Testing for asbestos – A guide to duty of care

20th February 2015

Although asbestos is now prohibited for the use in building materials, rather surprisingly this ban did not come into force until 1999. This means that many properties built or refurbished prior to the year 2000 could include the deadly substance. As such, asbestos may occur in brownfield sites or modern buildings containing old equipment.

Known for causing serious and often fatal conditions such as mesothelioma cancer, identifying asbestos in a commercial building is critical, and managing its presence is of equal importance.

Asbestos regulations

Asbestos can appear in a multitude of forms; from artex walls to ceiling tiles, pipe coverings, insulation and more. Equipment bought prior to 2000 may also be at risk of containing asbestos; this can include items such as ovens, fire blankets and ironing surfaces.

In many cases – when left alone – asbestos can safely remain in a building without causing harm. It is when disturbed that asbestos can become a hazard, though, as it releases an invisible dust into the air and onto clothes. It is these tiny fibres which can cause fatal illness.

Due to this hazard there are strict regulations covering the control of asbestos in non-domestic properties which must be adhered to by law. These are in place to ensure that managers or duty holders have a ‘duty of care’ to ascertain the safety of a building for workers and maintenance teams alike.

Asbestos management plan

Set out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), an asbestos management plan should be completed before any building work is arranged. The register forms a key part of this plan and it is a requirement for all buildings that date back to the year 2000 or earlier.

This plan should cover details on who is responsible for managing asbestos; it should include the asbestos register and the plans for working on asbestos materials to safely remove them from the building. The plan should also cover a schedule for monitoring the materials’ condition, plus how and when you will go about telling people your decisions. A detailed guide to creating an asbestos management plan can be found on the HSE website.

Creating a comprehensive plan is important to comply with current regulations and ensure all employees and those using a building are safe. When testing for asbestos it’s important to get expert help to carry out these assessments, which is also advised by the HSE. Building owners are advised to take the belief that, unless proven otherwise by a test, a material should always be assumed to contain asbestos and appropriate safety precautions taken when work is carried out.

What is an asbestos survey?

For any asbestos concerns in commercial properties, a full and comprehensive survey is certainly a good move, even if there’s only uncertainty and nothing definite. It will provide accurate information about location, amount and the type of any asbestos containing materials (ACM) on the premises.

When carried out comprehensively, a survey will identify any asbestos in the building and pinpoint whether activities – day-to-day or foreseeable maintenance and planned changes – will disturb the asbestos and so pose a health and safety threat.

Whilst a survey is not a legal requirement it is a compelling measure, as it will determine the way you approach any future work needed on the building. If, by completing a survey, you can be certain there is no asbestos present then work can forge ahead comfortably. However, if asbestos is found to be present then appropriate precautions can be put in place during construction to ensure health and safety regulations are met.

Without a survey to give a definitive answer, any planned work must be carried out as if asbestos is present, potentially adding unnecessary cost – and not to mention strife – to the building process.

Which type of survey to choose?

A management survey is the standard type usually needed, and it’s advisable to carry one of these out upon moving into different premises. Even if you have been in the same property since before 2000, it is still recommended that a management survey is carried out to guarantee no asbestos is present. Such a move would also ‘future-proof’ against upcoming developments.

This action will ensure safe and stable working conditions for staff where ACM might be present, by locating as far is reasonably practical the presence of any such materials in the building. This type of survey will confirm any areas containing asbestos which are likely to damaged or disturbed through general activity, including maintenance. It will also flag any suspected ACM on site and assess conditions throughout.

Employing a competent surveying firm to carry out the assessment will mean that materials can be sampled and analysed in the correct way to give accurate results.

If any refurbishment work is planned for the property, then it is essential that a refurbishment survey is undertaken to ensure the wellbeing of the contractors. Buildings set to be demolished must be subjected to a pre-demolition survey; which applies to part or full demolition. This type of survey will identify any ACM which must be removed prior any work in order to prevent harmful fibres being released into the air.

Preparing an asbestos risk register

After completion of the survey, an asbestos risk register must be compiled by the duty holder. The survey results will assist with the assembling of this register.

Preparing the register is an essential part of the overall management plan and will need to detail current information about the presence (and the condition) of any asbestos in the building. Due to the requirements for this information to be up to date and precise, checks should be made regularly. The HSE recommends updating the register annually as a minimum.

Once an asbestos register has been prepared it should be kept easily accessible; whether in paper or digital format. It will also need to be readily available to any maintenance workers who will need to know the locations of the asbestos. More than this, though, it will give contractors, employers and owners alike the peace of mind that no potentially life-threatening fibres are present anywhere in the building.