Killer argument

In April, the laws covering asbestos will be amalgamated - a move that has sparked controversy in Parliament and confusion across the industry. Sarah Cartwright reports

Asbestos has had a dramatic image change in the three decades since the 1950s. From being a dream material (because it is plentiful, cheap, has formidable insulating qualities, and is fire- and chemical-retardant) it has turned into a health-risk nightmare -- particularly in building and construction.

As well as being present in most pre-1985 buildings, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates there are more than 500,000 non-domestic premises in the UK that contain asbestos. The current annual asbestos death toll stands at about 3,500, with around 25% in the building trades.

And as for the diseases related to exposure, their incubation period means the devastating effects are only just being felt.

Until now, asbestos use and regulation has been controlled by three sets of legislation. January began a new chapter when, following the need for the UK to implement the European Asbestos Worker Protection Directive, the Government ended its consultation on the new set of asbestos regulations, due to come into force this April.

There has been dissatisfaction towards some proposed changes. Most unease concerns a motion to remove asbestos-containing textured coatings from the licensing regime. Currently, these coatings must be handled only by licensed contractors. But recent research suggested fibre release during removal posed a much lower risk than first thought. These findings have not met with universal popularity - 90 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion expressing concern that this move would put workers and home owners at risk.

According to the HSE,
textured coatings account for about 15% of licensable work, so many inexperienced workers could find themselves handling large volumes. It has been reasoned that unlicensed contractors are incapable of assessing the control measures needed for this type of specialist work.

Asbestos specialists, and several organisations have objected vociferously. And Chief Executive of the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA) Terry Jago says that it completely opposes the deregulations.

Another problem with the current consultations is the failure to make UKAS
accreditation mandatory for companies doing asbestos surveys. This would have enabled greater transparency and accountability.
As the only national accreditation body recognised by the Government, UKAS offers a resonant seal of approval. It is not cheap or easy to acquire. Of course, not all non-UKAS-accredited companies are disreputable, but tightening up the rules would deter rogue practitioners.

Not all asbestos materials need to be removed. The risks are the inhalation of fibres, when materials are damaged, disturbed or in a poor condition. Those in a good condition can remain.

The result of legislative uncertainties is to confuse. UKAS is a good indicator for those who commission work, but concrete evidence of robust quality assurance and quality control procedures, combined with rigorous training for staff, should be prerequisites.
Impartiality, independence (a company that does not offer removals as well as surveys), and objectivity should also make it on to your shopping list. Seek referrals, and ensure senior employees have around ten years' experience. And don't be fooled into taking the cheapest price - it could cost you dearly in the long term.
Further details can be found at www.hse.gov.uk/consult/condocs/cd205.htm.

Sarah Cartwright is an Associate Director of RSK ENSR Asbestos Services

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