Ongoing failures to prevent exposure to asbestos suggest much more needs to be done to build the skills, knowledge and competence of those with day-to-day responsibility for preventing exposure in UK buildings.
he detrimental effects of exposure to asbestos have been widely known for decades. In fact, the danger was even highlighted centuries ago with the writings of Pliny the Elder in Roman times suggesting that deaths were likely being caused by exposure to asbestos.
In the UK, we struggled throughout the 20th century to understand the health risks from this magic mineral while also endeavouring to introduce regulations to reduce the danger.
The period from 1900–2000 is littered with various sets of regulations which each aimed to reduce the risk in some way – whether it be licensing the work of those removing the high risk products; prohibiting the importation, supply and use of asbestos products; or introducing controls to be followed by those working with or on asbestos. It wasn’t until we entered the current century that regulators introduced a further set of regulations with an additional and wider approach to managing the risks.
These regulations heralded a new era where anyone carrying out either planned work on asbestos-containing materials (such as asbestos removal) – or any work that could accidentally or unknowingly disturb asbestos (such as maintenance work that could disturb asbestos in the fabric of a premises) – was required to prevent and control the risk of exposure to the workers and the building’s occupants.
In addition, those in control of non-domestic buildings (and the common parts of multi-occupancy domestic premises, such as the hallways and roof spaces in purpose-built flats), were for the first time required to manage any asbestos in the building to prevent and reduce the risk of the occupants and others (like tradespeople) being accidentally exposed.
Duty to Manage
This new set of regulations was The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations (CAWR) 2002. The regulations saw the introduction of what is commonly referred to as Regulation 4 – ‘The Duty to Manage’ asbestos in non-domestic premises.
The regulations were further strengthened in 2006 and 2012 – for example, by requiring that some non-licensed work with asbestos needs to be notified to the relevant enforcing authority. However, Regulation 4 has remained constant and unchanged throughout these updates.
In simple terms the Duty to Manage consists of three basic principles:
- Identify all ACMs in the premises
- Assess the risk of anyone being exposed to fibres from the ACMs in the event of anyone working on or disturbing them (i.e. both workers and occupants)
- Put in place appropriate controls and measures to manage the risk from the ACMs and prevent people being exposed to the substance.
Given that the Duty to Manage – and the three basic principles on how to comply with it – were introduced back in the 2002 Regulations, many would assume that by now dutyholders (and the UK more widely), would have firmly got to grips with the thorny problem of adequately managing the risk from asbestos.
However, although 20 years have now passed, the UK as a country is still a long way from complying with the basic requirements of managing asbestos risks in buildings. As a result, there is unlikely to be a reduction anytime soon in the UK’s annual toll of over 5,000 asbestos-related deaths per year.
It is always important to identify and understand the reasons why we are failing to manage the risks from asbestos otherwise we stand little chance of improving the situation and better protecting workers and others like building occupants.
In order to get a better understanding of the extent of the risk from asbestos in UK buildings, an initial study was carried out in 2022 by two of the leading industry bodies; NORAC (National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants) and ATaC (Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association), who together represent the majority of UKAS-accredited asbestos surveying organisations.
The study was primarily a response to a recent Parliamentary inquiry into asbestos management in the UK by the Work and Pensions Committee of the House of Commons. The inquiry noted that little evidence existed about the current extent and condition of asbestos in UK buildings.
The NORAC/ATaC study analysed over one million lines of data from around 128,000 surveys of premises across the country undertaken by asbestos surveyors to assess the condition of asbestos in UK buildings. The findings were published in November 2022 in a data analysis
report that also marked the 20-year anniversary of the introduction of
the Duty to Manage.
The study was the first time that any organisation had attempted to analyse and understand a large body of data that is already collected about asbestos in UK buildings.
A summary of the study found:
- Of the 128,761 buildings inspected, 100,660 (78 per cent) were found to contain asbestos
- Within those 100,660 buildings, 710,433 items of asbestos
- Out of the 710,433 items of asbestos, 507,612 (71 per cent) were recorded as having some level of damage
- Of the 507,612 damaged items, 120,629 (24 per cent) would be classed as “licensable” work and require a specialist, licensed contractor to safely remove them or make them safe.
The report summary indicates that there is a high proportion of asbestos materials in UK buildings that could pose a potential risk to public health, and which need remediation or removal.
The analysis also shows that a significant number of materials which had previously been found to be in poor condition in an earlier inspection had been subject to re-inspection. In short, this means that dutyholders at these premises had failed to undertake any remedial action to deal with the risk from those materials – suggesting that the overall approach to asbestos management in those premises is poor and failing.
The NORAC/ATaC study is set to be the just the first of its kind and plans are being developed to continue to collect additional data and build on the information available.
Lack of awareness among dutyholders
Although the collection and evaluation of data is just part of the picture, the report clearly suggests that the regulations – and specifically the Duty to Manage – are not currently working as they should. There may be a multitude of reasons why this is happening but one significant factor is likely to be a lack of awareness and understanding among dutyholders (like building owners) on what the regulations actually require in practical terms.
In my experience of working with a variety of different types of organisations – from small businesses through to large multinationals – it is apparent that while all have to comply with the Duty to Manage under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, the ways they can and should achieve this will differ greatly from one to another. However, to ensure they take the correct approach for their circumstances, it is vital dutyholders, like building owners and managing agents for premises, have a good grounding and understanding of their duties and how to comply with them.
For many years there have been qualifications that teach the skills required for the identification, removal and avoidance of asbestos, but these have been aimed at those who work with the hazard – such as those who carry out asbestos removal, surveying, analysis and testing. However, the time has come to move on and focus more specifically on building the skills, knowledge and competence of those responsible for managing asbestos in buildings – like employers, managing agents, facilities managers and school leaders.
The Duty to Manage is often mistakenly viewed as being the role of individuals such as health and safety managers. However, responsibility for managing the risks from asbestos in buildings lies with the many rather than the few, particularly among people in charge of buildings built prior to the year 2000, any of which could contain asbestos.
For example, anyone who is responsible for instructing or managing works which could disturb or interfere with the fabric of a building and/or the building’s services (like pipework that could contain asbestos), needs to fully understand how to reduce the risk of asbestos exposure and work in tandem with others, like the safety manager, to prevent people being put at risk.
In order to improve the knowledge and skills of people such as employers, facilities, estates and project managers, and caretakers on how to effectively manage asbestos, a series of new qualifications have been developed. These are aimed specifically at people who may have responsibilities for asbestos management, whether they appreciate it or not.
The first of these new qualifications is D413 Asbestos Management Practicalities and Awareness, which is being launched in April 2023. This course is aimed at people like facilities, estates and project managers, who are responsible for ensuring asbestos risks have been assessed and removed or adequately managed before allowing works to proceed.
The course is designed to help delegates understand the real-life problems involved in managing asbestos and how to resolve them, and how to translate the legal requirements associated with asbestos management into practical actions that will keep everyone safe from exposure.
These Ofqual-regulated qualifications have been developed by the educational charity NOCN and are being delivered initially by Asbestos Compliance Training, part of Asbestos Compliance Limited.
For more details see: asbestos-compliance.co.uk
Colette Willoughby is director/asbestos compliance consultant at Asbestos Compliance Limited and she is also Chairperson of
National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants (NORAC)
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