Recent research suggests that up to 87,000 public buildings contain asbestos despite its use being prohibited since 1999, so it is understandable and commendable that such calls are being made in order to protect those who use these buildings.
The simple fact is, however, that removal of all asbestos containing materials across all public buildings is likely to be an extremely expensive and potentially impractical solution, especially as it may require parts of these buildings (containing higher risk materials such as asbestos insulating board (AIB)) to be sealed off and taken out of use for the duration of the works. There is also the practical point of finding sufficient numbers of competent, experienced, contractors in order to complete the work may be a significant stumbling block.
What the case of Alice Mahon does highlight, however, is the importance of good asbestos management. And it is for this reason that the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 do not require all asbestos to be removed but focuses on the requirement to manage. The TUC reported that during her illness, Alice stated that her exposure to asbestos was due to maintenance staff, at a hospital she was employed at, breaking up and drilling into corrugated asbestos sheets without suitable protection against the release of asbestos containing dust, often with this dust not being removed correctly but simply brushed away. This suggests, at the time:
- No clear asbestos management plan was in place;
- A lack of control over works taking place on asbestos containing materials; and
- Staff undertaking the work not being given suitable training and instruction on the risks posed by their work.
It is not known when this exposure occurred, but the ill effects of asbestos exposure often take many decades to manifest themselves and, in that time, there have been many campaigns made to improve public and workers awareness to the dangers of asbestos, so the hope is that such practices are no longer in place.
We do, however, still hear cases of public bodies such as local councils being prosecuted for exposing building occupants to asbestos. Whilst it is not ideal for our buildings to contain asbestos and, as with all workplace hazards, we should be looking to eliminate the risk they pose, the ability for all public buildings, and indeed the UK’s legacy building stock, to be made asbestos free looks like an impossible dream, certainly soon. But good asbestos management is not, and so it is important that, if you do have any asbestos containing materials (ACMs) in your building, you have an up-to-date asbestos register which is made available to anyone who may encounter them. You should also make sure that you have provided adequate training to your employees and undertaken regular inspections of your ACMs so you know their current condition. If their condition is such that there is a risk of asbestos fibres being released, you should be using a competent contractor to either make them safe or safely remove them from site.
As with all hazardous substances, asbestos only becomes a danger to us when we are exposed to it, and with good asbestos management it is possible to make sure that, any asbestos you are responsible for managing poses minimal risk to those who use your building. Assurity Consulting can provide you with the help and support to make sur you have a suitable asbestos management plan in place, let us know if you need any help.