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MANAGING ASBESTOS: A 21st CENTURY APPROACH TO A HAZARDOUS LEGACY

There are still over 4,000 asbestos related deaths each year.

You would expect early industry related health concerns identified over 110 years ago to appear in archived medical journals rather than relating to headlines in our modern day press, particularly when such issues have the potential to affect our workers and the general public. Yet, the 1898 annual report of the Chief Inspector of Factories which documented that asbestos has “easily demonstrated” health risks*  refers to the health implications of a dangerous material that still causes over 4000 deaths a year, most recently the reported case of the death of a cleaner who died due to the lung disease Mesothelioma after suspected exposure to asbestos at Grimsby College.

In spite of strict legislation, many employers are unsure how to apply the regulations.

Such incidents have led to strict regulations across the UK relating to the legal responsibilities of the relevant duty holders to foresee and manage all potential risks associated with exposure to asbestos. However, despite such laws and the increasing press coverage and campaigns to raise awareness about this dangerous carcinogen, many employers are unsure how to apply the regulations to their daily operations and ensure that they are taking all the necessary steps to minimise the risk of exposure. As is noted in the heavily publicised case of Marks and Spencer and the fore mentioned Grimsby College, failing to effectively manage the presence of asbestos can have hugely detrimental consequences.  Whilst it is impossible to universally mitigate all risks in the workplace, forewarned is forearmed and by equipping the relevant duty holders with the necessary information to practically manage potential asbestos containing materials, it will increase the chances of reducing any foreseeable hazards.

Half a million commercial, industrial and public building in the UK may still contain asbestos.

It is estimated that 500,000 commercial, industrial and public buildings in the UK are likely to contain asbestos. It was used extensively as a building material in the UK from the 1950s to 1999 for a variety of purposes on account of its unique properties. With regards to schools and colleges, institutions, it is speculated that around 75% of Britain’s schools contain asbestos. With asbestos being so prevalent across our country and the hundreds of published incidents describing situations where duty holders have failed those that they are legally bound to protect, the question arises as to why suitable action is not being taken.

How great is the risk?

For some the risk is not perceived to be substantial enough to warrant action, based on a number of social or environmental constructs or simply dismissed on account of unrealistic optimism; the perpetual ‘it will never happen to me”.  With economic constraints being tighter than ever, some may be inclined to turn the proverbial blind eye to due to the costs involved. Nevertheless, any effort to be more commercial must always come second to reducing the risk of ill health; no bottom line can be worth the loss of a life or the financial cost of a crippling compensation claim. Such a costly incident occurred at the University of Lincoln who were fined £10,000 and £12,759 in costs after leaving students and staff at risk of exposure to asbestos in four buildings. Although managers had devised an asbestos management plan, they had failed to follow their own procedures, an alarming turn of events which was only exposed when a lecturer identified a strange dust around a broken door handle. The university have since taken sufficient steps to update all procedures and now comply with all current regulations.

Learning from experience? Or pro-active risk management?

However, events such as these are indicative of the fact that even the most well intentioned employer can fall prey to erroneous pitfalls if their policies are not strategic and quality controlled; essentially, an effective asbestos management plan must be implemented using a regular and systematic approach as opposed to being treated as an extemporized project.

As stated by author Douglas Adams; “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” Essentially, the relevant duty holders must begin using the events from the past to make positive change for the future; it has been indisputable since the early 1900s that asbestos is a dangerous substance responsible for thousands of deaths every year and yet still it lurks unidentified in hundreds and thousands of premises. Given that such undisputed facts and figures at our disposal, denial or ignorance is no excuse for failing to mitigate the possibility of exposure.

An Effective Asbestos Management Plan

First and foremost, and to ensure accountability and subsequent responsibility is accurately identified, a duty holder must be identified and be made aware of the expectations associated with such a role. Once the duty holder has been identified, a plan of action should be devised to ensure compliance. Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 dictates that these individuals are required to undertake a suitable and sufficient risk assessment to ascertain whether asbestos is likely to be present in any premises under their control. This should include:

  • Reviewing the age of the building
  • Examining any previous records of surveys
  • Inspecting any previous asbestos related works
  •  Reviewing records such as architects plans and/or drawings.

