Although it was banned in 1999, asbestos remains a major cause of work-related illness in the UK. There were more than 5,000 asbestos-related deaths in 2019, and the substance is still present in around 1.5 million buildings.
As an employer, it is your duty to protect employees from asbestos exposure. You may also have a duty if you are responsible for the management of a building. In this blog, we’ll take a look at the main risks and liabilities relating to asbestos, as well as providing some tips to keep everyone safe.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibre that was commonly used to insulate buildings until the late 1990s. When asbestos is disturbed, it releases a highly toxic dust. Inhaling this can cause asbestos fibres to become permanently trapped in the lungs, leading to serious harm.
Asbestos-related health issues often manifest themselves years, or even decades, after exposure. There are two main conditions associated with the substance:
- Mesothelioma is a serious form of cancer, caused almost exclusively by historical asbestos exposure. It affects the linings of the lungs and the abdomen, and kills around 2,400 people a year.
- Asbestosis is a chronic lung condition linked to long-term asbestos exposure. It causes permanent scarring of the lungs, sometimes leading to fatal complications.
Who is most at risk?
These conditions are usually the result of ongoing exposure rather than casual contact. This means that certain groups of workers are significantly more at risk. These include:
- Plumbers and heating engineers
- Carpenters and joiners
- Alarm fitters
- Telecommunications engineers
- Architects and surveyors
- Shop fitters
- Painters and decorators
- Gas fitters
The risk is heightened for those who were working before 1999, but present day employees are also at risk when working on older buildings. Many people work in buildings that contain asbestos, but their risk is minimal as long as the substance isn’t disturbed.
What are my responsibilities?
According to the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, in the case of a non-domestic building the responsibility to limit asbestos exposure falls on either the owner of the building, the leaseholder or a combination of the two, depending on the terms of the lease/tenancy agreement. If no agreement is in place, the responsibility falls on whoever has control of the premises. This can apply to common areas of domestic premises too.
If you are the responsible person, there are several things that you can do to limit the risk:
- Take reasonable steps to discover the location, quantity and condition of any asbestos that may be present – this is known as a Management Survey
- Presume that materials contain asbestos unless you can prove otherwise.
- Keep detailed records of all asbestos or suspected asbestos in the building – known as the Asbestos Register.
- Inform anyone working on the building of the location and condition of asbestos.
- Create a risk assessment that identifies the risk of exposure, and prepare a plan to manage these risks.
- Review this plan regularly to ensure that it remains effective.
- Anyone who is likely to come into contact with asbestos must complete Asbestos Awareness training.
Who is allowed to remove asbestos?
It is important to remember that asbestos safety is about limiting exposure, not removing asbestos altogether. Undisturbed asbestos doesn’t pose a threat, so it is often better to leave it be. If you do have to remove asbestos, this work should be carried out by a trained professional:
- High risk materials such as pipe insulation or insulating panels can only be removed by a licensed contractor. Licences are obtained through the HSE.
- Lower risk material such as cement sheets and roofing can be removed by an unlicensed contractor, as long as they are competent to do so.
As a contractor, you need to be aware of these parameters so that you do not expose yourself, your employees or others to risk when carrying out your work.
Don’t take any chances
The HSE takes asbestos safety very seriously. Failing to have an asbestos plan in place can lead to a fine of £20,000 and up to six months in prison. A serious breach of the regulations can be punished with an unlimited fine and up to two years in prison.
In one prosecution last autumn, both a school and its maintenance contractor were fined several thousand pounds each when asbestos was disturbed as a new heating system was installed.
Neglecting asbestos safety can also have further severe financial ramifications to reflect the health problems of victims. A study of recent court cases found that workers with mesothelioma can typically claim compensation payments of between £60,000 and £107,000.
Help is available to ensure you get it right. If you have any questions about asbestos safety, don’t hesitate to get in touch.