Acorn director has spent 20 years in asbestos industry fighting hidden killer

Acorn Analytical Services director Ian Stone has worked in the asbestos industry for 20 years.

This month it is 20 years since Acorn Analytical Services director Ian Stone first entered the asbestos industry.

We caught up with Ian to find out how his career in the asbestos industry began and what changes he has seen along the way.

Ian, what made you want to join the asbestos industry?

When I was younger, I fancied being a mechanic and looked into apprenticeships but the money was low and I began working in a solicitor’s office. I stayed for around two years but I wanted a job where I’d be visiting different places.

I heard about an apprenticeship with an asbestos company which appealed to me as it was scientific work and I’d be working on site. I was thrilled when I was offered an interview but then I was involved in a motorcycle accident and was really badly injured.

I was in hospital for two months and had to cancel the interview. A year later, after several operations and physiotherapy, I returned to work at the solicitors but then the asbestos company advertised the apprenticeship again. I got another interview and was offered a trainee position. Over the next few years, I learned everything about the asbestos industry from working in the labs to air monitoring.

What was happening in the asbestos industry when you joined?

When I started working in the asbestos industry the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 had just come out which outlined how non-domestic properties should be managed.

There was a two-year grace period before it kicked in in 2004 and it was quite an optimistic time.

Initially, it generated a massive boom in people wanting to have the Type 2 asbestos surveys which are known today as Asbestos Management Surveys.

It was great to see people taking action to deal with their asbestos and make things safer but then the interest started to drop off.

In 2006 the regulations were updated but it wasn’t a big change and there wasn’t a massive amount of guidance on how to do an asbestos survey.

There was no consistency when people were detailing what asbestos they had where. Companies would come up with their own colours or symbols to identify different types of asbestos which didn’t help to make things clear.

In 2010 new guidance did come out which clarified things and made it much more straightforward to identify different types of asbestos.

Around the same time the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was running its Hidden Killer campaign which highlighted the risks asbestos poses to tradespeople.

Have the changes you’ve seen over the past 20 years made a difference?

It’s heartbreaking to say this but not a lot has changed since I joined the asbestos industry 20 years ago.

Some organisations do a good job of managing their asbestos – you tend to find that those who are aware of the dangers manage their legal responsibilities well.

However, week in week out we see the same problems now that we were seeing in the asbestos industry in 2002.

More than 20 years since the use of asbestos was banned in this country because it poses such a huge risk to health, we’re still going to premises that have never had an asbestos management survey and don’t have an asbestos register showing where their asbestos is situated.

It’s as if these organisations are unaware of everything that has happened during the past 20 years – as though they’ve not heard about the ban on the use of the asbestos or the thousands of people who die in this country every year from asbestos-related diseases.

What do you think needs to be done to improve the situation?

Asbestos is still seen as a thorn in everyone’s side rather than something that needs to be addressed.

Environmental health officers go to premises to monitor things like cleanliness and give premises hygiene ratings and the same thing should happen with asbestos. There should be health and safety ratings that show how well businesses are managing their asbestos.

We’ve seen that the HSE is capable of carrying out inspections like this. During pandemic it has carried out lots of unannounced visits to premises to make sure businesses were complying with the laws relating to Covid-19 so they can do checks of this nature.

Sometimes the HSE will spot something when they visit a construction site but regular checks on businesses are not happening and this is what the asbestos industry is lacking.

The authorities are not being proactive enough – those of us in the asbestos industry are the ones pushing for more to be done because we are so well aware of the dangers.

What is one of the most common problems you encounter?

Repeatedly, when it comes to refurbishments, asbestos experts are not called in until just before work is due to start on site.

If you’re refurbishing any property built before 2000 you should call in asbestos industry experts right at the very start of the planning stages to carry out an Asbestos Refurbishment Survey.

The purpose of these surveys is to locate the presence and extent of suspect asbestos-containing materials where refurbishment works are planned to take place so that people can work safely on site.

Time and time again asbestos industry experts are brought in at the last minute when someone realises they need to have a survey.

You can imagine how a client feels when they suddenly find out they have an asbestos problem which is not only going to cost them a huge amount of money to remedy but is also going to delay them starting work on their project.

