UK Government Delivers Strong Recommendations To HSE's approach to Asbestos Management In Latest Report10 May 2022
April has been a significant month for the asbestos industry. As well as celebrating Global Asbestos Awareness Week, an annual event designed to educate people about asbestos risks and how best to manage the material to prevent disease, the 6th of April marked the 10th anniversary of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 coming into force. However, these two significant milestones in occupational health and safety have arguably been overshadowed by the Work and Pensions Committee report published in late April 2022, 'The Health and Safety Executive's Approach to Asbestos Management'.
Lucion’s Technical Director Chris Parr provides insight into the Government’s latest recommendations and what this might mean for employers, building owners and asbestos professionals in the future.
Despite the import, supply and use of asbestos being banned since 1999 in the UK, 5,000 premature deaths per year are related to asbestos and asbestos related diseases. Asbestos accounts for more deaths per year than road traffic accidents. The UK death rate for asbestos-related diseases continues to be the highest in the world. Aware of these facts, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is being accused of failing to put in place the measures required to adequately combat our asbestos legacy issues and adequately protect members of the public from harm. Until, perhaps, now.
The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee most recent report published 21st April 2022, ‘The Health and Safety Executive's Approach to Asbestos Management', recommends that the HSE, as part of their upcoming review of the Control of Asbestos Regulations, current guidance and stringent control measures must be implemented in line with other European countries and invest in awareness campaigns as well as more regular audits and investigations of sites to ensure compliance.
The report states in section 8:
“The latest Control of Asbestos Regulations were introduced in April 2012 and apply to all non-domestic premises (including ‘common areas’ of certain domestic buildings), regardless of the nature of business or industry.28 They are made under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, address health risks and apply only in Great Britain. Northern Ireland and Gibraltar have separate legislation covering their territories.”
There are an estimated 300,000 non-domestic buildings containing asbestos in the UK. Utilising the current asbestos control measures and increasing in retrofitting and contaminants works in response to the net-zero carbon ambitions allows that more asbestos-containing materials will be disturbed in coming decades.
The Historic Issue of Asbestos
As outlined in Charles Pickles' White Paper, 'Why The UK Needs Tighter Asbestos Controls', during the periods of 1920 – 1970 and 1971-2000, Europe used 48% and 58% of the entire world’s trade of asbestos, arguably making Europe the historical global centre of asbestos use; the UK, Germany and France being the highest importers.
In the UK during the 1950s, 60s and 70s there was a ‘building boom’, in which amosite asbestos was used inside buildings as insulation/insulative products and chrysotile asbestos was used in the cement and cladding on the outside of buildings.
Since the ban of asbestos in the UK in 1999 and extensive research conducted in the harmful effects of asbestos, it has long been recognised that the disturbance of Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs) in older buildings can lead to harmful fibres being released, with dangerous health risks to individuals.
The Cost of Getting it Wrong
Airborne asbestos fibres that are small enough to reach the deep lung tissue have no way of being pushed out via breathing so the body has to use other methods to get rid of them.
The main method is to try and dissolve the foreign body with acids, however, some asbestos is resistant to acid. As a result, the acid damages the tissues surrounding the asbestos fibres. This causes scar tissue and other medical effects known as asbestos-related diseases.
The current acceptable level of airborne asbestos fibres (HSE clearance indicator) used to declare area(s) of a building safe for normal occupation following asbestos removal, is less than 0.01 f/ml and HSE define licensable work in relation to Control Limits whereby risk assessment cannot clearly demonstrate that airborne fibre levels will not exceed 0.1f/ml averaged over a 4 hour period or 0.6f/ml averaged over a 10 minute period. Many European countries and closest neighbours introduced far stricter controls. For example, the Netherlands updated its occupational exposure limits to 0.002 f/ml in 2014 with the intention of lowering it even further to 0.0003 f/ml in the future. Despite ample evidence suggesting that the current HSE clearance indicator used is inadequate, it has remained the same for the past 30 years.
The Current Asbestos Regulations
There are strict HSE and legal duties placed on people (‘Duty Holders’) in charge of public buildings aimed at reducing the risks to health that asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) pose, and there should no longer be any excuse for anyone being exposed to potentially dangerous levels of airborne asbestos fibres in any building.
