Asbestos awareness and the potential risk to health are once again included on the action list of “unannounced” safety inspections of UK building sites by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The ninth annual round of inspections began on the 22nd September and will run for one month until 17th October.

As in previous years, HSE inspectors will arrive “unannounced” at selected sites where refurbishment projects or repair works are in progress. The teams will be checking on-site procedures to ensure high-risk activities, which can specifically affect staff health are being properly managed.

Included in the safety checks being carried out, the inspectors will be looking to ensure:

  • Workers are aware of where they may find asbestos and what to do if they find it.
  • Risks to health from exposure to dust, such as silica, are being controlled.

Smaller sites

According to the HSE, it tends to be the smaller sites where safety standards are often neglected and nearly three quarters of fatal accidents and serious injuries occur. Site visits conducted in September 2013 were increased by 5 per cent to include the inspection of more small sites.

By the halfway point, however, HSE said that nearly half of the 1,000 sites they visited contained material breaches leading to the issuing of Improvement Notices plus further sites were served with an Enforcement Notice. Of the 400 sites visited in February 2013, a quarter failed statutory checks. However, a number of companies simply ignore HSE requests to implement the required safety changes and are repeatedly served “Prohibition” notices.

The inspections are used by HSE reinforce its message to the construction industry that poor standards are unacceptable and liable to result in enforcement action. Unfortunately, as is so often reported, standards can often be neglected by firms through a lack of communication, error or wilful flouting of the regulations to complete the renovations as fast and as cost efficiently as possible.

Two recent cases demonstrate the continuing risks of asbestos exposure whenever a premises is being refurbished.

Deliberate disregard

In the first example, two men continued to renovate a building over a ten year period, deliberately disregarding HSE warnings and enforcement notices over the disturbance of asbestos materials with a potential risk to at least seven workers. According to the HSE, their investigation “uncovered a catalogue of serious errors, safety failings and a disregard of the laws around the safe and correct removal of asbestos.”

At the court hearing, it was heard that neither of the men was qualified or experienced in construction, demolition or refurbishment work nor licensed to remove asbestos. Waste materials contaminated with asbestos were repeatedly removed from the site and taken by lorry to an unlicensed waste disposal, and workers were also witnessed not wearing the correct protective clothing and leaving the site covered in dust.

Both men were handed out custodial sentences of up to 22 months and ordered to pay costs of £43,000.

Information not shared

In a second case, a failure to share information on the known presence of asbestos insulating board (AIB) at a warehouse renovation meant that the boards were removed, once again, without adequate control measures and protective equipment.

A detailed asbestos survey had been carried out prior to work proceeding, which clearly identified the location of the asbestos wall panels inside the building. Because the information was not passed on to the contractors themselves, an on-site foreman was unaware that the panels were made from AIB, and during the removal, inadequate control measures were in place.

The import of white “chrysotile” asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999 yet ACMs can still be found in materials used in the building or refurbishment of both private, public and commercial properties up until the ban was introduced.

Control of Asbestos Regulations have been in force since November 2006, with statutory training a key requirement for all those who are likely to come into occupational contact with ACMs.

According to the HSE, of the 1.8 million people who are annually exposed each year to asbestos, many are employed in the building, demolition and waste removal industries and at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are also diagnosed annually.