firms and premises duty holders may not be new but is the practice becoming more prevalent in today’s economic climate as squeezed budgets threaten to put site workers and members of the public at risk?

Two recent cases…

Two recent cases may well be typical examples of a worrying trend. In the first example, the owner of a cladding installation business instructed one of his casual workers to remove and replace soffit boards during refurbishment work. Despite being informed that soffit board was one of the most widely used of building materials to contain white chrysotile asbestos fibres, the firm owner disregarded the advice.

Following a complaint made to HSE, inspectors arrived and immediately halted further work. It was also revealed that the firm owner was aware of the potential risk of asbestos being present in soffit board but still failed to conduct a survey test nor provide information and training to his workforce.

A second case involves a property developer who also possessed prior knowledge of the potential health dangers of exposure to asbestos but still allowed work to continue with inadequate protection. Once again HSE were called to site at a former school where advice was given for asbestos surveys to be carried out and to arrange for the licensed removal of the material. However, a follow up visit revealed that asbestos waste had not been properly disposed of as set out in the Regulations and workers had been issued with only the most basic of protection in the form of disposable paper overalls and masks.

Presume asbestos to be present…

Building contractors, related tradesmen, and property owners and occupants cannot be guaranteed that their buildings do not contain asbestos materials and must presume its presence unless an asbestos management survey proves otherwise. While asbestos was first were banned in the mid 1980s, white chrysotile continued to be used in over 300 commonly-used construction materials, such as wallboard, soffits, insulation, roofing, cement and surface coatings in both construction and renovations.

All asbestos is considered a Class 1 carcinogenic and is, therefore, potentially dangerous despite previous “low risk” assessments of white chrysotile. Once asbestos-containing materials are disturbed and released into the surrounding air, the inhaled fibres particles remain permanently within the lung linings, leading to asbestosis disease or the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer.

Exposure limits…

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.

The Asbestos Regulations 2006 impose a single Control Limit for all types of asbestos at 0.1 fibres per cm3 and a short term exposure limit, which should not exceed 0.6 fibres per cm3 of air averaged over any continuous 10 minute period using respiratory protective equipment.

In addition, the Health And Safety Executive (HSE) stipulate that airborne exposure or Control Limit, defined as a maximum concentration of asbestos fibres in the air must be below a continuous 4 hour period.