We know there is strict law surrounding employers’ asbestos responsibilities. Falling foul of these laws can lead to serious fines and even prison time if the offence is severe enough. In this blog we will delve into the common ways that employers may fall short of the standards set out by the law, examine some case studies, and consider how you can impress any HSE inspector with your legal compliance.
The risk of asbestos presents various duties to employers. For a start, employers must manage the asbestos risk within any of the buildings which they own or occupy. In some cases, employers will lease a building, and it is their landlord who is responsible for managing the asbestos. Either way, an employer must ensure that they’re aware of the asbestos risk within the properties which they occupy, and ensure controls and safeguards are implemented that will maintain the health and safety of their employees, and anyone else who may come and go from the premises, for example contractors, clients, members of the public, etc.
Employers must also ensure that workers are not exposed to asbestos throughout the course of their duties, for example a maintenance or handyman while carrying out repairs to a building, or workers within a building which has exposed, damaged asbestos containing materials (ACMs).
A third key example is where asbestos needs to be removed from a property - the type of asbestos and likely exposure levels of the employees will define who is able to carry out the work; the handling of the asbestos must also be carefully considered, as well as making the area safe during the works, and finally the storage and disposal of asbestos must be done safely.
In 2009 a building contractor was engaged by Birmingham City Council to refurbish one of their buildings. Ceiling tiles containing brown asbestos were removed, and the area was cleaned using a vacuum cleaner. Both activities released asbestos fibres into the work area.
The resulting HSE investigation found that neither an asbestos survey nor risk assessment had been carried out. Due to the type of asbestos and exposure time, asbestos removal should have been licensed, however, the subcontractors had no licence to work with asbestos or knowledge of how to deal with asbestos, and its employees had received no training in how to deal with asbestos.
Birmingham City Council was fined £5000 plus £1000 costs for failing to ensure the health and safety of employees and non-employees; The contractor (Solihull Supplies Ltd) was fined £1750 and £1000 costs.
This is a prime example of employers and clients failing in their duties to manage the asbestos risk; if a building was built before the year 2000 it may have materials containing asbestos (ACMs)within it and as such an asbestos survey and risk assessment should form part of the building owners due diligence prior to commencing any maintenance, refurbishment or other work that may disturb ACMs.
In 2010 a lecturer at the Lincoln University noticed debris around the handle of a door which she had become trapped behind after it became broken. The debris was found to contain asbestos. Following this, the University conducted surveys and found many other doors that were lined with asbestos board.
An investigation carried out by the HSE found that some areas of the University had been subject to asbestos surveys, with asbestos identified, however, no remedial action had been taken.
The University was fined £10,000 for breaching section 5 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and ordered to pay £12,700 in costs.
This case study demonstrates that carrying out an asbestos survey and forming an asbestos management plan are not merely tick-box exercises, and remedial action must be taken following any risks identified.
In 2019 a school was fined £3000 with £4785.37 costs, and maintenance contractor fined £2,000 with £4,710.37 costs after they were found to have failed to refer to a previous asbestos register and management plan pertinent to the school buildings.
During the work carried out by the contractor, ceiling tiles containing asbestos were removed and disturbed, potentially exposing several people to asbestos fibres. As there were no controls in place for isolating the area of work, it is possible that people not involved in the work such as school staff and children were exposed to the asbestos.
This case study highlights how the findings of an asbestos survey need to be communicated to all relevant parties and readily available- again, managing asbestos is not a mere tick box exercise.
Sometimes, even the ‘experts’ who are brought in to help a client manage the asbestos risk within their premises can deliberately break the law. In February 2017, an Asbestos Management firm engaged by a department store was sentenced by the court after irregularities in their asbestos surveys and clearance certificates - some were even found to be fraudulent.
The asbestos management firm had been contracted to carry out an asbestos survey, remove all identified ACMs from the building and finally carry out the initial strip-out of the building before it was refurbished. The company, however, was found to have deliberately cut corners in managing the danger of asbestos exposure putting workers at risk. The Director of the asbestos removal firm was sentenced to a 10 month prison term.
This is why it’s so important to only utilise services from a contractor who has a proven, faultless track record.
We have looked in detail at employers’ asbestos responsibilities before. However, here’s a summary:
Failing to fulfil your employers’ asbestos responsibilities can land you in hot water. As we’ve seen, failure to ‘predict’ whether ACMs may be present in your property can land you heavy fines just as easily as failing to act in line with your asbestos management plan. It’s also important to note the indirect costs of an HSE investigation and being found guilty of safety breaches - these are vast and can include productivity loss due to downtime or sick leave, sick pay, delays in project execution and loss of company reputation.
With all this being said, however, it is actually very easy to satisfy the requirements of the law for employers’ asbestos responsibilities, especially when you have expert assistance and advice on hand that you can trust. Call us today for further information.