20 years after the use of asbestos was banned in the UK will we ever be asbestos-safe?

Are you doing everything you can be to be asbestos-safe?

Have you ever considered if the UK will ever be asbestos-safe?

Here at Acorn Analytical Services we are regularly asked by clients and friends if we think there is enough asbestos left in the country to see us out.

Sadly, the answer is yes and not just us but generations to come.

Any building built here before 2000 may contain asbestos. Some experts have suggested that 1.5m UK buildings contain asbestos, including public buildings and homes.

Some studies have also found that asbestos is likely to be present in 75% of English schools.

Inheriting this awful legacy means we’re likely to have asbestos in our country for years to come unless drastic action is taken.

What are other places doing to make themselves asbestos-safe?

Asbestos is not just a UK problem, it’s a worldwide problem. That is why, even today, when many countries have banned the use of asbestos, the hazardous substance still remains the world’s biggest workplace killer.

So, it’s interesting to see how other places around the world attempt to make themselves asbestos-safe.

The Flemish government in Belgium, for instance, has taken a risk-based approach to tackling their region’s huge asbestos legacy and have plans to become ‘asbestos-safe’ in less than 20 years.

A report by IOSH Magazine a few weeks ago into the Flemish government’s approach revealed the decision was taken after the Public Waste Agency of Flanders (OVAM) compared national and international studies, undertook sector enquiries and ran pilot projects, and emphasised the need for a more immediate and proactive approach.

The article included a quote from Sven de Mulder, Project Leader, OVAM, Antwerp Metropolitan Area, who said: “A second wave of asbestos victims is imminent and this time it is ordinary citizens who did not work in the former asbestos industry or in the construction sector.

“The main reason for this is the life-long exposure risk at home, at school and in the office due to the presence of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) and the poor condition of these materials.”

In 2019, the Flemish government said all Flemish public authorities need to remove asbestos from all public buildings that were erected before 2001.

The government’s plans include the phasing out of the most risky asbestos indications by 2034 and all other asbestos, which is in a poor condition, by 2040.

The government’s intention is not to become asbestos-free but to ensure that any asbestos that is left in place is in a good condition and is clearly documented so the authorities know where it is.

Having said that, they expect more than 90% of the region’s asbestos will need to be removed by 2040.

Currently, workplaces must provide an asbestos inventory and this requirement is going to be extended to homeowners.

The government is making the change partly in response to stories of adults who have developed asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma because they were exposed to asbestos at home when they were young.

However, they have also taken up the proactive stance following a cost-benefit analysis which led them to the conclusion that introducing an asbestos removal plan and creating a goal of becoming ‘asbestos-safe’ was the best case scenario. 

The plans also include the creation of a new central database which will document current and future asbestos inventories that are collected from the region’s building stock. 

It is also tackling the problem of asbestos in its schools.

So far, it has removed asbestos from 500 schools and last year it provided 3.85m euros to remove asbestos from 200 schools. At the same time, the Flemish public authorities are also carrying out hundreds of asbestos inventories in schools.

OVAM has also set up a subsidised system that enables every Flanders resident to register to have their asbestos waste management collected from a specified location and it has started to collect asbestos cement waste from farmers.

What is Great Britain doing to be asbestos-safe?

In our country there are rules in place to manage asbestos in all non-domestic buildings and in the common areas of domestic buildings such as halls, stairwells, lift shafts and roof spaces.

People have a legal duty to manage asbestos in these situations if they:

  • own the building
  • are responsible through a contract or tenancy agreement
  • have control of the building but no formal contract or agreement
  • are the owner of a multi-occupancy building and have taken responsibility for maintenance and repairs for the whole building.

The duty to manage asbestos includes:

  • finding out if there is asbestos in the premises, its location and what condition it is in
  • making and keeping an up-to-date record of the location and condition of the ACMs or presumed ACMs in your premises
  • assessing the risk
  • preparing a plan that sets out in detail how you are going to manage the risk
  • taking the steps needed to put your plan into action
  • reviewing and monitoring your plan and the arrangements made to put it in place
  • setting up a system for providing information on the location and condition of the material to anyone who is liable to work on or disturb it.

Essentially the duty to manage asbestos is all about putting in place the practical steps necessary to protect maintenance workers and others from the risk of exposure to asbestos fibres – it is not about removing all asbestos.

There is lots of advice to help organisations manage their asbestos on their Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website.

Failure to follow this advice can lead to people being exposed to asbestos and companies and company owners and managers may find themselves being prosecuted.

Unfortunately, the reality is that we are far from being asbestos-safe in this country because many people are unaware of the rules or fail to follow them.

As a result, more than 20 years after the use of asbestos was banned here we’re still seeing people being exposed to this deadly substance every day and people ending up in court for failing to follow the law.

How can I take steps to becoming asbestos-safe?

We may be behind some other countries when it comes to proactively tackling our asbestos legacy but there are still things that we can all be doing to make sure we’re all asbestos-safe.

The first step to becoming asbestos-safe is to find out what asbestos you have at your property and what state it is in by having an asbestos survey. To effectively manage your asbestos and prevent people from damaging or disturbing it, you first need to know where it is, what extent it is and what condition it is in. An asbestos survey will provide this information.

If you are planning to do any work on your building make sure you think about asbestos at the early pre-planning stages. Arrange for experts to carry out an asbestos refurbishment survey well before any work is due to start so you can manage any risks effectively. If you fail to do this, you may find that your project comes to a grinding halt when HSE inspectors come to call.

Educate yourself about asbestos. We have lots of free resources to help you do this including our publication, Asbestos The Dark Arts.

Once you’ve educated yourself share your knowledge with others. If your workplace or your child’s school, for example, was built before 2000 ask if they have had an asbestos survey carried out. Start the conversation. Find out what they know and if they need assistance advise them to get help.

How does Acorn help people to keep asbestos-safe?

Acorn offers a comprehensive suite of asbestos consultancy services from asbestos air testing and asbestos surveys to removal management, and UKATA accredited training. We solve all your asbestos challenges swiftly to save you time, costs and stress.

For anyone who is not sure if they are complying with asbestos laws, we offer a free asbestos review surgery. During a 30-minute video call you will get the opportunity to discuss and diagnose your current asbestos compliance status.

We have also created the UK’s only fully documented and systemised asbestos management process. It is called the Acorn Asbestos Antidote and it takes clients from non-compliance to full compliance with asbestos laws.

With Acorn on your side, you can be sure that you, your colleagues and loved ones will be asbestos-safe so give us a call today.

Acorn is a professional asbestos consultancy helping organisations deal with asbestos compliance using asbestos surveysasbestos air testing, and asbestos removal management. Please call one of the team, or use the online form to obtain your free quotation. If you would like further information or advice on asbestos and asbestos training, contact the team on 0844 818 0895 or Contact Us   

Ian Stone

I am based out of our Northampton office but regularly travel to meet with new and existing clients. I have assisted thousands of clients over the years on varying-sized projects, several have been schemes totalling over one million pounds spent purely on asbestos. Together with Neil Munro, I host our weekly podcast – Asbestos Knowledge Empire and I am Co-author of Asbestos The Dark Arts and Fear and Loathing of Health and Safety.

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