Asbestos – how to manage a silent killer

by Alex on February 10, 2014

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Photo: Joey Gannon

Asbestos is known as a silent killer, so it’s all the more important to take extra precautions when working with older buildings and structures that may contain it. But for a Northumberland care trust and the two firms it contracted for refurbishment work, ignoring this real and present danger resulted in fines totalling thousands of pounds.

The trust had hired an elevator installation firm to put in a new lift in one of its care homes for the elderly, which in turn subcontracted a London-based firm to remove the pre-existing lift. What the firms weren’t counting on were asbestos boards in the lift shaft, which exposed residents to asbestos fibres when the lift was removed.

As an HSE investigation discovered, all three parties were at fault. The trust had failed to ensure that there was no risk to workers’ health during the refurbishment process by providing conflicting information and not undertaking a sufficient asbestos survey.

The installation firm had not planned or managed its work properly, since the company had neither inquired about the presence of asbestos nor used the survey in its plan of work.

Finally, the removal firm had neither made adequate inquiries nor set up sufficient safety measures to prevent the spread of asbestos fibres once the boards were removed.

Ignoring the risks posed by asbestos is a potentially lethal measure. According to the Control of Asbestos Review 2012, asbestos exposure is the largest occupational killer, causing around 4500 deaths per year. Heavy exposure to asbestos fibres can cause mesothelioma and lung cancer, both of which are almost always fatal.

Unfortunately, knowledge of asbestos management among tradesmen is still at a low. According to the Great British Asbestos Survey, 32% of dutyholders are unaware of their duty to manage asbestos, while 37% have no management plans in place.

When it comes to asbestos, whoever is responsible for maintenance or repair of non-domestic buildings or common spaces in domestic buildings is a dutyholder. During work, the dutyholder must assess the risk of exposure, prepare a risk management plan, and provide information on the location and condition of materials to anyone who is liable to work on them or disturb them.

Without sufficient measures of this kind, along with monitoring employees’ health, any responsible company can be liable to fines. In the case above, all three firms received fines from HSE, with largest totalling £10,346 including costs.

To avoid hefty fines and danger to workers’ and the public’s health and wellbeing, duty holders must ensure they assess the health hazards posed by asbestos, and implement safe working control measures to mitigate the risks.

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