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Conviction relating to department store conversion project shows the consequences of exposing workers to asbestos

Construction staff on a roof carrying out refurbishment

We noticed a story in the local media this week (Chronicle article here) that is not uncommon, but, we rarely see it on this scale.

We don’t know the details of this particular case, but what has been reported appears very concerning.

This was reportedly a £2.4m job to transform what was an iconic former department store in Sunderland city centre into student accommodation. The owners of the construction company were convicted of putting employees at ‘potentially fatal risk from asbestos’. There was potentially a 5-month period of ‘numerous’ employees experiencing ‘uncontrolled asbestos exposure.’

The sentencing is scheduled for a later date. An ‘unlimited’ fine and potential custodial sentence is highly likely. Directors will subsequently be stripped of their director status and the company will be forced to cease trading. They will never again be able to get business insurance or accreditations.

What could have been done to avoid this?

Of course, the solution would have been twofold: A thorough asbestos refurbishment survey carried out by a qualified and competent person and covering all of the areas that would be worked on. This, combined with sampling of any suspect materials and analysis by a quality UKAS accredited laboratory would have provided confidence that the work was safe to proceed.

It’s unlikely that any additional asbestos would have been found after this had been done. But even in the unlikely event that something had gone wrong and additional asbestos was identified, the business owners could have said that they did all that could reasonably be expected of them. But not in this case.

Whilst asbestos removal can be quite costly, the survey and sampling are not. It’s our view that it’s better to know what you are dealing with so it can be managed accordingly.

What went wrong?

The key to this prosecution was the finding that the directors ‘knowingly’ took no steps to avoid exposing workers to asbestos. Courts take a dim view of laws being disregarded.

From the above finding, it appears that a survey had not been done.

The fact that a supervisor was asked to ‘look out for asbestos’ suggests no confidence in the safety of the premises. Perhaps even that asbestos was suspected.

We should of course all look out for asbestos if undertaking this kind of work, but it should be out of precaution and the last line of defence, rather than the expectation of finding any asbestos. Any suspect materials should have already been sampled and confirmed as not containing asbestos, or contained, or removed if there was any chance of them being disturbed.

Who should be trained in asbestos awareness?

Ideally, anyone working in a place in which they could come across asbestos should be trained to spot the signs of it in its various products. That gives you the best chance of avoiding the overlooking of hazardous materials.

All builders and trades professionals should undertake annual asbestos awareness training and have enough knowledge to know what type of documents are required (an asbestos refurbishment survey in this case, not just an asbestos management survey). They should be able to identify potential asbestos materials. Asbestos can be found in any building pre-1999 but those built in the 50s to 90s have a greater chance of containing asbestos, including older buildings where asbestos could have been introduced during refurbishment works.

What is our view?

As we said at the beginning, we don’t know the specifics of this case. But we are aware from experience that this kind of thing happens far too often.

It happens a lot in shop fitting. This is often work that is done fairly frequently, to update, modernise, or change the use of an old building. It often involves quite intrusive work, such as ripping out floors and ceilings, certainly penetrating some of these surfaces. And, despite the age of the buildings and the extent of the work, asbestos surveys are neglected.

There are three common reasons for this:

  • It’s assumed that this survey must have been done in the past. ‘There’s probably no issue.’
  • Something has been done, such as a basic survey that does not properly cover the area of work. Even a sampling exercise on one material, leaving many other suspect materials not sampled and not analysed. This is then mistaken for proof that everything is fine.
  • It can in some cases be that the business owners (duty holders) are ignorant or uncaring about the consequences of their actions. We find either position astonishing and worrying. But it definitely applies in some cases.



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