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Asbestos Management – the need to make competent decisions

05 May 2015

Stuart Goodman of risk management specialist Lucion, looks at the responsibilities associated with reducing the risks associated with asbestos

A recent HSE safety campaign highlighted the very serious risks to tradespeople posed by asbestos exposure. 

As part of the campaign, the HSE said that, on average, every week 20 tradespeople die from asbestos related diseases and, in the electrical sector, it estimated that electricians and electrical fitters could come into contact with asbestos more than 70 times a year.

Even though asbestos has been banned in building materials since late 1999, and a huge amount removed from buildings over the years, there are still many situations where the decision has been made to leave it in situ and manage its presence.

The decision to ‘manage’ is not necessarily a bad one as asbestos in good condition can be safe as long as its presence is known about and the material is maintained.

However, for electrical installers and other tradespeople, the asbestos question is where it could be found and how it can be dealt with safely. For some it will also include more fundamental questions of competency and the ability to make informed decisions over the handling and management of any asbestos they may come across.

Overall, the HSE estimates 1.3 million tradespeople are still potentially at risk of being exposed to the microscopic asbestos fibres that can prove fatal if breathed in.

The legacy of a ‘wonder’ material

The versatility, strength, heat and chemical resistance of asbestos led to it becoming known as the wonder mineral of the 1950s and 60s, with widespread use in building materials and products,

Although it has been illegal to use asbestos in the construction or refurbishment of any building since late 1999, crocidolite (blue), amosite (brown) and chrysotile (white) asbestos were used extensively in building materials of all types.

As a result, asbestos was commonly used to improve the performance of everything from sprayed coatings, laggings and insulation board, used in ceiling tiles and wall panels, to decorative textured coatings and vinyl floor tiles.

It follows that those at potentially the highest risk of current and future exposure to asbestos are those workers involved in the refurbishment, repair and maintenance of buildings.
Roles and responsibilities

To address this situation, the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2012 (CAWR) seeks to minimise the risk of harmful effects of exposure to asbestos. Regulation 4 of the CAWR (2012) includes an explicit duty for those in control of premises to identify and manage any asbestos present.

Under the regulations anyone who has an obligation in relation to the maintenance or repair of non-domestic premises - usually the occupier or the owner – has a duty to manage the risk of asbestos and prevent further unknowing exposure to asbestos by building and maintenance workers. 

Within an organisation this is the specific responsibility of the duty holder - a nominated person that is responsible for a non-domestic building or building portfolio. This person has a specific role to fulfil in order to either identify and manage the asbestos or remove it and make safe. 

In all cases it is to be assumed that asbestos is present within a building unless proved otherwise. The duty holder therefore has to establish its non-existence, rather than simply assume it is not in the premises.

Having identified any presence, the risk from any asbestos containing materials (ACMs) present must be quantified and a written plan developed on how any risk will be managed. The plan must be monitored and reviewed at regular intervals to ensure its effectiveness

In this way the duty holder is responsible for ensuring that any ACMs are not disturbed during normal occupation and maintenance and renovation activities.

Of course, as well as a duty holder with overall responsibility for a particular building, in the interest of maintaining personal safety in the workplace, any contractors and tradespeople involved in building works should have at least some basic understanding of ACMs.

To illustrate this point, a recent HSE survey revealed some dangerous misconceptions. For example, more than one in seven tradesmen (14%) believed that drinking a glass of water or milk could protect them from asbestos dust and 19% believed that opening a window could keep them safe.

A question of competency

Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 sets out the criteria that a duty holder needs to fulfil their role. Essentially this requires that the duty holder should have all the relevant information, instruction and training required to enable them to meet their responsibilities.

A duty manager therefore needs to be competent to take on the responsibilities they are tasked with. Competency can be demonstrated by acquiring the appropriate qualifications and the need is to provide proof that this has been achieved; if/when something does go wrong, the first questions are invariably about the capability and experience of the people responsible.

In short, a competent person is someone that has the relevant information instruction and training specific to their role. This competence can be shown in different ways but must be tailored and relevant to the responsibilities of that particular person and role.

At the basic level, it may be that those responsible for a building aren’t sure if there is any asbestos present, if they need a formal survey and if they do, what happens in a survey or what type of survey is required.

Clearly it would be difficult for anyone to correctly prioritise the materials found in an asbestos survey and then write an asbestos management plan if they weren’t sure of which asbestos materials were of a higher risk and what their options were. 

Anyone in such a role – and also those working in a building – should therefore have some basic knowledge of asbestos. They should be aware of what asbestos is and what materials it could have been used in. They should also know the potential health effects of ACMs, be aware of the precautions to be taken, and how to keep people safe in the event of an unexpected release of fibre.

To achieve this, gaining the relevant knowledge and training are fundamental requirements to keep people safe. 

To help in this respect a range of publications are available on the management of asbestos in buildings and the HSE also provides comprehensive information on its website, including a new app to help workers do their jobs safely.

However, there is no substitute for proper training that is specific to a particular role to ensure that the necessary knowledge, skills and experience are available in line with specific roles and responsibilities.

To meet this need there are a number of training courses available to assist anyone likely to be involved with asbestos or work in the vicinity of asbestos.

 These include basic asbestos awareness courses for anyone that may come into contact with ACMs in their day to day working activities, to more formal industry qualifications such as P405 and P407 courses designed to enable duty holders successfully manage buildings.

The wonder mineral of over 50 years ago continues to leave a lasting legacy that carries considerable health risks. To minimise this risk it is vital that all those with a responsibility for the management of asbestos, or who could potentially come into contact with it during building works, should have the right knowledge and training to deal with it safely. 

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