Tracey Graham, Strategic Director & Specialist Lawyer for Industrial Disease at Your Legal Friend advises employers in the building industry on their responsibilities in relation to asbestos
Since asbestos was banned completely 17 years ago, there’s been a determined effort to ensure the danger it poses remains front of mind for construction SMEs and their employees.
This hazardous material is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of tradespeople every year, and any small business that acts negligently when handling it can face expensive compensation claims.
However, despite the known risk and the regular awareness-raising campaigns, there appears to be no let-up in the number of asbestos illness cases we see on a regular basis. As a lawyer who specialises in this area, I can say that there is absolutely no room for complacency.
Employers and employees must make a continuous effort to ensure that safe work practices are adhered to.
It’s incredibly sad and frustrating to see clients suffer so terribly due to negligent employers who put making profit and saving time before employee safety.
The responsibility to assess risk and protect workers is not just for large contractors with their own in-house Health & Safety team. The law applies to every owner-manager, no matter how big the business.
Asbestos can be almost anywhere
According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health, by 2020, a quarter of a million Britons will have died as a result of asbestos exposure and 5,000 people die every year from related cancers and respiratory diseases.
Before it was known to have serious health risks, around six million tonnes of the material was imported and used in Britain.
This means that asbestos should be at the forefront of health & safety considerations on any given job. Half a million commercial properties and a million homes contain asbestos, and it’s estimated that around 1.3 million tradespeople routinely come into contact with asbestos at work.
Working on buildings that have been constructed or renovated before the year 2000 can mean a risk of encountering asbestos, typically used as insulation, but which can also be found in ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, boilers and sprayed coatings.
When asbestos fibres are disturbed and become airborne, typically through drilling or cutting through materials containing asbestos, these fibres become a health risk.
As asbestos can be almost anywhere, and the risk of coming into contact with it is relatively high, and its consequences severe, it’s important that everyone on site is on the look-out for asbestos and minimises the risk of coming into contact with it, no matter how big or small the job.
In it together – no shortcuts
Even if the client or the timeframe puts you under pressure, shortcuts can create situations that would be classed as negligent in a court of law. The UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) states that employers; ‘must manage any occupational health risks that workers may be exposed to.’
For domestic jobs, it is the builder’s sole responsibility for site health and safety. On small commercial projects clients also have a shared responsibility to; ‘ensure that suitable arrangements are in place for managing health risks during construction.’ HSE also states that employees and workers must take care of their own health and co-operate with others on health issues.
It’s worth remembering that asbestos is not just harmful when it’s on site. If workers are exposed to dust, then it is likely that the fibres will be on their clothing and body. This poses a risk to employees’ families or anyone else they may come into contact with outside of contracted working hours.
Symptoms and compensation
Symptoms from exposure to asbestos can take between 20 and 50 years to reveal themselves as illnesses such as Mesothelioma, Asbestos-related lung cancer and Asbestosis.
When symptoms appear, they typically include shortness of breath during physical exertion, wheezing, chest pain, a persistent cough or constant tiredness and fatigue.
There are a number of ways that sufferers can be supported once their illness has been diagnosed. Charities such as Mesothelioma UK provide specialist information on care and treatment whilst benefits are available from the Department of Work and Pensions.
However, many employees and their families will look for legal support to identify whether their condition could have been avoided, and seek compensation if they feel their employer has been negligent.
As many people sadly die from the most serious condition of Mesothelioma within a short period of time, sufferers’ claims for compensation for this condition are often focused on supporting their next of kin which, depending on their age, could mean significant pay-outs to cover loss of earnings.
This makes negligence in relation to asbestos not just dangerous but potentially disastrous reputationally and financially. It’s therefore vital that it remains top of the agenda for SMEs and their employees now and in future.
Dealing with asbestos
HSE advise that all SMEs should consider the following when dealing with asbestos:
- Check if you are responsible for the maintenance and repair of premises or equipment. If so, you are the duty holder and, if premises were built before 2000, you must assume they contain asbestos.
- Collect as much information about any previous asbestos record for the premises.
- Carry out a management survey. Inspect the building. Where the premises are large, consider employing a competent asbestos surveyor and UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES disturb any material that might contain asbestos.
- Keep a checklist/register of places and materials that might contain asbestos.
- Determine your priorities for action against the risk register.
- Write an asbestos management plan detailing who is responsible for managing it and update the plan regularly.
- Seek professional help to test for asbestos.
- Tell and train your employees about your findings and your decisions, and make sure everyone knows how to report problems.
- If asbestos is confirmed, employ a contractor for safe removal. Do not do it yourself.
For more information, consult the HSE website and be sure you know how to competently manage the risk.