Asbestos was once again on a ‘Priority’ List of issues that Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors were looking out for as they carried out their latest round of “unannounced site inspections’, between 3rd October and 4th November, this year.

Begun in 2006/07, the now annual HSE ‘Safe Sites’ initiative is aimed at ensuring that duty-holders fully comply with their health and safety responsibilities during building and renovations.

In particular, duty-holders are tasked with understanding and fulfilling their duties to on-site staff, contractors, and members of the public whenever high-risk activities, which pose a danger to health, are involved. High on the list of priorities, once again, is exposure to silica dust and asbestos-containing materials, a known cause of mesothelioma and asbestosis disease.

Until 1999 around 2,000 metric tons was still being imported

More than thirty years has now passed since the use of brown and blue fibres was banned in the UK, and 17 years since the formal banning of so-called ‘low risk’ white asbestos. However, up until the end of 1999, there was still around 2,000 metric tons being imported for use as an insulation and fireproofing material. Also, builders were still using their retained stockholding of building products made with white asbestos.

The professional construction industry says that any buildings built or refurbished before the year 2000 could potentially contain asbestos. Hidden or barely managed asbestos materials could still be present in around half a million properties around the UK, including schools, retail stores, leisure centres, council estates and other local authority property.

Dealing with asbestos consistently ranks alongside working at height

The HSE estimate that, on average, one in 20 tradesmen – mostly carpenters, electricians and plumbers – are diagnosed every week with mesothelioma or asbestos-related illness caused by regular exposure to the deadly mineral fibres.

It’s not surprising that to this day, the issue of asbestos awareness remains a HSE priority. How site workers can recognise, manage and remove the hazardous insulation materials consistently ranks as a major industry concern, alongside working at height, trips and falls, and safe use of tools and equipment.

Over the last decade, the HSE have visited around 2,000 refurbishment sites each time the month-long ‘unannounced inspections’ take place. Despite improvements in standards, the inspectors still continue to find a number of small-size building firms who persist in cutting corners and ignoring safety regulations just to get the job done as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

Inspection figures showed little change

During the 2015 inspections, the HSE found nearly a half (46 per cent) of sites fell below the required standards. Inspectors issued 692 enforcement notices and 983 notifications of contravention for a material breach of health and/or safety. The figures showed little change from 2014, when once again around 50 per cent of sites were found to have “unacceptable conditions and dangerous practices.” Enforcement notices were issued to one in five sites described as being particularly “poor” and inspectors ordered work to be immediately stopped on over 200 occasions.

More than three in five of the notices issued related to management of asbestos, failure to control exposure to harmful dusts, noise and vibration. The HSE once again pointed to firms who simply disregard the dangers if they are “not immediately visible” and fail to provide basic safety measures, such as protective equipment and dust suppression.

Failure to recognise the seriousness of asbestos risk

The neglect of basic safety provision appeared to have hardly improved since the previous year’s HSE “unannounced” site inspections. In 2013, nearly half of the sites visited were also issued with Improvement Notices and Enforcement action was necessary on 644 sites. Inspectors served 539 prohibition notices ordering dangerous activities to stop immediately, and failed one in four sites during statutory checks.

The persistent level of small firms who disregard asbestos removal procedures, as set out in the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 /12, is reflected by regular appearances in court. Witnesses repeatedly recall seeing contractors who simply rip out interior wallboards, ceiling tiles or roofing sheets, break the materials down by hand and dump in a skip without any protection against the release of airborne, fibre dust particles.

Recent HSE research has found a failure among some firms to either recognise the seriousness of asbestos risk or neglect carrying out the required procedures. Many workers simply believed that the health risks are minimal or consigned to Britain’s industrial past.

Reinforcing the myth that white asbestos is a ’low risk’ substance

Announcements, which downplay the dangers of white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos whenever it is discovered at a school or council estate could have their part to play in reinforcing the myth that white asbestos is ’low risk’. In the UK, chrysotile has been confirmed as a Class 1 cancer-causing substance at the Government Office for Science. Furthermore, who can say for certain that over time, tiny dust particles have not been released into the atmosphere by hidden and therefore, unmanaged asbestos materials?

Today, more than 1.8 million people in the UK still come into occupational contact with asbestos, and building trade workers are still a high-risk category. The HSE originally carried out unannounced site inspections every 2 years but the continuing low-level standards amongst small firms led to a campaign of annual visits in a determined bid to reform attitudes and ensure better safety for many thousands of workers.

The HSE predict that 90,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in Britain between 1970 and 2050 will include around 15,000 employed in the building industry.