Last reviewed 25 June 2018

Although banned in the UK, the presence of asbestos in buildings can still pose a lethal threat. Laura King takes a look at what organisations and facilities managers need to do.

If asked whether asbestos or roads were more dangerous, most people would probably think that traffic accidents resulted in more deaths. They would be wrong. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) more people die every year from exposure to asbestos than from accidents on the road, and asbestos is considered to be the biggest cause of death from occupational cancer.

The risks associated with asbestos are so high that its use has been completely banned in the UK since 1999. However, despite the ban and comprehensive legislation surrounding how asbestos is managed, the fact that it causes around 5000 deaths a year shows that asbestos remains a genuine threat.

One of the reasons why asbestos is still a killer is because it takes many years for asbestos-related diseases to become apparent — and once diagnosed it is often too late for a cure. However, although the annual death toll reflects past working conditions, this does not mean that asbestos can be consigned to history. Many buildings that were built or refurbished before 2000 are still standing — and as such still contain a significant amount of asbestos that if improperly managed could continue asbestos’ deathly legacy.

Why is asbestos so dangerous?

Asbestos is a name given to several different types of fibrous mineral that are resistant to fire, heat and chemical damage. These properties made them incredibly useful in the building industry where asbestos was used as a cheap and effective additive for many building materials and products such as insulation boards, solvents, reinforced plastic and spray coatings.

In the UK, three different types of asbestos were commercially used: chrysotile, or white asbestos; crocidolite, or blue asbestos; and amosite, or brown asbestos. Although each has its own particular quality — blue asbestos, for example, is the strongest — they all have a similar fibrous structure. These fibres give asbestos many of its beneficial properties but are also the root cause of asbestos-related diseases.

Asbestos fibres are readily broken down into tiny particles when asbestos or asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are disturbed. These microscopic fragments, easily inhaled as dust, can then become lodged deep in the lungs causing scarring and inflammation. Over many years this damage can lead to illness including cancers such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, and respiratory diseases such as such as asbestosis and pleural thickening.

What does this mean for organisations?

Unfortunately, the presence of asbestos in our buildings means that asbestos still needs to be actively managed. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 outline the duties for controlling asbestos and put the onus for managing asbestos in commercial and non-domestic buildings on the person or organisation who has any responsibility for maintenance or repair. In many instances, this will fall to the facilities manager (FM).

So what does this mean? Under the regulations anyone responsible for managing asbestos will need to undertake the following steps:

  • identify if asbestos is present

  • compile records of the condition and location of any ACMs (known as the asbestos register)

  • carry out a risk assessment and prepare a management plan

  • the management plan should put in place actions to:

    • monitor ACMs in good condition

    • repair or remove ACMs in bad condition

    • manage maintenance work through mitigating measures such as training.

An asbestos management survey is usually undertaken to identify where asbestos is present. If a survey is not carried out, and there is a possibility that ACMs could be present, the dutyholder must assume asbestos is widespread in the building. To avoid this, it is often more cost effective to carry out an asbestos survey.

If there are any plans to do significant work on a building, including renovation or demolition, FMs have two options: they can either carry out a refurbishment or demolition survey to assess in detail what asbestos exists, or assume that asbestos is present and ensure those working on the building use full asbestos safety precautions. Again, it can often be more cost effective to conduct a survey as without one a number of materials should be presumed to contain asbestos and therefore only dealt with by a licenced or trained contractor.

Following on from a survey, a risk assessment can be conducted to determine what controls are necessary. Depending on what needs doing a licenced or trained contractor might be required, or the work might be notifiable.

Before any construction starts, the information collected about any asbestos present will need to be passed on to any contractors undertaking work. In most cases, ACMs need to be removed before any refurbishment work or demolition. Under the Construction Design and Management Regulations 2015, this handover will form part of the pre-construction information and be incorporated into the construction plan.

Are there still problems?

Despite the clear controls outlined in the legislation, there is still considerable concern among health and safety professionals that asbestos is not being given the attention it warrants. The HSE estimates that every week 20 people from the building industry will die from asbestos-related exposure and the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has recently launched the fourth phase of its campaign No Time to Lose, which highlights the risks of asbestos on occupational cancer.

As part of the launch, IOSH commissioned a survey of construction workers. Worryingly, it found that 32% of respondents have never checked the asbestos register before starting work on a new site, with half of these workers not even knowing what an asbestos register was.

As a result, prosecutions continue to be brought to the courts. Last year a construction firm in London was fined £750,000 for failing to prevent workers being exposed to asbestos during building work to convert an office into a block of flats despite there being a survey revealing asbestos was on site.

Although many of the problems lie within the construction industry, organisations also have a role to play in ensuring that the contractors and their maintenance staff are kept safe, and hefty fines for non-compliance are not unheard of. For example, in January this year, a natural gas storage facility was fined £300,000 when the records it held on site were inadequate and staff were not adequately trained, resulting in employees and contractors being exposed to asbestos fibres during maintenance work.

In summary

Asbestos is not a thing of the past — it is still very much a consideration and a deadly threat. Organisations need to be aware that asbestos can be found in a range of building materials and is likely to be present in buildings that have been built or renovated before 2000. Anyone involved in the refurbishment or maintenance of the building could be at risk.

To protect the organisation, as well as employees and contractors, the responsible person needs to ensure the following is in place for all buildings constructed before 2000.

  • They have a complete and up-to-date asbestos register, risk assessment and management plan that are acted on and updated should anything change.

  • A renovation or demolition survey is carried out whenever building work is undertaken, and the results of this are passed to any contractors.

  • If a survey is not undertaken, FMs should assume that asbestos is widespread.

For detailed information on managing asbestos see the Croner-i topics, Asbestos and Asbestos Register, which contain useful forms to help you build an Asbestos Register.