A third of building trade workers admit to “not being well informed about asbestos and three in ten mistakenly believe that most asbestos has now been removed from UK buildings”. The findings are from a British Lung Foundation Report carried out nearly a decade ago. Eight years later, and it may seem by the persistent number of cases regularly heard in court, there is still a worrying lack of asbestos awareness to the presence of the deadly materials.

In the original survey, commissioned by Action Mesothelioma in February 2008, “less than a third” of those trades people asked “knew exposure to asbestos can cause cancer and almost nine out of ten were unaware that exposure can be fatal”. Investigations into how some property renovations are carried out seem to indicate that there may still be confusion over the potential long term health risks of asbestosis disease or the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer from breathing in the deadly fibre dust.

Failure to carry out any asbestos survey

The most common forms of white asbestos that can still be found in both residential and commercial premises are wallboard and corrugated garage roofing, which can often be simply ripped out by hand, broken up on site and dumped in an unsealed skip.

Despite of campaigns to ensure the protection and safety of building workers and the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR), which clearly sets out the procedures for identifying and safely removing the hazardous materials, we continue to see a number of small, independent building/demolition firms brought to court. In most cases, there will be a failure to carry out any asbestos survey, and when asbestos is discovered, it is either not recognised or just ignored and removed alongside other material waste. Often, important information about the presence and exact location of asbestos around the site have not been passed on to other site contractors.

Tip of the iceberg

One recent example of a failure of communication by a commercial property group to let maintenance contractors know there was asbestos present during refurbishment work led to the disturbance of AIB (asbestos insulation board), once a commonly used building material. Consequently, the asbestos boards were stripped out of the building without any of the required safety procedures put into place to secure the area from airborne fibre dust.

Following an investigation by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), a Magistrates’ Court imposed a fine of £10,000,  a £1,000 victim surcharge plus costs on the property group. The maintenance contractors were ordered to pay a fine of £5,000 and to also pay a victim surcharge.

However, in some instances a failure to pass on key asbestos data before works proceed may only be the tip of the iceberg. One independent building contractor has been handed out a far more heavier penalty for serious safety breaches of the regulations following an extensive investigation at a community care premises by the HSE, which began 24 months earlier. The contractor had also persistently failed to respond to the HSE.

Guilty of four safety breaches

Among the many site failings and unsafe working practices, such as unsafe working at height, use of construction machinery and dismantling parts of a building to recover recyclables, the contractor had failed to carry out a risk assessment for exposure to asbestos-containing materials the HSE found amongst the site debris.

The court found the contractor guilty of four safety breaches including, one breach of The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and one breach of The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. A four-month, suspended custodial sentence was imposed and the contractor was also ordered to pay costs of £1,200. However, the care organisation was fined a much larger total of £30,000 for failings under the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations 2007 (CDM).

No property before 2000 should be considered free of asbestos

More than 15 years have passed since the UK banned the imports of white “chrysotile” asbestos, although the building industry had begun to reduce the use of asbestos as an insulation / fireproofing product from the late 1970s onwards. During the 1960s, around 173,000 tons of all asbestos types were annually imported, which had declined to around 130,000 tons by the late 1970s.

The most toxic brown and blue fibre minerals were banned completely in the mid 1980s while white asbestos was allowed to be continued to be used for at least another ten years because the fibres were thought to be low risk due to a reduced, long term resistance to the body’s immune system. Consequently, the construction industry warn that no property built or renovated before 2000 should be considered free of asbestos and a full survey should always be carried out before any large scale work begins, especially on commercial sites.

Access to numerous asbestos training courses are widely available at all times across the professional construction industry. In addition, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) regularly roll out awareness campaigns aimed at construction and demolition workers, and trade skills, such as plumbers and electricians who are all at daily risk of exposure to asbestos.

Under pressure to continue working

In the 2008 tradesmen survey, more than half of said they “never asked if the site they are working on has been checked for asbestos before they start the job” and more than a quarter “only ask rarely or sometimes”. More disturbingly, one in ten tradesmen said they have “felt under pressure to continue working even if they thought asbestos was present”.

Clearly, these are issues that still seem to be present as much as the deadly asbestos itself. Tragically, the HSE have estimated that an average of 20 tradesmen lose their lives every week to asbestos-related disease, and of the 90,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in Britain between 1970 and 2050, around 15,000 will have been employed in the building industry.