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Dangers of asbestos exposure

Posted in: asbestos Employer Negligence mesothelioma 

The risks associated with exposure to asbestos have been highlighted in a recent court case, in which two firms were prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive after exposing workers to dangerous asbestos fibres.

The exposure took place following a catalogue of errors by an engineering company and a building firm during a demolition and refurbishment project in Swansea.

Asbestos exposure

Asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK and, according to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures, is responsible over 4,500 deaths a year.

Exposure to asbestos can cause four main diseases:

  • Mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lungs; it is always fatal and is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos).
  • Asbestos-related lung cancer (which is almost always fatal).
  • Asbestosis (a scarring of the lungs which is not always fatal but can be a very debilitating disease, greatly affecting quality of life).
  • Diffuse pleural thickening (a thickening of the membrane surrounding the lungs which can restrict lung expansion leading to breathlessness).

The majority of the current fatal cases from asbestos exposure are associated with very high exposures from past industrial processes and installation of asbestos products.

HSE prosecution

The case in Swansea involved an engineering company that had contracted a construction company to renovate a building opposite its premises in order to expand its operations.

The engineering firm had two asbestos management surveys for the site, which, although later deemed to be inadequate, identified the presence of asbestos material and highlighted other areas, such as the ceiling voids, which were presumed to contain asbestos.

Despite this, work was allowed to begin in the building, even though the construction firm had been advised by the HSE that a separate ‘Refurbishment and Demolition Survey’ was also required before any activity commenced.

During the demolition works an asbestos insulation board (AIB) covering a steel column was damaged, and an employee of the engineering firm was told to tape plastic bags around it.

Work continued in the building for several months with the AIB debris left lying on the floor until an unannounced visit was carried out by an HSE inspector.

Company failings

A subsequent HSE investigation found a number of failings on behalf of the engineering firm:

  • It had failed to appoint a competent Construction, Design and Management co-ordinator and principal contractor to plan and manage the construction work, and ignored advice from its own health and safety manager to notify HSE of the demolition phase of the project, as is required by law.
  • The firm also failed to provide a proper assessment of the presence of asbestos and its condition in the building before work started. The surveys they held were poor, as a licensed asbestos removal contractor had warned in advising the company that the information they contained was inadequate.
  • No-one involved in the management of the project had the skills, training or experience to address health and safety issues, including the risk of asbestos exposure. The company made no efforts to remove or control the risks from the asbestos materials that had been identified in the reports.

The HSE investigation also found failings on the part of the construction company:

  • It had failed to prevent the exposure of its employees to asbestos, and failed to control its spread once it had been damaged.
  • It failed to provide a ‘Refurbishment and Demolition Survey’ and its own risk assessment was inadequate because it failed to identify the risks from asbestos.
  • It did not carry out a structural assessment of the building and did not provide its staff with asbestos awareness training, despite a recommendation by the HSE in September 2010.

Firms penalised for failings

These failings proved to be costly for both organisations, with the engineering firm fined a total of £16,000 and ordered to pay £3,287 in costs, and the construction company fined £8,000 with costs of £2,000.

Both companies involved in this case demonstrated significant failings throughout the management of the project, which put the lives of their respective workers at risk,” said HSE Inspector Anne Marie Orrells after the hearing. “Had a Refurbishment and Demolition survey been undertaken, and had a licensed asbestos contractor been used to remove all asbestos materials prior to the work starting, then the risk would have been eliminated.

“Instead,” she concluded, “this inadequate response left workers exposed to asbestos fibres, which can cause potentially fatal lung disease. The health and safety of workers must not be left to chance.”

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.


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