They have to provide the HSE with a 14-day notification period before work can begin, then they have to do the works associated with the asbestos before they can start work on their refurbishment. Suddenly, all their plans have gone out the window.

Our message to people managing refurbishments is clear – get asbestos industry experts in at the beginning. Don’t be tempted to think you can get away with not doing so.

If the HSE visits your site and finds you aren’t following the law, they could shut you down and you may receive a huge fine or even a custodial sentence depending on the level of the breach.

Another big problem we face is that asbestos is still considered to be a taboo subject. People are frightened about admitting they may have asbestos so they stick their heads in the sand.

Often they don’t have a registered dutyholder to manage their asbestos or they have given job to someone who doesn’t know anything about asbestos.

In the case of schools, the duty falls to the headteacher and the board of governors who often aren’t sure what to do but they are the ones who are liable if something goes wrong.

It’s not just schools and one-man bands who struggle to cope with their asbestos responsibilities – there are lots of organisations, including blue chip companies, hospitals and councils, which aren’t complying with the law. It’s a massive issue.

Another huge hurdle for us is that people often think asbestos is a thing of the past. I’m regularly asked by friends if there is enough asbestos in this country to see out my working life – sadly there is more than enough.

Any building built before 2000 may contain asbestos so it’s likely that we will have asbestos in this country for hundreds of years to come.

If asbestos is in good condition and is left undisturbed it won’t pose a risk. The problem we see over and over again is workers going into premises and disturbing asbestos and its tiny fibres go everywhere – putting people’s lives at risk.

Is the situation the same elsewhere around the world?

There are other countries which are more proactive about removing asbestos.

The Netherlands banned asbestos more than 20 years ago and their officials are trying to eliminate it from the country’s infrastructure. Only recently they ordered that all exterior asbestos roofing there should be removed by the beginning of 2024.

We should push towards more active removal here really because if we don’t remove it’s always going to be around and someone, somewhere will always either be ignorant of the law, choose to ignore it or do something stupid and they will end up damaging asbestos.

The only way to remove the risk completely is to get rid of asbestos.

What would you like to happen in the future?

We’ve seen some improvements in the asbestos industry but if nothing massive changes we’re not going to get rid of our legacy of asbestos.

At least once or twice a week we’re called to emergencies across the country where someone suspects they have disturbed asbestos.

What worries me even more is these are the incidents where someone has thought to call for help. How many more are happening that we don’t know about?

Everyone should have asbestos awareness training because it’s frightening how many people are disturbing asbestos and then taking remnants of it home with them to their wives and children.

Lots of people were exposed to asbestos in the 1960s and 1970s when it was being used most heavily by our construction industry.

But the awful truth is people are still being exposed to it today and if we don’t educate people about the dangers, exposures will go on happening.

Take a situation where a wall is being ripped out of an office – if it contains asbestos, and the tradespeople don’t know about it, you could have dozens of people being exposed to asbestos. It might not be a massive exposure but it could be enough to cause them serious or even life-threatening conditions.

It’s absolutely heartbreaking for our team to have go into a workplace and tell people they may have been exposed to asbestos. These are awful conversations to have and they shouldn’t still be happening today.

What can people do to protect themselves from asbestos?

If you have no idea whether you have asbestos or what you should do about it then have a conversation with us. It won’t cost you anything – give us a call.

I’m happy to have 100 conversations and get no work from them if it means people go away more educated and aren’t going to be at risk anymore.

We’re not a charity but we don’t mind doing this as part of our day-to-day work because we would always rather help people if we can.

It isn’t a good idea to stick your head in the sand and ignore the problem because it won’t go away. If you do this, you could end up putting lives at risk and your organisation could be prosecuted.

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   

Neil Munro

I work in a dual role at Acorn Analytical Services focused primarily on growing and leading the business from our Northampton office base. My focus is on overseeing all sales, marketing and financial activities from Northampton. I assist clients with high-level asbestos management strategies and training. Together with Ian Stone I host our weekly podcast – Asbestos Knowledge Empire and I'm Co-author of Asbestos The Dark Arts and Fear and Loathing of Health and Safety.

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