Current UK policy considers that asbestos that remains in good condition and is unlikely to be damaged or disturbed is not a significant risk to health as long as it is properly managed. Only when ACMs are disturbed or damaged is the risk of exposure increased through the release of airborne fibres. As materials in these buildings inevitably deteriorate over time, many campaign groups and industry professionals argue that a policy of waiting for materials containing asbestos to deteriorate before removing them is not sufficiently proactive in the management of ACMs, allowing unnecessary risk to remain in place.
Many organisations call for the complete removal of asbestos from all buildings nationwide. However, to action this would incur great cost. According to Think Tank ResPublica, an estimated six million tonnes of asbestos remain inside 1.5 million buildings in the U.K. To remove these potentially lethal materials completely could result in many schools, hospitals, and other public buildings being shut down due to the soaring associated costs with the complete removal. The cost to councils and the taxpayer arguably would be crippling and unmanageable.
Significantly, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee report, which the government must have a response to within 2 months, supports the move recommending that the HSE, working with the government, produces a robust, system-wide strategy to remove all asbestos-containing materials from non-domestic buildings within the next 40 years (2062).
To ensure the HSE can meet the recommendations, the Work and Pensions Committee encourages the Government to provide adequate funding to the HSE and strongly encourages enforcement of the regulations as well as implementing an effective data collection and asbestos digital register. During the past few years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic where buildings have not been occupied, enforcement of the regulations and re-inspections have slipped.
Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said:
“This is no time for laissez-faire. The Government needs to fund the HSE properly to allow it to reverse the decline in enforcement activity seen in the decade before the pandemic and ensure that asbestos, and its removal, is managed safely and effectively.”
If the recommendations are accepted and enforced by the HSE and Government, asbestos management could start making a significant impact in combatting ‘one of the great workplace tragedies of modern times’.
Tighter Controls on Asbestos Industry Professionals and Duty Holders
In addition to the above, the Work and Pensions Committee recommends that the HSE looks to consolidate, tighten, and simplify the current categorisation of asbestos works as part of its 2022 statutory review of the Control of Asbestos Regulations. Importantly, the committee recommends that HSE makes it mandatory for all people conducting asbestos surveys to be accredited by a recognised accreditation body, such as UKAS.
What is UKAS Accreditation and Why is it Important?
Established in 1981 under the name National Testing Laboratory Accreditation Scheme (NATLAS), now known as the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS), UKAS are a government-appointed agency authorised to assess the competency and abilities of organisations that provide certificates in the testing, inspection, and certification (TIC) industry. This includes the asbestos industry.
Organisations bearing UKAS accreditation have undergone rigorous audits and reviews that assess many aspects of the business including; general management, policies and procedures, and testing of individual team members' competency. This assessment is conducted annually to ensure the service you, the customer, is getting reliable and trusted services from your provider.
The Work and Pensions Committee encourages the HSE to assess the impact of making it a legal requirement for building owners or occupiers to ensure the asbestos analysts they commission are accredited making it illegal for asbestos removal contractors to do so.
Lucion Services, The UK’s Chosen Independent, Accredited, Trusted Supplier
As the UK’s market-leading, independent and impartial supplier of asbestos testing, inspection and management services, we stand by the recommendations presented in ‘The Health and Safety Executive's Approach to Asbestos Management’ report put forth by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee.
Providing UKAS accredited and certified scientific hazardous materials testing, inspection and environmental management solutions, we deliver our trusted services to corporate clients who require regulatory compliance to their buildings and/or assets. Trusted by over 60,000 in the UK and internationally to date, we serve clients across 12 key sectors including Utilities, Real Estate, Nuclear, Technology, Marine, Government, Education, Planning and Development.
Partner with an award-winning, secure supplier for your environmental services and get in touch with our team today. Click ‘Make and Enquiry’ or call us on 0345 5040 303.
About the Author
As Technical Director at Lucion, Chris Parr maintains an integrated Quality, Health, Safety and Environmental Management System to include ISO17020, ISO17025 (requirements for asbestos testing and inspection accreditation by UKAS), ISO9001, ISO14001 and ISO 45001 (certified by BSI). Chris has over 15 years of experience in the industry including working as an asbestos analyst, surveyor, consultant, project manager, and trainer.
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