Asbestos containing materials (ACMs) continue to be found within public buildings and the failure to properly manage its removal seems to be a recurring problem too.

Worryingly, it is a hospital trust that once again has been found negligent by the courts of ignoring the recommendation to take action over quantities of asbestos fibres a survey uncovered nearly a decade earlier.

It may be argued that asbestos awareness to the potential health risks posed by its significant presence in schools throughout Britain has become better understood by parliament, local authorities, site owners and duty / maintenance managers.

Britain’s widespread use of asbestos as insulation and fireproofing in the construction of public, private and commercial buildings from the 1940s to the late 1970s / early 1980s means that the risks of contracting mesothelioma or asbestosis diseases, which are posed by its confirmed presence in any public or private building does need to be more firmly addressed.

Health danger to staff of breathing in the fibre dust

The deadly fibre particles were first discovered in a service lift and basement storage area belonging to The Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust by a survey in 2006. Following a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation 24 months ago, it was found that the Trust had failed to act on the recommendations of the initial survey for further assessment and to remove the potential lethal health risk.

It was noted and concern raised over the likely health dangers to staff of breathing in the fibre dust every time they needed to access patient records stored in the basement area. The Trust pleaded guilty to two breaches of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £696 in costs.

As with schools, colleges and nurseries, the presence of asbestos in a hospital or building belonging to a hospital trust is an issue that cannot be ignored. While many NHS trusts resolve to take action when a survey discovers ACMs, unfortunately, long or even permanent delays and a failure in communication can all play their part to prevent properly dealing with the presence of asbestos.

Failure of communication

In 2013, the City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust had carried out a survey, which led to the discovery of asbestos insulating board (AIB) surrounding a number of door frames. As a result of an apparent failure of communication between the Trust and building contractors, holes were drilled into the doors and surrounding wall board when cables were installed, releasing fibre dust into the patient wards.

Increasing pressure on NHS budgets may also affect asbestos removal. Following asbestos material being discovered at Birmingham’s old Queen Elizabeth Hospital during the height of the recession the University Hospitals Birmingham Foundation Trust announced that ongoing NHS cutbacks would prevent plans for asbestos removal and site renovations. Instead, it was decided that wards would be adapted and asbestos to be contained and managed while future plans were to be drawn up.

Routine safety check

When safe removal and disposal is a significant problem, an alternative solution is to encapsulate asbestos materials to prevent fibre dust particles from being released into the surrounding air. Authorisation has to be sought and a qualified decision made over the condition of the materials. An asbestos register, awareness training and management control procedures also need to be put into place.

When asbestos was found in service ducts during a routine safety check at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool in 2011, health authorities confirmed there was no risk posed to any of the staff, patients, wards or offices in the building. The asbestos that had been discovered had originally been safely encapsulated in the 1980s, a period when the first asbestos ban was introduced in the UK.