New regulations aim to drastically cut down the number of deaths caused by asbestos-related diseases through management, licensing and prohibition guidelines

Exposure to asbestos kills 3,000 people in Britain every year. Those who work around this substance risk contracting a range of diseases, from asbestosis and lung cancer to plural thickening – a chronic, condition in which the lining of the lung becomes scarred and restricts breathing. The annual mortality rate is expected to hit 10,000 by 2020.

With these figures in mind, the new Control of Asbestos Regulations came into force on 13 November 2006. These aim to reduce the number of asbestos-related fatalities by encouraging a socially responsible approach towards handling asbestos through management, licensing and prohibition guidelines. Increased penalties for non-compliance should make those who take risks think twice.

So, what do these mean for the construction industry? The duty to manage asbestos applies to small and large contractors working on industrial, commercial or public buildings such as factories, warehouses, offices, shops, hospitals and schools. Certain domestic premises also fall into this category.

Contractors must first identify whether asbestos is present or not. If in doubt, they must assume it is. They must then decide how the risk will be managed, and they must continuously monitor and update their plan.

The essence of managing asbestos is to implement practical steps to protect people from the risk of exposure to asbestos fibres. It is not about removing all asbestos – in fact, it shouldn’t be removed if it would be less risky to leave it in place. However, information on the location and condition of the materials must be provided to anyone liable to work near them.

The “action level” imposed by the 2002 regulations, which determined the maximum safe limit of cumulative exposure to asbestos over a 12-week period, no longer applies. Instead, the regulations have introduced a maximum concentration of asbestos fibres in the air – 0.1 fibres per cm3.

The nature of the work carried out will dictate whether or not the contractor needs a licence to complete it. Although Health and Safety Executive (HSE) licenses are not required for all work with asbestos, the regulations require all projects to be assessed for potential risks. You may not need a licence if:

Contraventions are punishable under the Customs and Excise
Management Act and may be penalised by fines or imprisonment

  • The work involves sporadic and low intensity exposure
  • The exposure does not exceed the control limit
  • The work involves short, non-continuous maintenance; removal of materials in which asbestos fibres are firmly linked in a matrix; the encapsulation or sealing of asbestos-containing materials in good condition; or air monitoring, control, collection and analysis of samples to ascertain whether specific materials contain asbestos.
However, this cannot be assumed, and all contractors must undertake an assessment to determine whether or not the work falls in these categories before commencing work.

Prohibition is the main way of preventing exposure. The bans on blue, brown and white asbestos and the recycling of secondhand asbestos products, such as cement sheets, coated panels, asbestos boards and tiles, continue.

If prevention is not possible, then exposure must be kept as low as possible. There are work methods to prevent exposure and spread, centred on personal protective equipment and the cleaning of the premises and plants.

From 6 April 2007, contractors are advised to obtain a site clearance certificate for reoccupation. This provides formal confirmation that parts of premises where work with asbestos has been carried out are suitable for reoccupation.

To obtain this, the premises must be assessed by a person accredited in accordance with ISO 17025, by the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS). Contractors should seek detailed guidance on the procedure for obtaining a site clearance certificate from the HSE.

Contraventions of the regulations are punishable, not as health and safety regulations, but as offences under the Customs and Excise Management Act. Violations may be penalised by fines or imprisonment. In addition, insurers may refuse the public or the employer’s liability insurance, so it’s time to make sure you know where you stand.