What happens when asbestos goes wrong?

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Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, has been a staple in the construction industry for decades due to its heat-resistant properties. However, when mishandled, it can lead to severe health risks, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. Unfortunately, cases of asbestos mismanagement are still prevalent today, despite the wealth of information and regulations available to prevent such incidents.

In this post, we’ll delve into two incidents from January 2013 that were highlighted in the press, where the mishandling of asbestos led to significant fines and potential health risks. We’ll also explore what these organisations could have done differently to avoid these outcomes, providing valuable insights for businesses today.

Case Study 1: Engineering and Building Companies’ Missteps

In the first incident, two companies—an engineering firm and a building company—were fined nearly £30,000 due to a series of missteps. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) described the situation as a “catalogue of errors.” Untrained staff were put in charge of the operation, the project was poorly managed, and the surveys identifying asbestos materials were inadequate.

The HSE pointed out that both companies failed in their project management, leading to potential asbestos exposure. But how could this have been avoided?

The Solution: Comprehensive Training and Thorough Surveys

Preventing mishaps related to asbestos begins with a two-pronged approach: comprehensive training and thorough surveys. Let’s delve into each of these aspects in more detail.

Comprehensive Training

Asbestos-related work is not something that can be handled by just anyone. It requires specialised knowledge and skills, which can only be acquired through comprehensive training. This training should cover a wide range of topics, including:

  • Asbestos Awareness: Employees should understand what asbestos is, where it’s commonly found, and the health risks associated with exposure. They should also be aware of the regulations surrounding asbestos management.
  • Identification and Assessment: Training should equip employees with the ability to identify asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) and assess their condition. This includes understanding the different types of asbestos and their typical uses.
  • Safe Work Practices: Employees should be trained in safe work practices, such as how to avoid disturbing ACMs and what to do if they accidentally come into contact with asbestos.
  • Emergency Procedures: In the event of an unexpected asbestos disturbance, employees should know the correct emergency procedures, including evacuation, containment, and reporting.

This training should not be a one-time event. Regular refresher courses should be conducted to ensure that all employees’ knowledge and skills are up-to-date.

Thorough Surveys

Before any construction or renovation work begins, a thorough asbestos survey should be conducted by a competent person or an accredited asbestos surveyor. This survey serves to identify and assess the presence of any ACMs within the building or site. The survey should include:

  • Material Assessment: This involves taking samples of suspected ACMs and having them analyzed in a laboratory to confirm the presence of asbestos.
  • Risk Assessment: The condition of the ACMs should be assessed to determine the risk of asbestos fibres being released into the air. Factors to consider include the type of asbestos, its location, its condition, and the likelihood of disturbance.
  • Asbestos Register: All findings should be recorded in an asbestos register, which is a document that records the location and condition of ACMs in a building. This register should be updated regularly and made available to anyone who is likely to disturb the ACMs.
  • Management Plan: Based on the findings of the survey, an asbestos management plan should be developed. This plan should outline how the ACMs will be managed to prevent exposure, whether that involves removal, encapsulation, or leaving the ACMs in place and managing them in situ.

By implementing comprehensive training and conducting thorough surveys, companies can significantly reduce the risk of asbestos-related incidents, protecting both their employees and their bottom line.

Case Study 2: Hospital Trust’s Communication Breakdown

In the second incident, a hospital trust was fined over £7,500 after contractors drilled through a door surround made of asbestos insulating board. The HSE investigation revealed that the hospital had survey information indicating the presence of asbestos, but this information was not communicated to the contractors, despite several site meetings.

The HSE noted that the hospital had invested considerable resources into identifying asbestos but failed in their system to pass this information on to the contractors. So, what could they have done differently?

The Solution: Effective Communication and Contractor Briefing

In the realm of asbestos management, effective communication and thorough contractor briefing are not just best practices—they’re essential components of a robust safety protocol. Let’s break down these two elements:

Effective Communication

Effective communication is the cornerstone of any successful asbestos management strategy. It ensures that everyone involved in a project is aware of the presence of asbestos and understands the necessary precautions. Here’s how to facilitate it:

  • Asbestos Register Access: Make the asbestos register readily available to all relevant parties. This document, which details the location and condition of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), should be easily accessible to all employees and contractors.
  • Regular Updates: If the asbestos situation changes—for instance, if new ACMs are discovered or existing ones are disturbed—communicate these updates promptly. This could be done through emails, meetings, or a dedicated communication platform.
  • Open Channels: Encourage questions and discussions about asbestos management. An open communication culture can help identify potential issues early and ensure everyone feels confident about the procedures in place.

Contractor Briefing

Contractors may not be familiar with the specific asbestos situation in your building or site, making thorough briefing crucial. Here’s what this should involve:

  • Pre-Work Briefing: Before work begins, hold a briefing with the contractors to discuss the presence of asbestos. Provide them with a copy of the asbestos register and explain any necessary precautions.
  • Safety Procedures: Outline the safety procedures for working around asbestos. This should include instructions on what to do if they accidentally disturb any ACMs.
  • Emergency Protocols: Make sure contractors are aware of the emergency protocols in case of unexpected asbestos exposure. This includes evacuation procedures, immediate steps to limit exposure, and reporting procedures.
  • Regular Check-Ins: Throughout the project, hold regular check-ins with the contractors to address any concerns or questions they might have. This also provides an opportunity to communicate any changes in the asbestos situation.

By prioritizing effective communication and thorough contractor briefing, organizations can ensure that everyone involved in a project is aware of the asbestos situation and knows how to handle it safely. This not only reduces the risk of asbestos-related incidents but also fosters a culture of safety and transparency.

Key Takeaways

These case studies highlight the importance of proper asbestos management, including comprehensive training, thorough surveys, and effective communication. By implementing these measures, businesses can not only avoid hefty fines but also protect the health and safety of their employees and contractors.

Remember, when it comes to asbestos, prevention is always better than cure. Don’t wait for an incident to occur before taking action. Start implementing these preventative measures today, and create a safer work environment for everyone.

Take the Next Step Towards Asbestos Safety

Don’t let the complexities of asbestos management overwhelm you. Ensuring the safety of your employees and contractors doesn’t have to be a daunting task. With the right expertise and support, you can navigate the intricacies of asbestos management with confidence and ease.

That’s where Acorn Analytical Services comes in.

As a leading provider of asbestos consultancy services, we have the experience, knowledge, and tools to help you manage asbestos effectively. Our team of experts can provide comprehensive training, conduct thorough surveys, facilitate effective communication, and offer guidance on contractor briefing.

But why choose Acorn Analytical Services?

  • Expertise: Our team is composed of highly skilled and experienced asbestos consultants who stay abreast of the latest regulations and best practices in asbestos management.
  • Comprehensive Services: From asbestos surveys and testing to training and management plans, we offer a full suite of services to meet all your asbestos needs.
  • Tailored Solutions: We understand that every organization is unique. That’s why we tailor our services to fit your specific needs and circumstances.
  • Client Satisfaction: We pride ourselves on our commitment to client satisfaction. Our goal is to make asbestos management as stress-free and straightforward as possible for you.

Don’t wait for an asbestos incident to happen before taking action. Contact us today and let us help you create a safer work environment. Your peace of mind—and the health and safety of your employees and contractors—are our top priorities.

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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