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May 29, 2015

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Communicating about asbestos

By Paul Clarke-Scholes of Clifford Devlin.

Asbestos is a very emotive subject and as such the issue of what to tell occupants and others affected by it is somewhat thorny. There are a number of schools of thought on how and what to tell tenants about asbestos on-site.

Landlords and property managers tend to err of the side of caution and urge consultants and contractors not to divulge anything to occupants for fear it may cause panic. However, the sight of surveyors and/or removal operatives attending site in full PPE/RPE more often than not instigates these types of question:

  • What are you doing here?
  • Why are you wearing masks/overalls?
  • Why haven’t we been given PPE?
  • Is it safe to go back in when you have finished?
  • What are the risks of being exposed?
  • Have we been at risks for years?

It is unreasonable for the consultant or contractor not to provide some response to these and other questions. In fact, obfuscation or worse, no response, is likely to cause greater alarm.

There is little official guidance on communicating information about asbestos to those affected. The only reference made in the guidance documents published by the HSE is contained in ALG Memo 03-12 which, curiously, is concerned with procedures for removing external ACMs. This document specifically instructs the removal contractor to supply written information to tenants.

We have prepared an FAQ sheet which complies with this directive and informs occupants what to expect. We are aware that some clients are very resistant to us giving this kind of information out but, as a licenced asbestos removal contractor (LARC), our concern is that HSE stance may be “the guidance clearly requires it, hold on to this prohibition notice until you have done it”.

We are also concerned that where we say “our client has told us not to”, our client may be left holding the notice. This is a recurring theme as all the guidance clearly lays the onus on the LARC to comply with the requirements, but if we have written instruction not to follow it then the client could be considered liable.

In our experience, we believe it makes sense to trust occupants and other stakeholders with basic details about asbestos risks and how these are being managed on their premises. The key is to impart the information while providing reassurance. Responsible surveyors and removal contractors take great care to eliminate or minimise the risks of exposure to asbestos fibres during their work so they should not feel compelled to conceal the true nature of their attendance on site.

Indeed, we would strongly advise that occupants are provided with information about asbestos well in advance, even before the survey is carried and preferably at the appointment stage. Not only will this reduce the likelihood the surveyor being pestered on-site for information about the risks but it will also help to manage occupants’ expectations regarding reinstatement of intrusive work. Without prior knowledge tenants often find the temporary reinstatement of sampling locations fall well-short of their expectations especially in occupied residential properties which can be a major source of complaint at the outset of refurbishment schemes that can lead to lingering resentment and loss of reputation for all involved.

However, if the tenant is expecting some minor damage and they are informed that this is an inevitable consequence of the refurbishment process they are far less likely to complain.

Paul Clarke-Scholes is an asbestos consultant with contractor Clifford Devlin.

This is the eleventh of a series of twelve blogs which discuss the latest issues in asbestos management – next week, in his final blog, Paul discusses some of the issues involved when removing asbestos during hot weather.


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