A recent survey published by the British Medical Journal has found that there are over 1,800 mesothelioma deaths each year in Britain. Since this disease can take between 15 and 60 years to develop, the peak of the epidemic has still to be reached. In the construction industry, those at risk are asbestos removal workers and those, such as electricians, plumbers and carpenters, who are involved in refurbishment, maintenance or repair of buildings.
Asbestos was used widely as a building material until the mid-1980’s. Although much asbestos has been removed from buildings, it has been estimated that over half a million non-domestic buildings still have asbestos in them amounting to many thousands of tons.
The strategy of the HSE is to ensure that those involved in the repair, removal or disturbance of asbestos containing materials (ACMs), such as insulation, coatings, or insulation boards, are licensed, competent and working to strict requirements of the Control of Asbestos Regulations. This requires the identification of ACMs and the planning of any subsequent work. This should prevent inadvertent exposure to asbestos and minimize the risks to those who have to work with it.
Managing asbestos in buildings
The Regulations bring together the three previous sets of Regulations covering the prohibition of asbestos, the duty to manage asbestos is a legal requirement under the Control of Asbestos Regulation (Regulation 40. It applies to the owners and occupiers of commercial premises (Such as shops, offices, industrial units, etc.) who have responsibility for maintenance and repair activates. In addition to these responsibilities, they also have a duty to assess the presence and condition of any asbestos-containing materials. If asbestos is present, or is presumed to be present, then it must be managed appropriately.
The regulations also prohibit the important, supply and use of all forms of asbestos. They continue the ban introduced for blue and brown asbestos in 1985 and for white asbestos in 1999 . They also continue the ban on the second-hand use of asbestos boards and tiles, including panels which have been covered with paint or textured plaster containing asbestos.
The ban applies to new uses of asbestos. If existing ACMs are in good condition, they may be left in place and their condition monitored to ensure that they are not disturbed. The Regulations only cover the safe management of asbestos in industrial and commercial premises. Domestic premises are covered by the (Scotland) Act, although the control of Asbestos Regulations apply to the shared parts of some domestic premises.
The Regulations also include the duty to manage asbestos in non-domestic premises. The Regulations require mandatory training for anyone liable to be exposed to asbestos fibres at work, including maintenance workers and others who may come into contact with or who may disturb asbestos (e.g. cable installers) as well as those involved in asbestos removal work.
When work with asbestos or which may disturb asbestos is being carried out, the Regulations require employers and self-employed to prevent exposure to asbestos fibres. Where this is not reasonably practicable, they must make sure that exposure is kept as low as reasonably practicable by measures other than the use of respiratory protective equipment.
The spread of asbestos must be prevented. The Regulations specify the work methods and controls that should be used to prevent exposure and spread. Worker exposure must be below the airborne exposure limit (the Control Limit) of 0.1 fibres per CM for all types of asbestos. The Control Limit is the maximum concentration of asbestos fibres in the air (averaged over any continuous 4-hour period) and must not be exceeded. Short-term exposures must be strictly controlled and worker exposure should not exceed 0.6 fibres per CM3 of air averaged over any continuous 10-minute period using respiratory protective equipment if exposure cannot be reduced sufficiently using other means.
Respiratory protective equipment is an important part of the control regime exposure and should only be used to supplement other measures. Most asbestos removal work must be undertaken by a licensed contractor but any decision on whether particular work needs to be licensed is based on the level of risk. The Control of Asbestos Regulations requires those in control of premises and duty-holders to:
- take reasonable steps to determine the location and condition of materials likely to contain asbestos;
- presume materials contain asbestos unless there is strong evidence they they do not;
- make and keep an up-to-date record of the location and condition of the ACMs or presumed ACMs in the premises;
- assess the risk of the likelihood of anyone being exposed to fibres from these materials;
- prepare a plan setting out how the risks from action;
- review and monitor the plan periodically;
- provide such information and asbestos awareness training to anyone who is liable to work on these materials or otherwise disturb them.