If there is any uncertainty about the presence of asbestos, the duty holder must assume such materials are present until provided with proof to the contrary. Necessary action includes informing relevant individuals of this and ensuring that no maintenance is undertaken or any materials disturbed until the presence of asbestos is determined.

Establishing the presence of asbestos is a task that should be undertaken by a qualified professional with suitable training and is often delegated to a third party, such as an accredited surveying firm.  It is essential that such parties can validate their capabilities with the relevant insurance cover and certainly a professional accreditation, such as by the United Kingdom Accreditation Scheme (UKAS). This asbestos management survey will provide the duty holder with a comprehensive survey report to advise precisely where asbestos is present within the premise and also include a material assessment to ascertain the likelihood of the fibres being released. Equipped with this knowledge, it is now necessary to compile an asbestos register of the premises to provide a breakdown of the asbestos containing materials identified and where these are present. Accessible to any parties that may need to know the location of asbestos, this record must always be kept up to date. In cases where asbestos has been identified, regulations stipulate that the condition must be checked every 6-12 months and the register updated accordingly, similarly so if the asbestos is encapsulated or removed.

Using the combined survey report and asbestos register, the duty holder must now use this information to develop an asbestos management plan. Provided with an insight into the presence of any asbestos, the duty holder can conduct a priority assessment, combining existing knowledge of the premises with findings from the specialist survey report. This assessment configures a multitude of factors, such as the location of the materials, likelihood of disturbance and size of the area. Often professionals are consulted to advise further on such matters or alternatively the HSE website provide a comprehensive interactive Material and Priority Scoring Tool which enables duty holders to explore the relevant issues to carry out a priority assessment. Using this, the management plan can be developed, commencing with the principle task of deciding what action must be taken with any asbestos containing material. Primarily, the decision could be one of three: to repair/remove, to protect and seal or to leave and manage.  Again, based upon the individuals existing knowledge base and resources utilised, this could be a decision made by the duty holder or by consulting a relevant professional. Irrespective of the course of action decided upon, a written plan must be prepared, detailing all relevant information such as:

  • Timescales
  • Responsibilities
  • Prioritised actions
  • Arrangements for review
  • Mechanisms for communicating the relevant information
  • Where mandatory training must be provided

From this point, as with many health and safety assessments, adequate monitoring is as important as the initial survey and plan. All materials left in place must be systematically monitored to ensure that no damage, deterioration or wear has occurred, with records being updated accordingly. Frequency of such checks should be conducted according to the plan and relate to deciding fore-mentioned factors such as the location of the material. As a minimum, such reviews should be embarked upon every six to twelve months. Similarly, the management plan should be reviewed at least every six months or in line with any works undertaken or major structural or organisational changes which may impact upon the validity of the plan. All reviews must ensure that procedures are being implemented in line with documented timescales and all proposed actions are executed. Though many responsible employers take proactive steps to protect those within their duty of care, there must be a documented commitment to these procedures and a measured commitment to continuity for any eventuality.

*Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops, "Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops for the Year 1898" cited in Geoffrey Tweedale, Magic Mineral to Killer Dust, Turner & Newall and the Asbestos Hazard, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 21.

Athena Environmental Solutions Ltd

 

 

Managed by brother and sister team Brett and Sadie Hopson and based in Essex; Athena Environmental Solutions are a UKAS accredited laboratory and experts in asbestos analysis. Offering a dedicated service in the area of bulk analysis.
 
Athena  pride themselves in being a responsible business and operate ethically and efficiently and always consider the environment, their people and society when making business decisions. They are also proud members of the Organisation of Responsible Businesses, demonstrating their commitment to engaging in the responsible business agenda.

 


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