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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
July 15, 2011

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Work environment – Pry before you buy

The importance of doing your health and safety homework before moving to a new premises should not be overlooked, writes Graham Greaves, who outlines some sensible steps to auditing a work premises.

Whether moving to bigger premises to create more room in which to expand, or moving to smaller premises to help manage costs while the UK’s economy remains uncertain, relocating offices can be an intriguing time for businesses.
It is always a great relief to find a suitable new premises at the right cost and in the right location, and it is tempting to rush in and sign on the dotted line in order to secure the deal. But before you do so, whether buying or leasing, it is vital to take a close look under the surface and scrutinise all aspects of the building to ensure that the move does not bring with it unwanted problems.

The structure

Particularly in the light of the current economic climate, it is possible that some building maintenance may have fallen behind owing to financial constraints. Take time to make your own thorough examination of every aspect of the building to ensure that you know what you are signing up to, and that there are no skeletons in the cupboards. Below are a few pointers relating to some of the more common structural hazards.

One of the most important issues to check out is whether the building contains asbestos. The material was used extensively in buildings from the 1950s until the mid-1980s, although it could potentially be present in any building erected before 2000. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 now prohibit the importation, supply and use of all forms of asbestos in the UK.

Associated with 4000 deaths a year, asbestos can, nevertheless, present itself in many guises. Although some products, such as cement roof panels, might obviously contain asbestos, many are more difficult to detect, such as asbestos contained in old fire blankets and heat-resistant gloves, cladding around pipework and boilers, toilet cisterns and seats, downpipes, window sills, sprayed coatings, and floor tiles under carpets.

If in doubt, in the first instance write to the previous owner for confirmation of the asbestos present in the building and request a survey report as proof, if available. If this doesn’t yield a satisfactory response, or result in certainty as to the presence of asbestos, arrange for an independent asbestos survey to be carried out. Removing and disposing of asbestos can be a costly exercise, so it is important to know the state of the asbestos content before you commit to the building.

However, the substance is only dangerous when materials are damaged and asbestos fibres become airborne as a result. So, if the asbestos is in good condition and in a position where you are unlikely to disturb it, its presence alone shouldn’t necessarily put you off the building.

Be mindful if you are considering a building that has a timber frame, as there have been cases where gas leaks and electricity and water faults have developed as a result of the frame shrinking, thereby placing excessive weight on these services. Shrinkage usually only takes place with new wood, and within its first year of use, but it is certainly something worth checking before agreeing to move in.

Lifts in buildings, whatever their use, must pass an annual safety inspection, for which a certificate is provided and should be available for your verification. Service-history certification should also be available for any pressure systems in the building, including steam boilers, compressors, or any pressurised pipework. Remember, it is your legal obligation to ensure that the building provides a safe working environment so, if you’re not going to do your own checks, make sure you request, read and retain any test certificates to ensure that you don’t fall foul of health and safety legislation.

If considering a large site, fire alarms are a necessity by law, and emergency lighting is highly recommended. Assuming there is an alarm already in place, request evidence of its installation and service history. In smaller buildings, where a verbal call might be sufficient to raise attention to a fire risk, alarms are not always mandatory.
Water supply, if fed from the mains, should be adequate for most business uses. However, if your business is rurally located you may want to check the water quality if relying on other sources. Additionally, if you are looking at a rural location, or where water supply and quality is key, then water analysis and evidence of continuity of supply will be essential.

The various parts of the building also have varying levels of risk attached. For example, if you propose to use cellars, basements or poorly-ventilated ground-floor rooms, it is important to check for radon and ensure there are adequate precautions in place. There is a common misconception that radon only occurs in the south-west of England; however, many parts of the UK experience high levels of the naturally-occurring radioactive gas, which seeps out of the ground and can cause issues if it builds up in indoor workplaces.

