Apart from illegal flytipping, it may be mistakenly supposed that the potential risk of exposure to asbestos today is more or less confined to local authority premises, such as schools, nurseries, housing estates and town halls.
Industrial use of the deadly fibre insulation led to more than 14,000 male deaths from mesothelioma between 1968 and 2013, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Our asbestos awareness may be nudged when there is a local community protest at plans to develop disused land where asbestos waste is believed to have been landscaped over many years earlier. It is still regularly reported that asbestos materials were uncovered before building works begin or more disturbingly, during renovations.
The true extent of Britain’s widespread use of asbestos throughout the 20th century often means that the low-cost insulation, fireproofing and material strengthener can still be found today in every type of public or commercial building, from sports centres, cinemas and libraries to retail stores, offices and factory units.
Asbestos surveys frequently uncover asbestos in the workplace today
At the height of asbestos use during the 1960s, between 150,000 and 170,000 tons of all three main asbestos types – blue, brown and white – were imported every year, and nearly 40,000 tons in the mid 1980s when the most dangerous brown and blue asbestos were banned from use. After this time, around 11,000 tons of white asbestos was still being imported until the mineral fibre was also banned in late 1999. Even in the latter years of the 1990s, between 2,000 and 8,000 tons continued to arrive. The HSE repeatedly warn that no building constructed up to 2000 is likely to be free from containing asbestos materials.
We should not be too surprised to hear that asbestos surveys continue to regularly and frequently uncover asbestos in the workplace today. In other words, men and women are at still at risk of occupational exposure in British factories in the 21st century.
Recently, two companies in South East England were fined after continuing to expose their workers to the deadly blue asbestos after two separate surveys at the same industrial unit, despite being warned that they should act to control the risk after the materials were discovered.
Risk of exposure continued while company debated who was ultimately responsible
Asbestos was first found in a poor condition when the first company took occupancy of the unit at an Essex trading estate in 2007. Unfortunately, the employers failed to remove the materials and allowed their staff to be exposed to the airborne dust. Two years later, the firm vacated the unit, which they subsequently sublet to an associate company while also continuing to be responsible for maintenance and repair work at the premises.
The discovery of blue asbestos occurred in 2014, during a second survey under a new health and safety officer. Once again, the risk of exposure continued as no action was taken to remove the asbestos while the company debated who was ultimately responsible for its removal.
During an HSE investigation, asbestos fibres were discovered at several locations in the premises, including, the clocking-in area, roof rafters above working areas, and inside a stationery cupboard.
Both companies pleaded guilty at court for breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and together, fined a total of £231,300 inc. court costs. After the court hearing, the HSE said that both companies had a duty to manage asbestos within non-domestic premises, and should have acted without delay to effectively control the potentially fatal health risk top their workforce.
“Duty to Manage” non-domestic premises
It has been estimated that there’s probably half a million metric tonnes of asbestos still hidden within the fabric of many public, commercial or residential premises. Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 /12, a full authorised survey must be carried out with either proper containment, management or removal plans put in place.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) state that a “duty to manage” is directed at those who are responsible for non-domestic premises and for protecting others who work within the premises, or use them in other ways from the risks to ill health that exposure to asbestos causes. Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 requires the person who is the duty holder to, “Take reasonable steps to find out if there are materials containing asbestos in non-domestic premises, and if discovered, the locations, the quantity and its condition.”
According to recent figures published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 4,500 people – or 56 per cent of the 8,000 deaths caused by occupational cancer in England and Wales each year – are believed to be related to asbestos exposure.