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Asbestos Awareness : the First Step in Managing the Hidden Killer

28 April 2011

Building owners and facility managers have a ‘duty of care’ to manage any asbestos in their building, and to protect workers, occupants and members of the public from asbestos fibre release. (The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006)

Asbestos continues to top the list of causes of death in the workplace. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) there are around 4,000 deaths caused by asbestos related diseases each year in Britain. Plumbers, electricians, gas fitters, telecom and security system engineers along with other building trades are amongst the high risk group most likely to be affected by an asbestos related disease.

Asbestos Awareness training is an important first step in managing asbestos. Those in charge of buildings must ensure that anyone working on the property is made aware of asbestos containing material within the building and that work is carried out in a safe manner so that people are not exposed to asbestos. In addition, the management of asbestos requires that a current survey of a building is readily available to anyone doing work on a building, and that the information identifies the location and condition of the asbestos containing material, in a format that is easily understood.

Recent prosecutions brought against companies have highlighted poor asbestos management by those involved in managing facilities and the contractors that they employ. In one case, a supermarket was fined £30,000 plus £7,368 court costs for failing to manage the installation of a fire alarm system. Despite having a record of an asbestos survey and being aware of asbestos in the ceiling, this information was not passed on to the engineer responsible for installing the fire alarm, or even to its own staff. The installers were also fined £19,360 in total for not providing any asbestos awareness training to their engineer.

In another recent case, two workers (one aged only 17) installing CCTV equipment became contaminated with asbestos after inadvertently drilling into asbestos containing material. The facilities owner had conducted an asbestos survey but failed to communicate this to the contractor. Both the facilities owner and the contractor were prosecuted.

“There is a duty on both parties to communicate with each other to confirm the presence and condition of asbestos and to ensure adequate procedures are in place before work commences,” says Jay Williams, senior consultant of training and consultancy firm, Medway Safety. “It is also important,” Jay Williams adds, “that facility managers ensure that that they appoint only trained, competent contractors to work on their behalf.”

He cites a recent case where a local authority was prosecuted when a contractor working within its social housing unit exposed tenants to asbestos fibres. The workmen removed asbestos insulation boards and then proceeded to walk the asbestos fibres around the property for the remainder of the day! Both parties were prosecuted with fines and costs – a total of £22,000 for the Local Authority and £10,250 for the contractor. It is clear that the local authority as landlord failed to appoint a competent contractor to conduct work on their behalf; there was also a lack of procedures in place that could be followed in the event of asbestos fibre release, with the result that it constituted a serious and imminent danger to the workers and tenants.

In another case a property management firm was prosecuted and fined in excess of £30,000 for removing asbestos containing material. It was later discovered that there was no asbestos survey in place and, as the asbestos was in sprayed form, it should have been removed by a licensed asbestos contractor. The company had not given any training or instruction to their workers on the hazards of asbestos and left the workers and local business exposed to asbestos fibres.

“The regulations require that an asbestos survey is undertaken on all non-domestic premises that pre-date 2000,” says Jay Williams, “and, if asbestos is identified, that a risk assessment is conducted to identify the best way to manage the asbestos containing material.” If removal is being considered, then it must be undertaken by trained operatives. In the case above, where asbestos was in a sprayed form, removal must only be done by HSE licensed contractors.

All the prosecutions detailed above identify the failure of duty holders in being aware, or not properly understanding, their legal duty to manage asbestos containing material, whether a small business or a large, multi-national ’blue chip’ company.

“Many attendees on the UKATA approved ‘Asbestos Awareness’ course we run,” comments Jay Williams, “lament the lack of detail in the asbestos registers of many companies. Often only vague details are recorded about the asbestos containing material located in the premises where they are asked to undertake repair and refurbishment work. In addition,” he continued, “there is the requirement for a survey and management plan.

“‘It is important to remember that ‘managing asbestos’ is about protecting yourself and other people from exposure to asbestos fibres,” he went on. ‘”You are not required to remove asbestos if it is in good condition. You are though, expected to manage asbestos by keeping up-to-date information of any asbestos in the building, so it can be easily identified, and also to record its condition, not forgetting to share the information with those affected.”

Recognising the need for management level training, Medway Safety developed a one day ‘Managing Asbestos’ course that is UKATA approved. This one day management course extends the popular awareness course to provide an overview of practical advice using current HSE guidance and ACOP’s1 enabling the duty holder to minimise risk to employees and occupants from any asbestos in a building.

“We take care to design our courses to be practical and relevant to business,” concludes Jay Williams. “Health & Safety is not meant to be a bureaucratic burden, but a means to manage a business better in order to prevent losses to an organisation and its people.”

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