Most people in the UK would be surprised to know that complete banning of asbestos in the building industry happened only as late as 1999. While some forms of asbestos such as blue and brown varieties were banned in 1985, the more commonly used white variety was not initially included and it took another 14 years for authorities to do so.
Why is Asbestos a Serious Health Hazard?
In the early 19th century, asbestos was considered a “wonder material” and it gained immense popularity in the construction industry. It was an abundantly available, naturally occurring material. It was also cheap, tough, had fire/heat-resistant and insulating properties, it could also be used as a soundproofing and insulating material. In fact, it became so popular that more than 3000 products were either made from it or contained it.
Asbestos can be found in:
- asbestos/cement pipes, flues, roofs, partitions
- lagging and skirting
- water-tanks, cisterns in toilets
- insulating boards
- loose asbestos in attics, flooring, ceilings
- sprayed as a paint additive on ceilings, walls, beams
- decorative textured coating
- floor tiles
- fire resistant textiles and products
When left undisturbed, asbestos poses no risks. However, due to aging and wear and tear, fibres work loose. Being fine enough to be inhaled easily, they get deposited in the lower regions of the lungs and cause a range of conditions, based on the length and intensity of exposure. Toxic symptoms caused by asbestos exposure can take years, or even decades, to manifest. Exposure can cause:
- Lung tissue irritation
- Fibrotic lung disease (Asbestosis)
- Changes in the lining of the chest cavity and pleura
- Reduced respiratory function
- Heart enlargement
- Lung cancer
- Reduced immune system function
- Retroperitoneal fibrosis and kidney failure
- Cancer of larynx, colorectum, stomach and ovaries
In spite of the widespread demand and use, asbestos was known quite early to cause health issues. Since the time of the ancient Romans, it was found to cause certain types of “lung sickness.” In 1906, a Departmental Committee on Industrial Diseases report filed by Dr Montague Murray provided evidence of a death from asbestos exposure. The first Asbestos Industry Regulations were passed in 1931, based on clinical evidence of the disease links with asbestos exposure. In 1952, the family of a lady factory worker was the first to receive compensation for her death due to asbestos exposure. Yet, these warnings were not taken very seriously and by the 1960s, annual asbestos imports into the UK stood at a whopping 170,000 tonnes. In 1969, blue asbestos imports were banned. In 1974, the Health and Safety At Work Act was introduced in the UK, and the Asbestos (Prohibition) Regulations in 1985. Comprehensive regulations banning white asbestos were introduced in 1999 and the Control of Asbestos Regulations in 2012 updated all previous regulations. These regulations are to be enforced by several agencies that include the HSE (Health and Safety Executive), Local Authorities and Office of Rail and Road. The local authorities are concerned with regulating asbestos in retail and wholesale distribution, warehousing and storage, hotel and catering premises, consumer and leisure industry and commercial offices. The Office of Rail and Road is responsible for railway stations, depots and railway premises. Building and construction activity is normally under the local authorities or the railway and road authorities, but the HSE may be the enforcing authority during the course of the project.
Asbestos Management Plan
The onus of managing asbestos rests mainly on those who own and manage non-domestic properties, or the person/organisation that has the responsibility to repair and maintain non-domestic premises, according to Section 4 of the Act. Tenancy agreements may contain clauses distributing the responsibility among tenants and owners. If there is no tenancy agreement or the premises are unoccupied, the owner bears the responsibility.
Those responsible have to investigate whether asbestos or asbestos containing materials are present on the premises if it was constructed before 2000. A professional survey must be undertaken to assess the location, quantity and condition of the asbestos or asbestos containing materials. Duty-holders must create a viable asbestos management plan to manage the risk and share it with all who use the premises.
Duty-holders without an asbestos management plan could face a fine of up to £20,000 or up to 6 months imprisonment. More serious breaches of regulations result in unlimited fines and up to two years imprisonment. Non-compliance includes exposing individuals to asbestos risk.
An asbestos management plan is a written document that gives details on how the duty-holder will manage the risks in buildings/properties that were constructed before 2000. This plan should be available and accessible to those involved in repairs, maintenance, and refurbishment and also to those who are in at-risk workplaces.
- Keep the plan centrally located, accessible, concise, easy to read and professionally worded. It should have an information and an action section that will bring coordination and cohesion between all the relevant parties involved to ensure safety of people who occupy, work in and use the premises. Copies (digital and/or print) must be provided.
- The plan must be regularly updated and monitored to reflect current regulations as they are updated, amended or added to.
- Include information on the exact location and history of the construction, surrounding areas and equipment being used.
- Identify the duty-holder (responsible person) and ensure that they are trained and protected. Details of training and training records have to be included
- Provide information on how/where to access the asbestos management plan and the asbestos register
- Provide clear and firm schedules on when the plan and register have to be updated/reviewed
- List of currently approved contractors/third-parties with access to the risky site
- Action section must include short/medium/long term key performance indicators that must be achieved to manage the risks
- Another important aspect is to provide priority assessment regarding the asbestos or asbestos containing materials that are likely to be disturbed in order of highest risk priority
- Procedures for dealing with asbestos during survey, repairs, demolition, and refurbishment and waste management have to be clearly documented in compliance with the regulations
- Action plan for emergency situations has to be included.