Asbestos is far from old news: it can still be found in 4.4 million buildings. Soon, building owners and operators will have a duty to manage asbestos risks
Although the importation, supply and use of asbestos materials is now banned, it is estimated that 4.4 million buildings in the UK still contain asbestos and of these, nearly 2 million are in the non-domestic sector.

Any inhalation of asbestos particles can be harmful and may lead to the development of one or more of the following conditions; pleural plaques, asbestosis, lung cancer and cancer of the chest lining (mesothelioma). There is no cure for asbestos-related diseases.

Each year, over 3000 people die from such diseases and the number is expected to rise for the next 10 years. Those working in the maintenance and building trades are thought to be most at risk because they are often unaware that they are working with, or in close proximity to, materials containing asbestos.

Asbestos can be found in pretty much any part of a building past a certain age. It is most commonly found in the following:

  • Sprayed asbestos/asbestos loose packing: generally used as fire breaks in ceiling voids and structural steel joists.
  • Moulded or preformed lagging: generally used in the insulation of pipes and boilers.
  • Ceiling tiles and insulating boards: generally used for fire protection and partitioning.
  • Asbestos cement products, which are often semi-compressed into flat or corrugated sheets: mainly used as roofing and wall cladding.

To address and minimise the risks inherent in dealing with asbestos, The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987 will shortly be amended to introduce a duty to manage asbestos. If you own, occupy, manage or have responsibilities for premises that may contain asbestos you will either have a legal duty to manage the risk from this material or a duty to co-operate with whoever manages that risk.

There are are series of steps that need to be taken to comply with this regulation. First, find out if asbestos is present – conduct a survey of the premises using building plans and information on the materials used in the construction of the building or in any extensions.

Second, presume suspected material is asbestos unless you have strong evidence to the contrary. If in doubt, have samples analysed. Third, assess the condition of the asbestos material and the risk of it being disturbed. The table on the right contains some general guidelines. Fourth, record the location and condition of asbestos material – this information must be provided to anyone who is liable to work on or disturb it, such as building contractors, utility companies, IT contractors and so on. Finally, devise a plan to manage and control the risk and and then monitor it in action and review its effectiveness.

The Health and Safety Commission has advised that the regulations are unlikely to be made before June 2002 and will incorporate a lead-in period of 18 months, so it will be in effect at the end of 2003, or early in 2004.

Regardless of this timetable, the HSC is encouraging organisations to plan early to manage the risk of asbestos and is appealing to prospective duty-holders to adopt a proactive approach. Conducting a survey and complying with the new duty has implications for the budget of every business. Adopting a proactive attitude and spreading the cost over the next two years makes good financial sense and will ensure the health and safety of those working in premises that contain asbestos materials.

Asbestos Action guidelines

Good condition: Where practicable, the material should be labelled. The condition of the material should be monitored regularly.
Minor damage: The material should be repaired and/or encapsulated by an approved contractor. Where practicable, the damaged material should be labelled and monitored regularly.
Poor condition: Should be removed by an approved contractor.
Likely to be disturbed: Should be removed by an approved contractor.