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January 6, 2012

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Hazardous substances – Business as usual

Shops, offices and schools are just some of the workplaces in the services sector where asbestos could be present. But how do such organisations ensure they have the controls in place to safely manage this potentially deadly substance and, at the same time, remain open for business? Sadie Hopson explains.

In our fast-paced culture, time is money. As such, no organisation will entertain lightly the prospect of suspending their daily operations for any reason. Yet, shutting up shop has become a reality for various organisations over recent months; from schools to retail outlets, several different establishments have been forced to close their doors after asbestos has been discovered on their premises.

Not only does such a situation impact on business, but the health implications and negative publicity can, potentially, be extremely costly. Events such as these most commonly occur on account of a failure to invest in a stringent asbestos management plan, which is specific to the organisation.

It is estimated that 500,000 commercial, industrial and public buildings in the UK contain asbestos.1 Trade associations, professional bodies and regulators are driving forward various initiatives to increase awareness among the relevant parties and duty-holders, but beyond the surveys and asbestos registers, action needs to be effectual at an operational level.

System breakdown

With more awareness campaigns and informed professionals spreading the word, the majority of duty-holders are aware of their obligations to manage asbestos in their premises. Yet, businesses large and small are still making alarming mistakes when it comes to health and safety, often failing to implement documented procedures effectively.
In September 2011, the prosecution of Marks and Spencer over a failure to protect customers, staff and workers from potential exposure to asbestos during refurbishment at one of its stores attracted wide press attention. The high-street retailer was fined

£1 million after a three-month trial, and the hefty size of the fine is indicative of the scale of the health and safety breach.2

Such a turn of events shows how easy it is for there to be a breakdown in the system – in this case, resulting in ceiling dust, possibly containing asbestos, falling on the floor of the store. With such huge potential risks at stake, it is vital that every step is taken to reduce the hazards in question. The information identified in an asbestos management plan and the surveys undertaken must be used as a driver for proactive prevention, as this forms the foundation for effective asbestos management.

Undertaking an asbestos survey and identifying where ACMs (asbestos-containing materials) may be present is, of course, the primary step in the management process. There are obvious specific requirements for undertaking a comprehensive survey using an accredited company, but providing a professional and certified surveyor is appointed to undertake the works, it is rarely the case that asbestos is not identified. Rather, it is more often the case that a failure occurs to effectively minimise the risks associated with the substance.

Prioritising action

The first stage to avoid such an eventuality is a strategic risk assessment, a process which is underpinned by the material assessment provided by the surveyor. This classifies which materials found are high risk and, if disturbed, will most readily release hazardous fibres. However, this categorisation should not necessarily be assumed to dictate prioritised action; indeed, a priority assessment must be made so that other factors can be taken into consideration, such as the potential for human exposure, the level of occupancy, the level of maintenance activity and the chance of disturbance. This assessment combines existing knowledge of the premises with the findings from the specialist survey report.

No two premises are the same, from either a structural or operational perspective, so it is essential that a specific assessment is made by the duty-holder and any other relevant personnel, such as department managers, caretakers and supervisors. Most importantly, this stage of the process is an opportunity to begin communicating the key objective of managing any potential hazard and using the knowledge available to make informed decisions.

For those seeking an additional source of guidance, the HSE also provides a comprehensive interactive Material and Priority Scoring Tool, which provides duty-holders with a step-by-step process to identify the relevant issues when conducting a priority assessment. This tool, found on the HSE website,3 forms part of a comprehensive resource that can be used by any duty-holder in any organisation to configure a multitude of factors. For those wishing to undertake their own assessment independently, it is suggested that a priority-assessment algorithm is used to score the relevant factors manually in a consistent way and reduce the risk of anomalies by using a set of suitable factors relevant to the organisation.

Maintenance matters

It is vital that this risk assessment is undertaken in line with an effective strategy and takes into consideration the relevant areas of concern. This should start with considering the level of maintenance activity – which could include changing a light bulb, or fixing a leaking pipe – and be undertaken by anyone, from a caretaker to a plumber, or electrician. Maintenance is the type of work that the asbestos management plan is designed to control, as it is the nature of this work that often causes disturbance to ACMs.

