Today, there are unlikely to be many factory or other industrial workers who would not wear the necessary clothing and PPE (personal protection equipment) as a health and safety prevention measure, especially when working with potentially dangerous machinery, processes and substances.

During the height of UK asbestos use in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it was the widespread lack of asbestos awareness to the long term health risks that allowed many thousands of workers to not only directly handle the deadly material without any protection but also to return home at the end of a shift still wearing the same work-clothes and boots contaminated with the fibre dust particles. “Secondary exposure” among wives, daughters and other family members meant that they too, would eventually succumb to asbestosis disease or the fatal incurable mesothelioma cancer.

Has little hanged in thinking and behaviour?

Yet half a century later and we might be forgiven for thinking that very little has changed in thinking and behaviour in some industry sectors. Tragically, the key industry where today, those individuals are most likely to be in the front line of immediate asbestos exposure, is the very same one where time and time again, firm owners are found to be wanting in protecting their workers and others by appearing to constantly ignore or neglect the statutory asbestos regulations.

Hardly a week passes without cases being heard where builders and related trade contractors are found handling and disposing of asbestos material without any prior asbestos surveys being carried out, a failure to follow the procedures and lack of adequate protective clothing and equipment. Increasingly, direct instructions given by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) are also being ignored.

It seems all attempts by HSE, responsible trade organisations and industry trainers to instruct and enforce the message about asbestos exposure and it’s devastating effects upon health are simply disregarded because “no one realised” or “the message wasn’t passed on to the workers on-site”. In many cases, the necessity to “just get the job done as quickly as possible” overrides everything, including health and safety.

Latest case – apparent breakdown in following procedures…

In the latest reported case, there was an apparent breakdown found in the following of necessary procedures. Both the premises owner of a former Dairy in Totnes, Devon and a firm contracted to remove a boiler house containing industrial boilers and fixed pipe-work from two different sites were prosecuted for safety failings.

The removal work proceeded without any evidence of an investigation or formal survey into determining the presence of asbestos. The first asbestos ban was only introduced from the mid 1980s onwards, and it is known that white asbestos continued to be used as an insulation material in most building and renovations around the UK until at least the 1990s. According to an HSE investigation, the former dairy had carried out an asbestos survey some years previously, but failed to pass on the findings of the report.

Raising the ghostly spectre of secondary exposure…

In an eerie echo of Britain’s industrial past, HSE inspectors also discovered that the removal contractors had carried out the removal of the boilers and pipe-work while still wearing their normal work clothes, which had become contaminated with asbestos dust and fibres, unaware that they were at severe exposure risk. It’s also likely that they would have also worn the same contaminated clothes when they left the site at the end of the working day to return home, once again, raising the ghostly spectre of secondary exposure to family members.

Both the premises owners and the removal contractors were prosecuted at Plymouth Crown Court for breaches of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, the former being fined a total of more than £34,000 (inc. costs) and the latter. a total of nearly £22,000 (inc. costs).

According to HSE inspectors, “There were clear failings by both companies to identify and properly manage and control the asbestos containing material before work started, and to provide appropriate protection for workers when it did … regulations on dealing safely with asbestos have been in place for many years and are widely known in the industry…”

Under HSE Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, Regulation 5 states: “Every employer shall not undertake work in demolition, maintenance, or any other work which exposes or is liable to expose his employees to asbestos unless he has carried out a suitable and sufficient assessment as to whether asbestos is present and if there is any doubt he assumes that asbestos is present.”