The deadly effects of asbestos are still being felt in the UK as fatalities linked to direct exposure to harmful fibres continue. Cathy Hayward reports on the effort to address the threat
18 November 2005
Although asbestos is no longer imported into or used in the UK, there is still cause for concern. In this country at least 3,500 people die each year from mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer as a result of past exposure to asbestos. The number of deaths recorded annually is predicted to continue rising into the next decade.
It is estimated that about half a million non-domestic premises contain some form of asbestos. There are also around 9,000 asbestos removal workers in the UK and 1.3 million repair and maintenance workers (including plumbers, carpenters and electricians) who may be exposed to asbestos.
The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) aims to improve standards of protection for these groups and is proposing a regulatory package which aims to provide a stronger and better targeted regulatory framework. It has published for consultation proposed amendments to its asbestos regulations and an Approved Code of Practice (ACoP).
The proposed changes will implement revisions to the EU Asbestos Worker Protection Directive 83/477/EEC in the UK. The draft regulations include a single, tighter control limit for work with all types of asbestos (a control limit of 0.1 fibres per cm3 of air for all types of asbestos, measured over four hours and a maximum peak level exposure of 0.6f/cm3 over ten minutes); specific training requirements for those working with asbestos; and a clear hierarchy of controls that should be used to reduce exposure, based on the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (Amendment) Regulations 2004 (Coshh).
The HSC is simplifying the legislation by combining the three sets of current asbestos regulations - on controls, licensing and prohibitions - into one. The proposals will repeal and replace with a single set of regulations The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, The Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations 1983, as amended and The Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations 1992, as amended. It is also proposing to align the criteria for notifying the enforcing authority of work with asbestos with the requirement to have an HSE asbestos licence.
The regulations will adopt a risk-based approach to licensing, reflecting risk criteria in the directive. Certain types of work where exposure to asbestos will only be "sporadic and low intensity" and below the control limit will not need to be done by a licensed contractor.
The HSC provides guidance on the types of work that will be exempt from licensing in the draft ACoP.
In practice, most work that currently needs to be done under licence will remain licensable. Based on new research, the HSC proposes that work on textured decorative coatings containing asbestos will not need to be done by a licensed contractor. Asbestos exposure levels from these materials are much lower than previously thought: estimated to be 1,000 times less than that for other licensable materials, and lower than that from work with asbestos cement which doesn't require a licence.
The HSC is not saying that work with asbestos containing textured coatings is safe: it still needs proper control measures. All work with asbestos, whether or not it needs to be done under licence, must be done by competent people with the appropriate controls. A summary of the research carried out into asbestos exposure levels related to textured coatings can be found in the consultative document. The research report can be accessed online at the HSE website - www.hse.gov.uk/research/hsl/workenvn.htm
A key element of the HSE's work to reduce asbestos exposure is the duty to manage, that came into force in May 2004 as part of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 (CAWR). The duty is based on the principles of assessing and managing risk to protect workers and members of the public. It requires duty holders to find out whether their premises contain or may contain asbestos, to assess the risk from such materials, and take action to manage that risk.
Further details of the changes can be found in the consultation document and the draft regulations at www.hse.gov.uk/consult/2005.htm
Comments on the proposals should be sent by email to [email protected] or to the Health and Safety Executive, Rose Court, 2 Southwark Bridge, London SE1 9HS. The consultation ends on 31 January 2006.
Case study: Maddox Homes
Maddox Homes was recently fined £11,000 for exposing its workers to asbestos during an extensive refurbishment and construction project.
The firm's employees were exposed to asbestos at The Old Rectory site in Bookham, Surrey between July and November 2004. While they suffered no immediate ill effects, the exposure could result in long-term illness in the future.
The firm pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and regulations 8(1), 15(4) and 14(d)(ii) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 1994. It was fined £10,000 for the section 3(1) offence and £1,000 for the breach of regulation 8(1). No separate fines were awarded for the other offences but the company was ordered to pay more than £4,000.
After the hearing, Abosede Ogunsekan, HM inspector of health and safety, said: "Recent research has shown that the largest group currently at risk from exposure to asbestos fibres are construction workers and those in associated trades such as demolition.
The fact that the onset of the disease following exposure is not immediate does not diminish the severity of the hazard."