Asbestos materials can still be uncovered in all types of properties and hidden spaces. The deadly fibres are most often reported to be found in boiler rooms, lining pipes, garage roofs, under the floorboards or in the loft. In a recent case, a residential lift shaft was discovered to contain asbestos boards at a sheltered housing scheme for elderly residents. Unfortunately, the required procedures for dealing with asbestos failed to be carried out.

Asbestos is a continuing threat to public health. Yet the building and construction industry and their duty holder clients are regularly reported for not carrying out their safety duties rigorously enough to ensure asbestos is identified, managed or disposed of without the risk of exposure to themselves and members of the public.

Inadequate information or poor communication

It is of particular concern to hear of either young children or the elderly becoming potential victims of a lack of asbestos awareness, inadequate information or poor communication between local authorities, premises owners and contractors when building refurbishments are carried out.

The courts regularly hear cases where asbestos is found in public buildings, such as schools, nurseries and hospitals as well as council housing estates, which were all built or renovated before the first ban on brown and blue asbestos use was introduced from the mid 1980s onwards. However, white asbestos fibres continued to be used as insulation in both private and public building projects before a final ban was enforced at the end of the 1990s.

In the present case the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the housing scheme trust to have failed in their duty because of the “conflicting information” they supplied to the lift contractors. While an asbestos survey had been previously carried out it was judged to “not be sufficiently accurate or detailed enough” to allow works to safely proceed.

Failed to make adequate inquiries about the presence of asbestos

According to the HSE the lift contractors also failed to make adequate inquiries about the presence of asbestos. Although they did receive the asbestos survey the company appeared to simply rely on “verbal information” supplied by the housing trust and no further reference was made to the survey and its contents before work began.

It was also revealed that there was inadequate lighting for the lift shaft itself, considered “another factor” which may have contributed to the failure in identifying the presence of asbestos. Consequently, the asbestos boards were removed by being simply ripped out from the top of the lift shaft with no safety measures put in place to prevent the fibre dust particles from spreading throughout the rest of the building and exposing the elderly residents and other trust staff to a potential asbestosis health risk.

The court found all parties involved of failing to carry out the required safety procedures for dealing with asbestos from the outset.

“Entirely preventable incident…”

The housing trust pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 9(1)(a) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 and was fined £10,000 with £346.40 in costs. One of the two lift contracting firms involved pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 13(2) of the same legislation and fined £8,000 with £827.30 costs while the second firm pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 16 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and fined £4,000 with £346.40 costs.

According to the HSE, the incident “was entirely preventable, had the companies carried out their respective safety duties,” and the prosecution serves as “a reminder that whenever work is carried out, which is liable to expose employees to asbestos a suitable survey must be done to establish whether asbestos is present before any work begins.”