SELECT Safety and Technical Adviser Jim Cornwall outlines the consequences of not assessing the dangers of asbestos disturbance during refurbishments
Before starting work in existing non-domestic buildings, contractors should be informed of the possibility of disturbing asbestos.
But can you assume that any information provided is accurate and will ensure the safety of you, your employees and any others?
Two court cases in 2017, both of which resulted in the prosecution of the contractors concerned, clearly demonstrate the contrary. In both instances, an asbestos survey was carried out before work started, but failed to identify the presence of asbestos which was subsequently disturbed.
One of the cases concerned a utility services contractor based in Scotland, who rewired the distribution system in a tower block in 2014. An asbestos survey was carried out, but panels at the entrance doors to individual flats were not checked.
Electricians employed by the contractor subsequently drilled holes in the panels to route cables – but it was only later, when a resident raised concerns, that the panels were tested and found to contain asbestos. The residents then had to be decanted to allow decontamination of the flats.
In November 2017, the contractor was prosecuted of breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 by exposing their electricians to airborne asbestos fibres.
The asbestos legacy
Large amounts of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were used for a wide range of purposes in new and refurbished buildings until 1999, when all use of ACMs was banned in the UK.
Asbestos was also extensively used in domestic properties between 1930 and 1980 and around 500,000 non-domestic buildings in the UK still contain ACMs. Although unlikely to present a risk to the public if undamaged, tradesmen are potentially at risk if they disturb them; as are persons living or working nearby.
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012) set minimum standards for the protection of employees from risks related to exposure to asbestos.
Employers should also take account of people not directly employed by them but who could be affected by the work being done on asbestos, including employees of other employers, people occupying buildings and members of the public.
Requirements of wider health and safety legislation, including the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, mean that certain organisations have legal duties to ensure the health and safety of their staff (and others) in domestic premises used as a place of work.
Such organisations include local authorities, housing associations and social housing management companies who own, or are responsible for, domestic premises.
Where construction, refurbishment or demolition work is being carried out, the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015) also requires the CDM client to provide designers and contractors bidding for work with project-specific information about the presence of asbestos so risks can be assessed.
The duty to manage asbestos
Regulation 4 of CAR 2012 places a duty on those in control of non-domestic premises to assess and manage the risks from the presence of asbestos.
The duty to manage does not apply to domestic premises such as private houses; however the requirements do apply to common parts of multi-occupancy domestic premises such as blocks of flats. Such common parts would include foyers, corridors, lift shafts, risers, staircases and boiler houses.
The requirements do not place any direct duties on landlords for individual houses or flats, nor do they apply to rooms within a private residence which are shared by more than one household, such as bathrooms, kitchens etc, in houses in multiple occupation (HMOs).
The main duty holder is required under Regulation 4 of CAR 2012 to ensure that a written plan is prepared. This should show where the ACM is located and how it will be managed to prevent exposure to asbestos, including to contractors and other workers who may carry out work that could disturb the ACM. The preparation of such a written plan – frequently referred to as an asbestos register – will normally require an asbestos survey to be carried out by a competent surveyor.
Asbestos: The Survey Guide published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) sets out the roles of surveys in ensuring that builders and maintenance workers have all the information they need to minimise their risk of exposure to asbestos and put the right precautions in place.
The guidance is primarily aimed at those who carry out asbestos surveys and those who commission them, eg clients and other duty holders, but will also be useful to building professionals such as architects and contractors. The heavily illustrated publication includes guidance on survey strategies for both domestic and non-domestic properties and pre-survey planning involving the duty holder and the surveyor(s).
Two types of survey are described in the guide:
management surveys – required during the normal occupation and use of the building to ensure continued management of ACMs.
refurbishment and demolition surveys – necessary when the building (or part of it) is to be upgraded, refurbished or demolished. These can be more challenging as their purpose is to identify all ACMs within a particular building area or within the whole premises and are therefore more invasive.
Architects and building surveyors need to be aware of the requirement to carry out asbestos surveys and can advise on the need for a survey before refurbishment and demolition projects. They should also be aware of the types of surveys and be able to review them.
Identifying the presence of asbestos
While Regulation 4 of CAR 2012 appears to place the onus for asbestos surveys entirely on the duty holder, Regulation 5 of CAR 2012 requires employers to identify the presence of asbestos and its type and condition before any building, maintenance, demolition or other work (liable to expose employees to asbestos) begins.
Contractors therefore need to be able to interpret asbestos surveys so that refurbishment work can be planned and carried out safely. It needs to be recognised that where extensive maintenance or repair work is involved, there may be insufficient information in the management survey and that a localised refurbishment survey, specific to the work to be carried out, may be needed to identify any ACMs likely to be disturbed.
Regulation 5 also sets out the requirement to arrange a survey if existing information on the presence of asbestos in the premises is incomplete or unreliable. The motto is therefore: If in doubt – get it checked out.
Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 Approved Code of Practice and guidance (L143) and Asbestos: The Survey Guide (HSG264) can now be downloaded, along with other guidance, at www.hse.gov.uk