More than 4,000 people die prematurely every year as a result of exposure to asbestos. Those installing services such as security and fire alarm systems are particularly at risk.
The reason that installers are likely to disturb the carcinogenic substance is that they work in third-party buildings and so are reliant on the occupier to inform them of the presence of the material.
Compliance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 is patchy and therefore it’s pretty common for installers to find themselves in a building that is old enough to include asbestos containing materials (ACMs) but on which there is no information. Drilling into ceilings, chasing cables, working in roof voids, etc. are activities that have a fair chance of disturbing asbestos.
ProsecutionA recent case highlights the plight of visiting engineers, in this case where misinformation caused an incident.
In July 2011, two fire alarm installers were working at the premises of Romag Ltd, a glass firm based in Consett.
They had been informed that the building was free from asbestos, but it wasn’t true.
While installing the equipment, they drilled in to an asbestos insulation panel. Unaware of any problem, they then vacuumed up the debris. The two sub-contractors then moved on through the building installing detectors and cleaning up after themselves with the same ordinary vacuum cleaner. Unfortunately this had the effect of spreading asbestos fibres around the premises.
The mistake was realised the next day and Romag’s safety advisers urged it to take emergency action by cordoning off the damaged area, bringing in specialists to clean, and conducting air testing to check that the levels of asbestos fibre had been brought within legal limits.
However, there was a delay of at least nine days before such action was taken. When it was, it is reported that a “substantial amount” of the material was collected.
The HSE found that the delay would have led to 180 workers and 16 visitors being potentially exposed.
In court, Romag Ltd pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The company was fined £20,000 and ordered to pay £12,638 in costs.
The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the asbestos legislation was not used in court, but this is not significant, the HSE tends to use the “umbrella act” of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 when prosecuting.
Duty holder responsibilityAny company that has a repairing or maintenance responsibility for non-domestic premises has a duty to manage asbestos. The HSE has given a cut-off date of the year 2000, after which it can be assumed that UK property is asbestos free. For buildings preceding that date, the duty holder needs to identify asbestos-containing materials and ensure that they are properly managed to prevent exposure. Alternatively, they may presume that materials contain asbestos where there is a lack of strong evidence to the contrary.
The usual approach is to pay for a specialist asbestos survey, assess the risk from any materials found, and produce a management plan.
What installers should know
It’s perfectly reasonable to ask a client for the asbestos register before starting work. This enables installers to see the locations of any known asbestos. Beware though that the register is only as good as the survey.
You should therefore try to establish the extent of any survey which contributed to the register. There are two levels, “management” and “demolition/ refurbishment.” Depending on the scope of the installation work, the management survey may not be good enough as it won’t look beneath the surface.
Alarm companies need to minimize the risk of exposure to asbestos both to their engineers and to others using the building. In addition to planning of the work and communicating with the client, companies should ensure that workers have received asbestos awareness training. This is for the purpose of being able to identify suspect materials whilst working and knowing what to do about it.
If you want workers to carry out fixing to asbestos-containing materials, then the training required will be much more in-depth. Safe systems of work will need to be adopted. A good way forward is to model these on the HSE’s guidance, “Asbestos essentials.”
This and a great deal more information is available from the HSE’s website.