There are now government-defined “radon-affected areas”, so be sure to check that the proposed premises are not located in one of these areas, particularly if you are proposing to use lower, or underground spaces.1

Site records

For people looking for critical information relating to a building’s health and safety record, there are some quick wins.
A priority must be to retrieve a copy of the building’s health and safety file, as it will provide extensive safety-critical information. Since 1994, any premises built or significantly refurbished is required to have a health and safety file prepared for the building’s user. This file contains information on the key health and safety risks that will need to be dealt with during subsequent maintenance, repair and construction work.

The file should contain key structural information providing details of safe working loads for floors and roofs, particularly where one can place scaffolding, or heavy machinery. Importantly, it should contain as-built drawings of the structure, which should include details of its plant and equipment, as well as details and location of significant services, such as underground cables, gas-supply equipment and fire-fighting services. This offers quick and easy reference to relevant information.

One of the most important issues to consider with a previously-used site is how any residual hazards have been managed. These hazards can include asbestos, contaminated land, or buried services. There should also be information on whether there have been any hazardous materials used on site, such as pesticides, or special coatings that themselves may need treating in due course.

Any equipment that is intrinsically linked to the site will also be included in the health safety file. This can include information about the equipment’s cleaning and maintenance, or details regarding the removal or dismantling of installed plant equipment. Also included should be details that outline any special arrangements required for lifting, or instructions for dismantling.

The health and safety file is a critical document that will assist you in amending or re-writing your business’ health and safety policy if you move to the new premises. Be sure to keep it up to date – it should be one of the first things reviewed when taking over new premises.

The building’s design purpose

One of the most important considerations is how the space is to be used, which may be very different from the building’s previous owners. The key elements to review are the site’s access for employees and whether there are other needs, such as delivery, servicing and maintenance, or even access for emergency vehicles.

Be sure to ascertain that the building offers sufficient power for your operational needs, and check any available electric and gas test certificates in order to determine the state of any appliances. It is important that you physically read these to ensure that all are in good condition and to check in case any further and potentially costly works have been recommended. Ideally, you would be able to obtain certification of an electrical test carried out by a NICEIC-approved electrician within the past five years.2

Equally, with regard to gas, look for any evidence of regular servicing and maintenance checks, ideally by a Gas Safe-registered engineer. Back up hearsay with the essential paperwork and, in the absence of a satisfactory paper trail, arrange your own checks to be carried out. It may incur a cost, but better the devil you know.

Finally, take the time to consider your neighbours. This can work both ways, particularly in an industrial setting, to ensure sites do not have conflicting interests. Naturally, the closer you are to your neighbours the more you will need to get on, so be mindful if your processes, or theirs, are likely to cause an intrusion to either party. If they are, then perhaps reconsider if this really is the correct location. Remember, if using chemicals that have potential to cause a safety or environmental hazard, it is your responsibility to share emergency procedures and plans with those that could be affected.

Conclusion

Moving to new premises, whether in order to expand or downsize, poses many challenges but can be rewarding when it goes well. It can also be a costly mistake if the process is rushed into before the correct checks and procedures have been carried out. Legally, you are responsible for ensuring that your new premises are fit for business use, and failure to meet health and safety regulations once you’ve assumed control could result in significant fines, or, in a worst-case scenario, the closure of the business itself.

To minimise the risk of unnecessary financial loss, or legal action in the future, the simplest and most important exercise before signing an agreement is to request and pore over all available paperwork relating to the building. Through this simple process, you will be able to make a fully-informed decision as to whether or not to proceed with the move, based upon sound facts, which bear in mind the building’s past and future uses.

References
1    Further information can be found at www.ukradon.org
See also ‘Ground force’, SHP January 2007 – www.shponline.co.uk/features-content/full/ground-force
2    The NICEIC is the electrical contracting industry’s independent voluntary body for electrical installation matters in the UK – http://niceic.com

Graham Greaves is a director of health and safety services at consultancy firm, Ellis Whittam.

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11 years ago

Surely the comments around ‘Lifts’ should be every 6 (six) months for passenger lifts?