The frequency of such activity must therefore be considered, along with the extent to which maintenance activity is planned, or unplanned. Evidently, planned work can be assessed accordingly, using sufficient procedures to reduce the risk of exposure, but unexpected works will result in limitations as to how much control can be exerted. Once these considerations are made, a score or priority rating must be allocated.

Similarly, the nature of occupant activity within the immediate location must be considered. For example, activity around a seldom-accessed school store cupboard in which asbestos has been detected will be minimal, reducing the level of risk. However, asbestos in a ceiling tile in a school sports hall, where frequent lively sporting activity takes place, would be at a far higher risk of disturbance; a football kicked with any level of force, for example, could very easily damage the ACM.

This leads on to the likelihood of disturbance, which is associated with the size of the area and accessibility, with the higher risk being attributed to significantly large areas, which can be easily accessed.

Risk to occupants

The final factor, as determined by the HSE, is the potential for human exposure – a controversial factor, especially when involving the presence of children and/or the general public. The number of the potential occupants, frequency of use and average time of occupancy should all be configured into the assessment process – for example, a classroom lined with asbestos insulating board panelling, and occupied daily by 35 pupils and teaching staff, will clearly be a higher priority.

Having configured all such factors in a comprehensive risk-assessment process, and understanding the severity of the problem, it is possible to develop a management plan, commencing with a decision on what action must be taken with any ACMs identified. Essentially, this will equate to monitoring the ACMs or, alternatively, choosing to seal, enclose, repair, or remove the material.

Given that all the latter actions should be conducted by a licensed contractor within a controlled environment, it is important for duty-holders to focus on the ways that an ACM can be monitored effectively when left in situ, to ensure that strict procedures are followed to significantly reduce the risk of exposure. It goes without saying that, in an ideal scenario, all ACMs would be completely removed and there would be no such scenario for future generations to be burdened with this hazardous substance. However, not only do budget and other resources restrict such action but removal can often exacerbate a situation and make fibre release more likely. Therefore, it is necessary to monitor the ACM carefully.

Communication is key

One of the principal factors behind effective monitoring of asbestos is effective communication to promote awareness and understanding. Asbestos instils great trepidation and anxiety in many but this is no excuse for not imparting the facts to those who need to know and who could be pivotal in helping to manage the risks; indeed, it is an ideal opportunity to endorse a proactive approach to health and safety.

To help the duty-holder, and any others who may need to monitor the ACM, it is prudent to photograph the relevant areas to facilitate comparisons and judge any deterioration, damage, or change to the area. Monitoring should be at intervals of no more than 12 months but specific timescales for review should be adjusted according to the compounding factors; for example an asbestos insulating-board panel in a busy school corridor, or shop foyer should be inspected and assessed much more frequently, ideally monthly. This may include visual inspection for any signs of disturbance, such as cracked paint, scratches, or debris. It is also essential that any sign of damage or deterioration is immediately followed by remedial action, be that scheduled removal, or temporary protection and enclosure.

Again, as with the priority assessment, it is vital that relevant personnel are engaged to maximise the chance of effective monitoring – be this a shop supervisor, or an office manager – as well as to communicate the issues at hand and disseminate the positive message that managing asbestos reduces the risk of exposure.

Communication methods

While some assume that labelling and/or colour coding is sufficient to convey the presence of asbestos, this is often not feasible, especially in the case of public spaces, such as retail outlets. Furthermore, this should not be relied upon, as labels can often become obscured, or simply fall off. It is therefore crucial that the presence of ACMs is communicated appropriately to relevant staff and contract workers to ensure accurate and consistent delivery of information.

The asbestos register, containing specific information of any ACMs present, must be accessible and available to all and there must be an effective system in place for transmitting any changes to the asbestos management system. Depending on the size of the organisation, the forum for delivery could range from an organisation intranet system or staff meeting, but it is essential that the message is communicated effectively.

