Courtrooms and local press reports may be used to the regular appearance of small building firms who seem to neglect regulations and guidance over how to handle and dispose of any asbestos containing materials (ACMs) they find while carrying out their work. It is therefore, shocking to learn that a construction company recently supplied second-hand asbestos-containing roofing panels to complete a barn conversion.

Tragically, the illegal use of the ACMs was only revealed when one of the construction workers stepped onto the fragile asbestos cement panels and fell through the roof to the concrete ground six metres below. The sub contracted steel erector, aged 56, later died of his injuries in hospital.

In the subsequent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation it was found that the building company had been paid a sum of £4,000 to install quality roofing material but instead supplied pre-used asbestos panels obtained without cost other than a transportation fee of just £250.

Attempted to hide the sheets

The court also heard evidence of attempts by the company owner to cover up the deception by hiding the asbestos sheets, falsely claiming that the deceased had fallen from the roof edge and not through the sheeting itself, and even tried to persuade relatives not to report the incident to the HSE.

The building firm was found to be in breach of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, and also to a contravention of The Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) Regulations 2008. The owner received a 12 month prison sentence, ordered to pay £10,000 costs and disqualified from being a director for six years.

Is this case a one-off or are more small building firms crossing the line between a simple lack of asbestos awareness to the potential health risks and the deliberate flouting of the law to gain profit?

Simply ignore the regulations

Recently, the Land Registry stated that 55 per cent of all industrial / commercial properties in the UK contain a chrysotile asbestos cement roof. Despite the construction industry regularly providing asbestos training for builders and tradesmen, it is regularly reported that firms cut corners and simply ignore the regulations for the safe removal of asbestos waste. In addition, many reports of illegal fly-tipping almost invariably involve broken up asbestos corrugated roofing sheets or wall board.

The fibre content of roof sheeting is around 10 to 15 per cent, and if in a poor condition, easily releases the fibre dust particles into the surrounding atmosphere when disturbed. The illegal use of asbestos, banned since the 1980s, in renovations and repairs is a serious enough offence. When combined with the most common of industry accidents caused by negligence – a “fall from height” – is, as the judge commented during the verdict, “wholly reprehensible.”