The unsafe removal of asbestos – a case study

Asbestos is a particularly pernicious material.  When broken up, the microscopic fibres can be inhaled and become lodged in the lungs.  The carcinogenic impact on that inhalation may not manifest itself for many decades, but might ultimately develop into cancer, in later life.

Despite the fact that 4000 people still die each year in the UK as a result of asbestos-related issues, some people remain far too relaxed about exposure to this dangerous material, regardless of the resources available to them, and the information contained within this, and other, websites.

Staggeringly, this even relates to some of those who are themselves most experienced with asbestos.  Take this particular case of a 23-year old was a trained asbestos supervisor, which illustrates how even the best trained can take their eye off the ball. When asbestos was found in the boiler house of a school in Kent, this man’s company was contracted with the job of safely removing the asbestos.

The company itself was fully licensed to remove asbestos and had actioned the relevant thorough and correct preparations.   The site itself was fenced-off, with restricted access warning signs and the boiler room was sealed and decontaminated, with three air locks separating it from the outside world, and three separate cleaning areas established.

Asbestos Health and Safety

The amount of effort and procedure, in fact, makes the actions of this employee all the more remarkable.  Along with a colleague, this individual was in the process of removing the material, when a Health and Safety Inspector arrived at the school.  In the course of trying to find someone in charge, the inspector saw the asbestos removal taking place within the sealed boiler room, via CCTV.  One of the men was wearing the correct safety clothing, personal protective equipment and respiratory protection.  This other man, however, was removing the asbestos without his protective headgear and respiratory mask, walking about the room with the hood of his protective overalls fully down, dangerously exposing himself to the asbestos.

Such behaviour, of course, makes a mockery of the levels undertaken to prevent contamination in the first place.  The HSE inspector shouted at the man through the airlock but failed to get his attention.  She then filmed what she was seeing, as evidence, and phoned his asbestos removal company.  Eventually they got word to the operative, who was told in no uncertain terms to leave the boiler room.

What makes the situation even the more staggering is firstly that this was a full-trained asbestos supervisor, who was aware of the risks associated with asbestos, and the need to wear the protective equipment.  Secondly, his respiratory equipment was actually with him in the boiler room, on the floor.

As a trained asbestos supervisor, this operative should have been both aware of the dangers of exposure to asbestos and also determined to set an example, both to his colleague and to others in the school, demonstrating the need to take the necessary precautions to protect both himself and others around him.   Instead he rather casually ignored the risk, in an environment known to be contaminated.

Such lapses are taken extremely seriously – the better to protect those working with asbestos, even if they seem unwilling to protect themselves.  This particular supervisor was prosecuted by the Heath and Safety Executive. Charged with what was called a “flagrant and deliberate breach” of regulations, he was fined £1000, with £1500 towards costs.

If you yourself are concerned that there may be asbestos present in a building you manage, or need advice on what steps to take if asbestos is found, please read the advice on this site and refer to the many relevant