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Builders – do you know your obligations regarding asbestos?

On a fairly regular basis, we are in conversations with building owners and tradespeople uncertain about the asbestos status of a job that is already underway. In some cases, these have concerning potential consequences. In many cases, they involve breaches of longstanding legal obligations.

In such cases, we will always offer help to the people concerned. Our attendance on site will be dependent on all parties acting on the advice given to keep everyone safe. Asbestos is a dangerous substance that causes an unpleasant illness and still too many deaths.

These scenarios occur in both homes and commercial buildings. Homeowners of course have legal obligations to anyone who may work in their home, or if renting out a property. Those responsible for commercial property have obligations to a wide range of people, including staff, visitors, and the general public.

A recent domestic property that we attended was a 1960s built house undergoing renovation. The builder had begun working without requesting an asbestos survey, removed some plasterboards, and found something he wasn’t sure about. It turned out to be Asbestos Insulating Board (AIB). Unfortunately, damage was caused to the board via the access equipment, but once uncovered, the builder stopped working and requested sampling.  Sadly, in this case, the damage to the board resulted in debris spilling onto the floor. Of course, this is very dangerous.

Another case was an old farmhouse that was being demolished to allow a new barn conversion to be built.  For some reason demolition works by the builders had already commenced when someone realised that there was no asbestos survey. The client, a property developer, claimed no knowledge of the legal requirement to have a survey undertaken before demolition.  In this case, Environmental Inspection could not immediately do much because the building was structurally not safe to access.  This sort of action can lead to prosecution and unlimited fines or even prison time.

Another problem that we come across is surveys having been properly completed but not consulted before alteration work or not correctly acted upon. This can be exacerbated by changes in personnel and a lack of management policy. A memorable case was a survey that we completed in 2020 of premises in which we identified that the basement was lined with asbestos cement boards.  At the time, they were in good condition, so provided that there were no other changes, the asbestos did not need to be removed. At the required re-inspection 12 months later however, we found new plasterboard ceiling panels. What had happened in the interim? Well, to refit the basement for use as storage, the ceiling had been literally smashed out – a phenomenally dangerous thing to do. Having not consulted the asbestos register and survey, the contractor was unaware of the danger. And they had also not complied with their obligation to have an asbestos refurbishment survey prior to the work. The result was asbestos cement debris visible on the floor and other surfaces. This would have been disturbed every time staff came and went and it could have been spread to other areas. And the builders, staff, and members of the public would have potentially been exposed to asbestos dust whilst the ceiling was being removed.

If instead, asbestos removal had been undertaken by an asbestos removal company, the asbestos cement panels would have been removed whole with minimal damage or disturbance.  It should also be noted that asbestos cement can only be removed by trained and competent persons who have an up to date category B training certificate, suitable procedures, and insurance.

What should builders do to ensure they are safe from asbestos?

We could not recommend more strongly that builders, shopfitters, tradespeople of all kinds, and anyone who works on buildings should invest in asbestos awareness training. This awareness provides the last line of defence before an instance of disturbing asbestos.

The training does not make you an asbestos expert, but gives you knowledge of the order of works and familiarly with asbestos so that you can identify it before it’s too late.

Of course, these days, much of the asbestos within buildings should have been identified already, such as on an asbestos management survey or asbestos refurbishment survey. But because some parts of a building may not have previously been accessible, and because of lack of compliance, there remains the possibility of unidentified asbestos.

So, asbestos awareness training will not only keep you and others safe but will also increase your professionalism in engaging with clients. And it will ensure that none of your work goes to waste as it did in the examples above.

In addition to acquiring asbestos awareness, you should also be clear on the instances in which asbestos surveys are required. If it’s a property built before 1999 and an existing survey does not cover your area and scope of works then an asbestos refurbishment survey must be undertaken so that no one is exposed to deadly asbestos dust.

What to do if you find suspected asbestos

First, stop the work.

This is the last opportunity you have to prevent potential imminent harm.

Organise a survey by a suitably qualified professional. Asbestos awareness training does not qualify someone to carry out a survey. It’s like other health & safety training – it qualifies you to identify potential hazards. An asbestos surveyor should have qualifications including the P402 Proficiency Certificate in Buildings Surveys and Bulk Sampling of Asbestos.

In the meantime, the material needs to remain undisturbed and it’s essential to ensure that any asbestos fibres don’t escape.

Once the survey and associated sampling are complete and the report is returned to you, you should have complete clarity on what to do next. A negative result means that you can carry on working as planned. None of the examples we gave above received a negative response however. They were confirmed as asbestos containing materials. Options then are to make it safe through containment or remove it. Crucially though, either of these jobs must be done by a qualified professional.

What is the law?

If a building was constructed before 1999, you cannot do any building or refurbishment work without an asbestos survey. Ignoring these obligations can leave people exposed to an unpleasant and potentially fatal illness and the contractors and building owners / ‘Duty Holders’ liable to prosecution. Both the company concerned and its directors can be fined. Prison sentences are also possible in the worst cases.

See our blog here on the potential legal consequences.

Other interesting case studies that we found are:

Prosecutions relating to not having an asbestos survey – Blackpool pier – fines of £140,000: https://www.blackpoolgazette.co.uk/news/crime/blackpool-pier-owners-sentenced-over-refurbishing-asbestos-lined-arcade-while-open-public-2889741

Stockport  fine of £12,000: https://press.hse.gov.uk/2021/02/12/construction-firms-fined-due-to-unsafe-removal-of-asbestos/

Whitley Bay Ice Rink: https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/whitley-bay-ice-rink-fined-20783185

Sea Hotel, South Shields – Fines in excess of £38,000: https://www.ukata.org.uk/news/businesses-fined-after-workers-exposed-asbestos/

What are the other impacts?

Other impacts could include high costs of remedial work for the client, reputational damage for the contractor, and invalidated insurance.

Asbestos removal work is likely to cost thousands, but there is no point in adding to this with legal and other costs and the need to repeat work.

The biggest issue of course is human health. If the correct procedures are not followed then you are not just exposing yourself and staff and visitors to potential harm but also members of the public passing by. We’ve all seen the crashing and banging and flying debris that goes on in construction environments in town and city centres. How does flying asbestos sound to you?

Then you have the fibres on your clothes that you then return to your family in. There have been cases of people becoming contaminated from inhaling asbestos fibres when washing clothes.

How will asbestos awareness training help?

Asbestos awareness training will allow you to spot potential dangers but it does not make you a surveyor. When you use the knowledge that you acquire from this course, it will likely result in you identifying areas of properties that need to be surveyed. So, it’s essential at that point to engage with a qualified asbestos surveyor. They will be able to help determine the scope of the survey and the sampling required. And then you will be advised on what to do next. If it’s a negative result then you can confidently get on with the job knowing that you and the customer and others are safe from asbestos risk. And you will be safe from legal and financial risk. If it’s negative then there are a range of options.

One thing is absolutely clear though – no work can continue until the results of the survey are received. If you were to continue in those circumstances, it would expose other people to the risk of harm and you to financial and legal risks.

See our advice for tradespeople here:

If you would like asbestos awareness training, ours is available here:

 

 

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