Do businesses have a duty to remove asbestos from their workplace?

In this article, we’ll examine the obligations of businesses for removing asbestos from workplaces.

In the UK, insurers pay out £200 million a year in asbestos claims, largely to those suffering from Mesothelioma which is caused by exposure to asbestos.

Mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive form of cancer which results in death for around 2,400 UK residents each year. In many cases, sufferers claim to have been exposed to asbestos through their work.

So, are workplaces expected to ensure workers are free from exposure? Let’s delve in a little deeper.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous silicate mineral. There are six different kinds of asbestos, and all of them are made up of long, thin fibrous crystals containing microscopic fibrils. Microscopic fibrils are released into the air through abrasion of the substance.

Asbestos was once a common building material used for residences and workplaces. It was used for insulation in flooring and roofing, and was sometimes sprayed onto ceilings and walls of buildings.

Asbestos dangers and legislation

When microscopic asbestos fibers are released into the atmosphere, they can be inhaled by people and animals. Exposure to asbestos can lead to cancers such as Mesothelioma, as well as respiratory conditions such as COPD and asthma.

In 1985, two types of asbestos called blue crocidolite and brown amosite were banned from importation into the UK, followed in 1992 by legislation banning most use of white chrysotile asbestos. By the end of the 1990s, the importation of all asbestos products was prohibited. Also, any asbestos related work, including removal, was limited only to qualified professionals.

Although this new legislation was, of course, welcome, there are still countless buildings in the UK which contain asbestos. From 2014, victims of asbestos related illnesses have been able to claim for compensation.

Even if a victim is unable to identify the employer or workplace responsible,  they are still able to claim around £123,000 in compensation to help them to adjust to their illness or condition.

At the time, Work and Pensions Minister, Mike Penning, said, “This will end years of injustice for mesothelioma victims and their families who have had to endure this terrible disease with little hope of any compensation from the insurance industry. We have made it an absolute priority to bring in the scheme as soon as legislation will allow, so I am pleased to announce that victims will be able to apply for payments.”

Treatment for mesothelioma usually involves a combination of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation treatment along with pain control medication. The life expectancy for patients will usually only be between four and eighteen months from diagnosis. Most are unable to work or enjoy a good quality of life from quite an early stage.

What are an employer’s obligations for asbestos in the workplace?

As we’ve mentioned, buildings still exist in the UK which contain asbestos, as these were constructed before legislation banning this substance. As an employer who is requiring employees to work in a building which contains asbestos, you have a responsibility to ensure that this is not a danger to health.

The first step for an employer is to commission a risk assessment of the property, as this will indicate not just the level of asbestos but, also, the risks involved. 

Asbestos is usually only harmful when it is moved or when a person is exposed to direct contact. So, if neither of these cases apply, there may not be any significant danger to employees. 

In this best-case scenario, employers should conduct regular professional monitoring to make sure that there is no change or escalation. Employers should also share the results of the risk assessment with employees, as well as training staff in spotting the signs of a disturbance.

Removing asbestos from the workplace

If your risk assessment has highlighted the fact that there are high levels of asbestos in the building, then removal of the asbestos will usually be recommended. Removal of asbestos should only ever be conducted by licensed professionals, and you can find details of local specialists here.

Employers do have an obligation to manage asbestos under the Asbestos Regulations Act of 2012, which applies to all commercial premises including warehouses, shops and offices. Failure to do so may result in penalties and more significantly compensation claims, should a member of staff become ill as a result of the presence of asbestos. 

When removing asbestos from a building, a professional will always operate on a safety-first basis. For this reason, either the entire building or a selected area will be evacuated and cleared in order to avoid contamination. 

It will be necessary for the team to remove all articles from the area, including furniture and clothing. Anything which cannot be removed will be covered with protective sheets. This ensures that a containment area is created, ready for work to begin. 

The employer will also be required to put up signs alerting visitors to the fact that asbestos work is taking place. The team, wearing full protective clothing, will then begin the task of removing items containing asbestos from walls, floors, and ceilings. 

Once finished, the area will be restored where necessary, and the employer will be presented with a certificate stating that the area is now asbestos free.

Don’t hang around if you suspect asbestos in your building

Compensation claims can be devastating for a company’s reputation, as well as its finances. With over 200 cases of Mesothelioma every year, the risk is a significant one. 

In the UK, employers have a duty to do everything in their power to protect the health of their employees. Therefore, if you suspect that your workplace may contain asbestos, it’s vital that you have this checked out as soon as possible.

Please be advised that this article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for advice from a trained asbestos professional. Be sure to consult an asbestos professional if you’re seeking advice about asbestos in your workplace. We are not liable for risks or issues associated with using or acting upon the information on this site.

Photo by The Beebes Knees on Pixabay.