The dangers from asbestos exposure suspected in a public building may be lethal in more ways than one. Employees may even be dismissed from their job if they raise concerns over the potential health risk of asbestos containing materials, which may be present in a building where they work.

The actions of employers or the organisation responsible may be all the more worrying if it takes place in a vital public service facility, such as a school or hospital. In some cases, it may be only after an investigation takes place that a failure or neglect to properly assess, remove or manage asbestos is finally admitted.

Naturally, an asbestos awareness to the potential health risks of mesothelioma or asbestosis diseases by an employer, such as a NHS Trust is always likely to cause a greater fear if one of their hospitals becomes linked with the hazardous material. Especially if irregularities show up, which may indicate a less than thorough attention has been paid to dealing with its suspected or actual presence.

Admitting a number of failings in addressing the concerns of an employee

Recently, a hospital trust has been highlighted in the press for admitting a number of failings in addressing the concerns of an employee over suspected asbestos exposure. In one incident, the employee informed the management that he believed the damaged material enclosing several pipes was asbestos. When he raised his concerns again a month later and questioned why nothing had been done, he was dismissed from his job.

During the peak period of asbestos use (1940s/50s – 1970s/80s), a mixture of asbestos fibres and cement was commonly used as “lagging” to insulate hot water pipes in public buildings, such as hospitals.

At the subsequent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation, the tribunal stated the employee had been unfairly sacked due to making a “public interest” disclosure. The HSE has also been looking into allegations that building contractors were allowed to enter a hospital area after the “possible disturbance of asbestos containing materials.” It is claimed that a “potential exposure to asbestos” was also not properly reported.

A spokesman for the hospital trust said its investigation found that policies to deal with asbestos were in place but were “not always being followed.” As a result of the findings, their policies are said to have been revised to ensure a “more robust “ approach to asbestos management will make “ individual responsibilities much clearer.”

Fear of publicity can all play their part

The problems of hospitals with quantities of asbestos insulation, which is not being properly managed continue to surface some thirty years after the first UK ban. While many NHS trusts do endeavour to take action when asbestos is found, it appears that long or even permanent delays, a failure in communication or possibly a fear of publicity can all play their part to prevent proper action being taken.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 /12 sets out clear guidelines on the correct procedures to prevent the risk of potential exposure. It has also been previously suggested that asbestos management across the healthcare sector- especially in older buildings – may need a more consistent and decisive approach in the following key areas:

• Identifying the presence of asbestos in a building
• Quality of the management plan
• Maintaining an effective asbestos register
• Asbestos awareness training for all hospital staff

It was recently reported that three hospital trusts had identified the presence of asbestos materials at their sites but continued to carry out maintenance work for more than a decade. All had failed to put in to place a management or monitoring plan to control the risk of potential fibre dust release. It was also found that NHS Trust maintenance staff could have disturbed asbestos fibres without knowing they were at risk of exposure or possessing the equipment for safe protection.