Once used extensively in construction, this potentially deadly material may be present in your practice
Asbestos is the single biggest cause of work-related deaths in Britain, responsible for around 4,500 deaths every year – more people than are killed on the roads. Those dying now were exposed many years ago and we all need to prevent further exposures causing a continuing toll in the future.
Those most at risk now include joiners, plumbers, electricians and maintenance workers because they carry out work disturbing building fabric.
Facilities managers, health and safety managers and other people who deal with managing maintenance and refurbishment activities have a legal responsibility to manage any asbestos in the buildings (and in any other equipment), they control. This responsibility, referred to as ‘the duty to manage’ asbestos, requires you to plan and manage any work activity in buildings where there may be a risk from exposure to asbestos, particularly for the benefit of contractors you engage to carry out work.
It is essential that tenants and landlords of primary care health premises have a clear understanding of who will take the lead in finding out if asbestos is liable to be present and how the risk will be managed day to day. If the practice owns its own building then the practice manager is likely to be the duty holder. If there is a tenancy agreement that should state who is responsible for managing building maintenance and they will also be the duty holder for asbestos management.
Having an awareness of asbestos and the risks is critical to managing it routinely and working with it safely,
as hidden asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) may not be obvious to the occupier or to those carrying out refurbishment or maintenance. A robust system must be in place on site and in the organisation to ensure that if asbestos is present or liable to be present, nobody is allowed to start work of any kind until they have been briefed about the location of asbestos and have demonstrated they are competent to avoid contaminating the area.
The scale of the problem
Asbestos was used extensively in construction materials in buildings built or refurbished before the year 2000 mainly as fire protection. Therefore a large number of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) can still be found in commercial and domestic properties throughout Britain. Estimates suggest that there could be up to 500,000 non-domestic properties that have ACMs somewhere in the building. If the building you are in was built after 2000 it is unlikely to contain asbestos and there should be information available to confirm the materials used during construction.
Identify and manage
Materials containing asbestos only present a risk when they are disturbed and then release asbestos fibres into the air, which can then be breathed in. ACMs present little risk if they are left undisturbed and their condition is good and monitored periodically. The first thing to do is determine whether buildings predating 2000 contain ACMs. While you can ‘strongly presume’ their presence (and manage these accordingly) without a survey, the most effective way to identify if any ACMs are present is by having a survey carried out by an experienced asbestos surveyor.
An asbestos survey will often require small samples of suspected ACMs to be taken for analysis and should only be carried out by competent asbestos surveyors who can demonstrate that they have relevant qualifications and experience.
There are two types of asbestos survey:
- A management survey. This is intended to locate the presence and condition of any ACMs which could be damaged or disturbed through normal occupancy or general maintenance work.
- A refurbishment and demolition survey. This is a more intrusive survey as its main purpose is to identify whether there are ACMs in areas where there will be more rigorous refurbishment work or demolition taking place.
When a survey has been completed, the person in control of maintenance should be given an asbestos survey report. The information in this will help produce the ‘asbestos management plan’. An asbestos management plan is mandatory; even if you have not had an asbestos survey carried out and are simply presuming there is widespread asbestos.
The report will help you to plan any maintenance or refurbishment work that needs doing. It is essential information to share with any contractors doing maintenance and refurbishment activities on your behalf and with anyone else likely to disturb it in any way. A system of updating and reviewing the survey register recording the condition of the ACMs is equally important so that deterioration or damage can be detected and remedied.
Does all work with ACMs need a licence?
No. The type of material containing asbestos will determine whether or not an asbestos licence is required. Work on the following materials can only be carried out by a contractor licensed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE):
- Loose fill asbestos insulation.
- Asbestos lagging.
- Sprayed asbestos coatings.
- Most work involving asbestos insulation board (AIB).
These materials are high risk ACMs which are capable of producing a large number of asbestos fibres when they are being worked on.
Other work involving lower risk ACMs can be carried out without a licence providing the worker is trained, this is referred to as non-licensed work. Following the introduction of updated asbestos regulations in April 2012 there is also a third category of work referred to as ‘notifiable non-licensed work’ (NNLW). For this the employers of those doing the work also have additional requirements to:
- Notify work with asbestos to the relevant enforcing authority.
- Ensure that by April 2015 medical examinations have been carried out on the workers.
- Maintain registers of work (health records).
The fact that some work involving asbestos can be carried out without a licence does not mean there is no risk to health. All work involving ACMs needs to be carried out properly using the right working methods and equipment. Any contractors carrying out any form of non-licensed work need to be able to demonstrate that they have had the appropriate training.
HSE has produced a task manual for the building, maintenance and allied trades which provides easy to follow instructions on how to safely carry out a range of non-licensed tasks. The ‘Asbestos Essentials’ task manual can be found on the HSE website. Employers and managers will benefit in particular from reading sheet ‘a0’ which provides advice on non-licensed work with asbestos.
Health surveillance of asbestos workers: GP involvement
As mentioned above, there is a requirement for medicals for non-licensed (lower risk) work. Any GP may carry out this fee paid work providing they have read HSE’s guidance, and practice managers and reception staff may find they get enquiries about these medical examinations. There is a difference between medicals for licensed (ie. higher-risk work) which must be done by a HSE appointed doctor, and non-licensed medicals which can be done by any registered doctor without any HSE involvement.
Helen Ratcliffe is the asbestos unit policy advisor for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).