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What is asbestos? Dangers and UK regulations

Many buildings in the UK that were constructed in the past have used asbestos due to its desirable properties.

The main benefit of using asbestos:

  • Inexpensive
  • Insulation
  • Resilient and durable

For insulation purposes, asbestos is especially great and insulating heat and absorbing sound, alongside being fire resistant. However, only up until relatively recently the effects of asbestos on people’s health were discovered.

What are the dangers of asbestos?

Asbestos is an extremely fibrous material if it is disturbed its fibres can be into the air. If these fibres are inhaled it can be severely detrimental to a person’s health, potentially causing diseases such as lung cancer in the more extreme cases. Asbestos to this day remains a leading hazard and cause for fatal injuries in the construction industry.

The leading disease caused by asbestos exposure took the lives of over 2,500 people in 2013

The nature and extent of the problem is that it is present everywhere in the UK. The nation’s consumption of asbestos was at its peak around the 1960’s, after this date, consumption was gradually reduced as awareness increased until it was prohibited in 1999. The possibility of asbestos being present in many buildings that were built before the year 2000 has to be assumed, whether refurbishing or completely demolishing a building.

Deaths and diseases caused by asbestos

The leading disease, which is caused by asbestos, is Mesothelioma, which is a type of cancer in the lining of the lungs, where 2,538 people died due to Mesothelioma in 2013.

The trend shows that the majority of asbestos-related deaths and diseases can be caused by exposure decades before… and that doesn’t even include the number of people who can be made disabled with respiratory problems. This can make it hard for those afflicted to obtain an employer who is liable for compensation, as many past companies may not still be going decades down the line.

Laws and Regulations

The most  prominent  laws  that  were  introduced  in  the  UK  to  control  this  issue  was  the  prohibition  of  asbestos  in  1999,  the  health  and  safety  at  work  act  1974  (which  plays  a  part  in  most  issues  relating  to  health  and  safety.)

The current main  UK law aimed specifically at asbestos is the Control of  Asbestos  Regulations  2012.  This has updated the previously established asbestos-related laws in the UK to be more in line with the EU Directive of 2009 on asbestos.

These regulations establish a control limit for asbestos fibres to be considered safe for work, ensure that trained personnel must be working to deal with asbestos, and state that risk assessments must be made, amongst other key points.

 Potential asbestos containing Artex plaster

Potential Artex plaster discovered in a post-war house during a home survey

Another main part of this law in an attempt to control this issue is the distinction between licenced and non-licenced work.  Non-licenced work under this law is considered to be low-risk works, where the contact with asbestos is low.  However, larger risk works which involve the large-scale disruption of asbestos, or it is unclear whether the exposure limit will be exceeded a licenced contractor will have to be used to carry out the works.

If a contractor is proposing to carry out the defined licensable work, they will need to notify the HSE two weeks prior to the work commencing, and non-licensable work will still need to refer back to the regulations to make sure carrying out their work legally and sure they have the right training.

Related: Building Surveyors in London and Surrey

In conclusion, the established Health and Safety laws all work together in the issue of Asbestos, but the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 goes into further detail following recent trends stated in the previous section.

Another key point of the regulations is establishing who the Duty holders of this legislation are. For non-domestic buildings, quoting the Control of Asbestos Regulations  2012,  the  duty  holder  is  “every person  who  has,  by  virtue  of  a  contract  or  tenancy,  an  obligation  of  any  extent  in  relation  to  the  maintenance  or  repair  of  non-domestic  premises  or  any  means  of  access  or  egress  to  those  premises.”

For example, an owner of a department store under this regulation would be the duty holder of the Asbestos Regulations as they have the responsibility of maintaining that store. If they wanted to refurbish their non-commercial property, it would be their responsibility to take the correct steps to ensure that asbestos is not present or it is dealt with accordingly, through a licenced contractor.

Related: Party Wall Surveyors in London and Surrey

Also, many large organisations, such as schools, will have a company that controls the maintenance of the school building. Under their contract, the management company would be the duty holder. In domestic properties, such as a flat under leasehold, the duty holder will depend on what the terms of their lease with the landlord is. If the person is responsible for the maintenance of their living space, they would be the duty holder, and the landlord in many cases would be the duty holder of the non-domestic spaces of the building.

Our Kingston Surveyors have witnessed varying potential asbestos content in our home surveys in the London and Surrey area. Most commonly for our house surveys have been potential Artex plaster, which looks innocent however can be fairly dangerous when disturbed.

Other common areas that have been discovered in our house survey’s in London are pipe areas, guttering, and in outbuildings.

Because this problem has been well recognised in the UK, there are a lot of resources available which can inform people of the correct method of dealing with Asbestos. One practical method that can be used to control the problem is being well trained in dealing with Asbestos.

The first step that can be taken practically is through the UK asbestos training association, which can provide a course in Asbestos Awareness. This will help workers identify asbestos-containing materials and the correct method of dealing with them.

Comment below with any thoughts or questions and we’ll be happy to get back to you.