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Understanding your duties whilst working with asbestos

25 November 2020 8 minutes

Asbestos is one of the worst occupational illnesses in this country. It was used widely in construction during the early 20th century right up until the 1970's when the health hazards of asbestos became widely recognised.

Today we have legislation that requires us to manage the problem responsibly.

First of all, what is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous silicate mineral.  Three common types of asbestos are crocidolite (Blue), amosite (Brown) and chrysotile (White).

Modern commercial use began in 1870 when a large deposit was found in Canada.

Properties of asbestos that make it so useful are:

  • good thermal insulation;
  • stable at high temperatures;
  • good electrical insulation;
  • has high tensile strength;
  • has long flexible fibres; and
  • does not degrade over time.

Therefore it was widely used in buildings for insulation and fire protection, eg roofing, cladding, thermal insulation, etc.

Much asbestos is still left in buildings – it is estimated about half a million non-domestic premises contain asbestos.


Why is asbestos dangerous?

There are three commonly encountered types of asbestos. All forms are potentially dangerous, but research has shown that blue and brown are significantly more dangerous than white asbestos.

If asbestos is in good condition and is not disturbed it poses no risk to health, but when it is disturbed it can break down to into sharp fibres and can be breathed in.

Inhaling asbestos fibres can lead to several diseases, some of which are fatal:

Asbestosis – irreversible scarring of the lungs, with a decrease in elasticity. Industrial disease due to high levels of all types of asbestos.

Lung cancer – increased incidence in those working with asbestos. All types can cause the disease, there is some evidence of more danger from blue and brown. It is important to note that smoking if exposed to asbestos fibres will increase the likelihood of the disease.

Mesothelioma – cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal wall. Again evidence of increased risk if exposure is to blue or brown asbestos – there has been some disease from low or short exposures to blue or brown.


What does the law say?

Most previous regulations assume that the employer or self-employed person knows that the substance being worked on is asbestos and can then comply with duties.

In building maintenance, asbestos may be encountered unexpectedly or may not be identified at all if workers do not suspect it is there.  This can lead to repeated exposure which can be high, depending on the material being worked on and the tools being used, as illustrated in the earlier table.

It’s not just building workers being exposed. People working with or around damaged asbestos containing materials (ACMs) in circumstances where fibres may be disturbed are also at risk of small but repeated exposures.

The inclusion of the specific duties to manage the risk from asbestos in non-domestic premises under regulation 4 of the 2012 Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations only consolidates the duties imposed generally by existing law and relates them specifically to the hazard of asbestos in non-domestic premises.

In essence it requires duty holders to identify ACMs and presumed ACMs in their premises, record their location and condition, undertake a risk assessment, prepare and implement a plan to manage the risks and ensure that the information is passed down to those who could come into contact with any ACMs.


Who is the duty holder?

Concentrate first on who the duty holders are. It is important to clarify this because many people may have a say over aspects of maintenance in particular premises, depending on the terms of the lease/tenancy agreement.

The duty holder is anyone who has, by virtue of any contract or tenancy agreement, an obligation of any extent in relation to the maintenance or repair of premises.  Depending on the contract, the duty holder could be the owner of a building, the managing agent, tenant etc. It is intended that the existing contractual arrangements for dealing with building related matters be reflected in respect of the duty to manage asbestos.

Regulation 4(2) places a duty on all others to cooperate with the duty holder so they are able to comply with their duties under the regulation. It is intended to cover those who are not duty holders but who may have information on, or control of, the premises for example surveyors and architects. It’s designed to prevent any party stopping the free flow of information.

In the absence of a contract or where the premises are unoccupied, then the regulation places the duty on the person in control of the premises.

The highest asbestos exposure risk is through occupational exposure to the toxic mineral.

Once the duty holder has been identified, what do duty holders have to do?

The law sets out what has to be done in regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.

The main aim is to manage the risk from ACMs in premises to make sure that no-one is exposed to asbestos fibres which might lead to ill health.

Any work required to be completed as a result of this management would be carried out using the standards set out in the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.

The regulation contains a number of different elements, which are summarised as a series of logical steps to be taken in the leaflet  A short guide to managing asbestos in premises INDG223(rev3).

In general terms, the steps are as follows:

  • finding out if there is asbestos in the premises, its amount and what condition it is in (conduct an asbestos survey);
  • presuming materials contain asbestos, unless you have strong evidence that they do not;
  • making and keeping up to date a record of the location and condition of the ACMs or presumed ACMs in your premises;
  • assessing the risk from the material;
  • preparing a plan that sets out in detail how you are going to manage the risk from this material;
  • taking the steps needed to put your plan into action;
  • reviewing and monitoring your plan and the arrangements made to put it in place; and
  • providing information on the location and condition of the material to anyone who is liable to work on or disturb it.

The Duty Holder may commission a survey to locate all of the asbestos containing materials, this must be made available to anyone that could be affected (employees and contractors).

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