Control of Asbestos

Do I really need an Asbestos Survey?

It is now some time since Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 came into force, requiring duty holders to manage asbestos on their premises. But asbestos surveys are often carried out unnecessarily and rather badly.

Many thousands of asbestos surveys take place around the UK each year but in many cases they are badly planned, poorly executed and their purpose misunderstood. It is estimated that there are some 500,000 commercial properties in the UK where asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are still found. Left intact and undisturbed ACMs are not a problem, but if the building needs to be refurbished or demolished then disturbance is a real possibility. You must know where the ACMs are, which means doing a survey. It sounds simple, but surveys should not be started without careful planning and a clear understanding of the process and the objective.

Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations places duties on anyone who owns, occupies, or otherwise controls non-domestic premises to manage any ACMs therein. It does not specifically require a survey to be undertaken. In its simplest interpretation, it requires that people who occupy the premises are not exposed to asbestos. An important part of this process has always been the asbestos survey – important, but not essential. Asbestos management fails not because the building has not been surveyed but because there are no systems or procedures in place to ensure each and every job is controlled.

The asbestos survey has always played a major role in the management of ACMs, long before Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations, yet they are still misunderstood, still not used correctly and, worst of all, repeated time and time again, as buildings change ownership.

Commonly, the purchaser of a building asks for the survey report, but nobody knows where it is, there is uncertainty as to the extent of the last survey or they simply want the reassurance of a new survey. It is probably not necessary for a building built after l985 to be surveyed (although they often are) unless a major refurbishment or demolition is planned. Post l985, you may find ACMs, but they will almost certainly be low-risk and, typically, non-licensable and they can still be managed.
Surveying seems to have become synonymous with asbestos management. This does not necessarily suggest ignorance or over-selling by service providers. In a genuine attempt to achieve compliance, companies often don’t know where to turn and in the absence of a properly conceived management strategy, the survey seems a logical placed to start.

Surveying is a major commitment and, to be effective, must be based on a sound strategy that starts with the reasons for the survey and who should do the work, through to the on-going management of the data. Surveys are often repeated because there’s no management of the survey data. Asbestos is removed, nobody updates the database, so at some point in the future the survey is repeated. The survey should not start until the duty holder has decided how the information should be used. Is it for planned work or ongoing management? Who will need access to the survey data and how?

There are many options available to the duty holder as (s)he tries to increase their knowledge of the asbestos in their buildings, but these options should be based on a strategy. For example, you can focus on pre-l985 buildings, prioritise based on occupancy, or as an interim measure train employees to do inspections for damaged suspicious materials – you don’t need to know what ACMs look like, just what damage looks like. This will enable you to discover most of the major issues now.

The important thing is to plan. Discuss your aims and needs with the surveyor and say how you want the information presented. Make sure you clearly agree and understand what is required before the survey starts. Back it up with living systems and procedures that make sure your report will not just be another collector of dust.

The format of the surveyor’s previous reports should be clear, understandable and concise. It should show every room that has been accessed, the ACMs found and any areas not accessed.

Survey types also bring their own confusion. Terms ‘Type 1, 2 and 3’ imply clear boundaries between survey types, but these are not definitive statements. Any asbestos survey should do two things, irrespective of ‘type’. Firstly, the survey report should provide full details of the type and extent of the ACMs present and secondly, but of equal importance, it should state specifically what was achieved and what wasn’t, with clear statements for each room surveyed. The duty holder should know specifically whether the survey went beneath that floor, into that cavity, above that suspended ceiling etc. Providing this is clear, you can call the survey whatever you like, UKAS permitting.

A debateable point is whether the surveyor should access exterior wall cavities. Is this reasonably practicable? If a refurbishment does not affect an exterior wall, it’s probably not necessary and even if ACMs are found, they can’t be removed. But if the building is being demolished, all such cavities must be accessed. Removing a breezeblock or two will not cause any loss of structural integrity and for a lump hammer, bolster and a pair of goggles it costs about £40 and it takes about 20 minutes of the surveyor’s time. This is not a lot, particularly when compared to the millions of pounds that may potentially be saved in clean-up costs. If you do find asbestos, it may not be possible to remove it without demolishing the building first, but at least you can put some controls in place.

Summary

So, it’s clear that asbestos surveying is not too simple. The duty holder believes and even demands that his survey report tells him everything he needs to know and the surveyor lives in constant fear of missing something. Asbestos will get missed, as the process is one of judgement, investigation and interpretation. There is no magic meter and everything has, unhelpfully, been painted the same colour. But missed ACMs should be the exception.
Surveying is a vital part of an asbestos management strategy but before instructing your surveyors, sit down and ask yourself:

  • Do I have a management strategy for asbestos?
  • Do I need a survey now?
  • Do I know why I am planning an asbestos survey?
  • Have I communicated my requirements clearly to my surveyor?
  • Do I know what areas will be surveyed?
  • Will the surveyor tell me exactly what he did and didn’t do?
  • Do I know how the results will be presented to me?
  • Will the format work for me?
  • Will my tradesmen and contractors understand it?
  • Do I have a contingency in place for those ‘hidden ACM’s?

Remember: you want your asbestos register to work today, tomorrow and for the next 30 years. But, more fundamentally, it has to be part of your asbestos management plan. That is what the HSE, your insurers and your employees are looking for. An effective dialogue between you and your surveying company will help you better understand your building and how to plan ahead, until the day you can truly say all your ACMs are gone.

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posted on July 14, 2010
in Safety Topics
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