The risks posed by asbestos have been known for many years, but despite all the warnings, rules and regulations, people are still being exposed to the dangerous fibres every day.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral with fire-resistant properties, which made it very popular with builders and manufacturers for most of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the fibrous nature of the substance, useful in commercial processes, was also found to carry serious health risks, including the risk of developing conditions now known as asbestosis, mesothelioma and pleural thickening.
The use of asbestos was banned in the UK in 1985, but it can still be found in buildings throughout the country - and it is still being mined in parts of the world. Asbestos exposure is still, sadly, a regular occurrence.
Only last month, two Lincoln-based companies were fined after workers were exposed to asbestos during the refurbishment of a Northamptonshire hospital ward.
According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), one company, Rilmac Insulation Ltd, carried out an asbestos survey before work began at St Mary’s Hospital, Kettering, in December 2009. The survey identified an asbestos coating on the underside of the ceilings – which did not need to be removed by licensed contractors - but missed a layer of asbestos insulation board above, which did.
The main contractor, Simons Construction Ltd, then told two of its workers to knock holes in the ceilings, but did not tell them it contained asbestos. They disturbed both layers.
According to the HSE, the workers had not been trained to recognise asbestos-containing materials or how to work safely with it: their masks were not the correct type; they were not wearing protective overalls and they did not work in a way that would minimise and contain the release of fibres. Asbestos material landed on their clothes, which they wore for the rest of the day, increasing their chances of contamination.
At the hearing in Northampton Magistrates’ Court in August, the magistrate was also told that the workers unwittingly increased the risk to themselves when they swept up the debris and left it in a pile on the floor. It was only discovered when a company contracted to remove the ceilings came onto the ward in January 2010 and recognised the material. A licensed asbestos removal company then spent several weeks removing the ceilings.
At the hearing, both companies pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. Simons Construction Ltd was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay costs of £2,911, while Rilmac Insulation Ltd was fined £3,500 with costs of £2,911.
"Asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK. Every year around 4,500 people die from asbestos-related diseases,” said HSE Inspector Martin Giles, after the hearing. “It is vital that work with asbestos is properly planned and supervised and that workers are made aware of the dangers and given the correct protective equipment and training to prevent exposure to this deadly substance."