Recent statistics put pay to the idea that asbestos is yesterday’s problem. More than 5000 people still die of asbestos-related diseases every year, and the figure isn’t likely to fall. Not only does the long latency of asbestos exposure - often 20 to 30 years - mean that many people are yet to notice symptoms, but asbestos also remains an active and present part of buildings today.
Thanks to a hundred-year legacy of asbestos’ use in building projects around the UK, the deadly substance is more common than you might think, lining everything from wall cavities to boilers to toilet cisterns. For small businesses moving into new (or rather, old) offices, this presents a dilemma: does my building contain asbestos, and how do I deal with it?
Asbestos in the UK
Asbestos is the name given to a group of six naturally-occuring mineral ores, often characterised by their distinctive colours. These include blue asbestos, white asbestos, green asbestos and brown asbestos, all of which have had various applications throughout history. Asbestos has been mined for thousands of years, with Ancient Persian noblemen throwing asbestos tablecloths in the fire as a party trick.
The discovery of the unique properties of asbestos - including its resistance to fire, sound and electricity - drove both the Industrial revolution and the post-War rebuilding of Europe. Despite the negative effects of asbestos exposure being known as early as the 1890s, the most deadly forms of asbestos were not widely banned until the 1980s, and using white asbestos only became illegal in the UK in 1999. As such, asbestos remains in place in thousands of buildings.
Asbestos and safety legislation
The use of blue and brown asbestos was banned in the UK from 1985, while all forms of asbestos were banned from sale or manufacture in 2000. In addition, the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 laid out the specific responsibilities of landlords and the businesses occupying them. However, there is no statutory requirement to survey for asbestos if none is suspected, or to remove asbestos if it is not deemed to pose a risk to human health.
Under the 2012 law, owners of non-domestic buildings have a “duty to manage” asbestos by surveying and removing unstable ACMs (e.g. lagging or loose-fill insulation), and sealing or repairing stable ones (e.g. textured coatings, tiles or boards). Employers occupying these buildings meanwhile are obliged to provide asbestos awareness training if their workers are likely to come into contact with the substance.
If your small business has five or more employees, you are legally obliged to have a written health & safety policy, which should contain an action plan and procedure for the management of asbestos, and steps to control the risk of asbestos exposure. If your business has fewer than five employees, this policy should still exist in practice, but does not have to be written down. However, it is advisable that you do so anyway; such policies are easier to formulate and carry out for small businesses, particularly those in risk-averse areas such as offices.
As a rule, asbestos removals should always be carried out by licensed professionals, although depending on the nature of the project, it may technically be legal to carry it out yourself. Examples include modifications to decorative coatings (such as drilling through Artex), or moving asbestos insulating boards. Relevant factors include the amount of ACMs and the type of asbestos involved, as well as your capacity to protect yourself and dispose of it correctly.
As the dangers of asbestos were broadly unknown or unpublicised until the late 20th century, many everyday products were made with asbestos. Even after asbestos became more heavily regulated, its use in inert building materials was seen as safe. Some common uses include:
While asbestos is easily recognisable in its pure form, ACMs can be extremely hard to identify with any certainty. As such, small business owners should be cautious and pragmatic when it comes to tracking down asbestos in their building.
If your office was built before the year 2000 - and particularly between 1945 and 1990 - you should seek out a qualified surveyor as a matter of course. They will have a good eye for features which may contain asbestos, and will be able to carry out air quality tests and further lab testing if necessary.
If you are renting or leasing the premises, the onus for this should fall on your landlord. If they have not provided you with an asbestos register and have not had the property surveyed, but you have reason to suspect the presence of asbestos, you have the right to request this. A failure to do so could leave both parties liable in the event of future issues.
If there is any likelihood of your employees coming into contact with asbestos during their time at work, then you are legally required to provide them with asbestos awareness training. While an online asbestos awareness course is adequate for certain tasks, the removal or treatment of asbestos will require both practical and theory training.
These courses provide employees with an outline of the risks of asbestos exposure, the likely locations of asbestos in the work environment, the ways in which asbestos exposure occurs, the effects of asbestos exposure, asbestos-related legislation and best practices for dealing with asbestos. The theory course can be taken online and completed in as little as two hours.
Removal of unstable and high-risk asbestos requires a surveyor’s license, but both theory and practical training are advised for working with any kind of asbestos. Some work is also categorised as notifiable non-licensable work (NNLW), which requires you to notify the council and undergo a health check before removing or modifying the asbestos containing materials.
Fundamentally, asbestos is an issue best left to trained professionals, and treated with extreme caution. The damage caused by asbestos inhalation is permanent and serious, and its presence all around us means that you can never be too careful about asbestos-containing materials in your facility. By constructing an action plan and safety policy, ensuring your building is surveyed and conducting proper training, you’ll ensure both compliance and complete peace of mind.