It was, in part, a failure to ensure effective communication that contributed to the unfortunate turn of events at Marks and Spencer’s.2 Specifically, it was found that the guidance procedures outlined by the company’s health and safety department were not implemented sufficiently, and the work undertaken by the contracted workers was not monitored by the relevant parties and personnel, leaving the retailer liable. Furthermore, the judge noted that there were tensions between health and safety and profit.

This leads to another common reason for ineffective asbestos management – an acute consideration for keeping costs down and a high demand for keeping budgets tight to boost profits can result in a failure to undertake works in line with optimum health and safety procedures.

Cost considerations

Indeed, owing to the sheer nature of the work, structural changes and refurbishments often result in stifling costs in both labour and materials, not to mention loss of earning during the project because business operations are impacted upon. However, no cost benefit analysis should result in cutting corners, or overlooking processes in best practice owing to constraints of budgets, resources and time. As such, when any works are commissioned, a complete plan must be devised and implemented, starting with a detailed understanding of the project to be undertaken, including the areas to be affected, the key personnel involved, timescales expected, and competencies of the contracted workers.

By gaining an understanding of the complete project, it is possible to foresee any potential risks and controls accordingly, whether this is pre-empting any possible obstacles that may arise, or confirming the competencies of contractors before they arrive on site.

This latter point is a huge area of contention. It must always be considered that the duty of care extends beyond existing staff and includes external contractors, and no assumption can be made concerning entry level of knowledge, or competency.

The aforementioned Marks and Spencer case arose because the work was not supervised and false assumptions were made.2 Similarly, a recent case saw a family-run property management company fined over an incident in which a contracted handyman was exposed to asbestos fibres while fixing a roof without suitable protective clothing, or training to work with asbestos-containing materials. The company failed to make the handyman aware of the presence of asbestos, or corroborate his competence in managing such materials. As such, it would appear that no singular individual took ownership of the requirement to manage asbestos and, accordingly, each seemed to negate their own culpability.

Managing the “unexpected”

In essence, both examples are indicative of the dangerous implications of poor management and the essential need for increased communication and awareness to minimise the risks of ill health, particularly at organisations where there is a high volume of human traffic and where vulnerable parties, such as children, are usually present.

The existence of asbestos in schools is a hugely emotive subject and one that has been subject to extensive research with various campaigns and reports demanding change. For example, a recent paper issued by the Asbestos in Schools Group provides an examination of the scale of the problem in educational establishments.4
Such critique became alarmingly relevant recently when Belvedere Infant School was closed in November 2011 following the discovery of traces of asbestos. In response, the head teacher released a statement to the public that described the turn of events as an “unexpected period of disruption”.5 Such terminology highlights one of the primary issues with poor asbestos management and the subsequent hazardous circumstances that arise as a result; for many, the risks associated with asbestos are neither foreseen nor reduced, making the situation “unexpected”.

Despite budgetary cutbacks and a disinclination to invest in training, steps must be taken to increase awareness in schools, especially given the fact that, according to the Department for Education, more than 75 per cent of Britain’s educational establishments contain asbestos. Such training does not have to be costly; the HSE, for example, provides a wealth of resources regarding asbestos awareness.

No responsible employer would consciously and deliberately expose an employee, contractor, or member of the public to a known carcinogen. Yet, the health of hundreds is still being placed at risk. Expertise and proficiency in asbestos management are not pre-requisites to managing the lethal dangers skulking in the background of our work environment. All that is required to eliminate any foreseeable risks of exposure are a practical and conscientious perspective, an open and strategic planned approach, and increased awareness. Effective asbestos management is a crucial investment for any organisation.


Sadie Hopson is technical manager at Athena Environmental Solutions, a UKAS-accredited asbestos laboratory.

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In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.

Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.

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10 years ago

Businesses need to make sure they have asbestos surveys and management plans in place it is essential to safeguard them and everyone else.