Finding asbestos materials in a public building is still a regular occurrence in the UK – more than thirty years after the deadly insulation was first banned. Despite of asbestos awareness and training, building firms continue to be caught out by neglecting to check for the material. Even when it is uncovered, firms can fail to take adequate precautions for its safe removal. In the latest example, both building workers and residents at three block of flats were at risk of exposure to asbestos dust from soffit replacement work being carried out.

A soffit is most often found as a constructed enclosure connecting an exterior wall to the edge of the roof under the eaves. It’s purpose is to protect the rafters from the weather and allow ventilated air to circulate. Regular reports of the contents from the latest flytipping incident make it highly likely that people would be more aware of asbestos materials contained in corrugated garage roofs or internal wallboards. However, asbestos soffits were widely installed in housing estates and other residential properties, as well as commercial and industrial premises during the peak period of asbestos use in construction, during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Company failed to carry out the required asbestos survey

In a matter last year involving the replacement of soffits at a south London housing estate, the property management company failed to carry out the required asbestos survey. The building firm hired for the roof work did have the materials analysed and became aware that the soffits contained asbestos. Despite of knowing about the presence of asbestos, the firm proceeded with the removal of the soffits without ensuring adequate precautions were taken to protect their workers and the estate residents from potential exposure to the fibre dust.

How to account for the continuing problems that the small building industry appears to have with asbestos? In a recent national survey of 500 construction workers, commissioned by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), around one in six said they had “never been informed of the mesothelioma risk from asbestos exposure” as well as “not being given any training in how to manage the risk.” Nearly 1 in three also admitted they never checked the asbestos register before starting work at a new site.

Following an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) both the property management company and the building firm were fined a total of £35,108 for offences under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. The HSE pointed out that the incident could have been avoided if the companies had taken “appropriate action to identify the type of asbestos” and “engage an appropriately qualified contractor to carry out the work safely.”

Around thirty per cent of asbestos could be present

The immediate and widescale health dangers to workers handling asbestos (and to members of the public) cannot be under-estimated. There are 23.8 million domestic properties in England, of which, around 1 in 6 (3.9 million) were built before 1900, according to the Valuation Office Agency, June 2016.

Large-scale building of council housing across the UK began in the 1920s. From 1945 onwards, when 100,000 tons of asbestos on average was imported annually, around 300,000 new properties were built every year. As low cost insulation and fireproofing, asbestos fibres were used in producing hundreds of building materials installed in walls, ceilings, floors, and to line hot water and heating systems in millions of private and council residential properties.

It’s estimated that in older domestic property, around thirty per cent of asbestos could be present in the form of textured and sprayed ceiling coatings and wall cladding. A further ten to fifteen per cent may be found in the form of cement panel ceilings, lagging around boiler flue pipes and ducts, cold water storage tanks, cement roofing panels and roofing felt, roof eaves, soffits, gutters, and rainwater pipes.

No building constructed up until end of 1999 should be considered asbestos free

During the 1960s, imports of asbestos had increased to around 160,000 tons per year as the proportion of council owned housing rose to 50 per cent. Between 1965 and 1970, at the height of UK asbestos imports of 170,000 tons annually, 1.3 million new homes were built. Since the Housing Act 1980, when the Right to Buy scheme was introduced, ex-council houses bought on the scheme may have changed ownership many times on the private market and many have been renovated in the intervening years.

Following the mid-80s ban on the most dangerous brown and blue asbestos fibre types, many buildings had their asbestos removed. Where asbestos was found to be undamaged and stable, the materials were left in place to be “managed” using an accompanying register to identify its exact location in the building – most notably, in schools. The professional building industry warn that there are still around half a million properties containing asbestos, and no building constructed up until the end of 1999 – when imports of white asbestos were finally banned – should be considered asbestos free.