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An estimated six million tonnes of asbestos are still inside 1.5 million buildings in the UK, including hospitals and eight out of 10 schools (ResPublica). If it is left undisturbed or undamaged, the risk of ill health is negligible, as it is the inhalation of airborne asbestos fibres that causes harm to people’s health.
Buildings cannot be just left to go into disrepair. They will need to be continuously maintained, repaired, and in some cases, demolished and refurbished. These work activities increase the risk of asbestos being disturbed and the release of airborne fibres, resulting in asbestos contamination and exposure.
Accidents can also happen, and if asbestos is present, airborne fibres may be released if it is accidentally disturbed during everyday activities.
Duty holders in non-domestic premises need to manage the risk of asbestos. If work will disturb or damage asbestos or there is a risk of accidental fibre release, an asbestos survey will be required. You will look at this in further detail in this article.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. It was used widely in commercial buildings, homes and machinery in the past, mainly for its heat and fire-resistant properties and durability. It was named the ‘miracle mineral’ because of its usefulness and affordability.
There are six types of asbestos, but the ones commonly used in UK buildings were crocidolite (blue), amosite (brown) and chrysotile (white). All three types of asbestos are hazardous, although blue and brown asbestos fibres are considered more dangerous due to the straight, sharp and brittle fibres.
Asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999, which meant that all types were no longer legally permitted to be manufactured, imported, supplied and used in the UK. Therefore, it can be presumed that buildings built before the year 2000 will contain asbestos. It is not to say that asbestos is not present in buildings or equipment built after 2000. However, the risk is deemed low.
Why is asbestos so dangerous? According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), asbestos still kills around 5,000 workers each year, more than the number of road fatalities. Approximately 20 tradesmen also die each week as a result of past exposure.
Asbestos is classed as a category 1 human carcinogen, which means it can cause cancer. This is one of the reasons why it was banned in the 1990s as the dangers associated with asbestos became apparent.
Asbestos that is in good condition and undisturbed is not considered to be dangerous. The danger arises when asbestos is damaged or disturbed, and the fibres become airborne. There are thousands of these fibres in such a small sample. Once inhaled, they travel to the lungs and can become embedded in the lung tissue.
Over time, exposure to these fibres can cause various lung diseases such as:
- Asbestosis – Results in scarring to the lungs.
- Lung cancer – Similar to cancer caused by smoking.
- Mesothelioma – Cancer, which affects the lining of the lungs.
- Pleural thickening – Causes the lining of the lungs to thicken, which can cause swelling.
These diseases are severely disabling. They mainly affect lung function and can make it difficult for a person to breathe. They are progressive and usually fatal. Asbestos really is a hidden killer, and because workers cannot see the fibres or immediate harm, it can lead to complacency.
The risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases is higher with repeated exposure to a high concentration of asbestos fibres over a long period. Other factors also increase the risk, e.g. type of asbestos, existing lung condition, smoking, occupation and age.
So, where might asbestos be found? Any building built before the year 2000 will likely contain asbestos. In the past, it was used in a wide variety of building materials, such as insulation, sprayed coatings, cement, textiles, floor tiles and composites.
The HSE has a handy infographic on their website, which shows where asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) may be found in industrial and residential properties.
If asbestos is present in a building, it should be managed in accordance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. Whether removal is required will depend on many factors, e.g. the works to be carried out, its location and condition.
If ACMs are in good condition and will not be damaged or disturbed, they should be left and monitored. If ACMs need to be disturbed, damaged or removed, this will require a competent contractor and a licence from the HSE for specific works. Before this, an asbestos survey is necessary to identify asbestos within the building.
What is an asbestos survey?
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 requires duty holders to manage asbestos in non-domestic premises. Managing does not require the removal of asbestos. However, it does include identifying its presence, type and condition, and assessing the risk of damage/disturbance.
It is difficult to identify asbestos, as it is often mixed with other materials (ACMs) and is not always identifiable by colour. The only way to confirm that asbestos is present and the type is by having an asbestos survey carried out by a competent contractor and sending samples to an accredited laboratory for analysis.
An asbestos survey is a survey that is carried out within premises to identify any ACMs present and to make a materials assessment.
This means a surveyor will:
- Locate any ACMs and record what they are, including the location and quantity.
- Record the condition of the ACMs, accessibility and any surface treatment.
- Record the type of asbestos, which is by presuming or by taking samples.
An asbestos survey will be required if:
- Any work, e.g. building, maintenance, repair, demolition or other work, is likely to disturb or damage suspected ACMs.
- There is no existing information, and asbestos presence is suspected.
- Existing information on asbestos presence is incomplete or seems unreliable.
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 does not state that an asbestos survey has to be completed. However, it does require duty holders to identify the presence of asbestos and assess and manage the risks. The requirements for an asbestos survey are detailed in the Approved Code of Practice and guidance, which is a legal document, and duty holders must comply.
The different types of asbestos survey
According to the HSE, there are two asbestos survey types: a management survey and a refurbishment/demolition survey.
Asbestos management survey (previously known as a type 2 survey)
- A management survey locates ACMs within a building and looks at whether they could be disturbed during normal occupation and use of the premises.
- The aim is to ensure nobody is harmed by the ACMs, they are in good condition, and they are not disturbed or damaged accidentally.
- If non-domestic buildings, or shared parts of domestic buildings, were built before 2000, a management survey will be required.
- The survey can be completed by the duty holder for simple premises, provided they are trained and competent. If the duty holder has any doubts regarding their competency, it is always best to use a competent accredited asbestos surveyor.
- The ACMs that could be damaged or disturbed during normal activities, e.g. during maintenance, must be located. It can involve minor intrusive work and disturbance to find them, which will enable the surveyor to make a materials assessment.
- This type of survey can involve taking a small number of samples, which are then sent for laboratory analysis to confirm the presence and type of asbestos.
- A management survey can also presume that asbestos is present or absent.
Asbestos refurbishment/demolition survey (previously known as a type 3 survey)
- A refurbishment/demolition survey is for premises that are going to be upgraded, refurbished or demolished. These are higher risk activities that could result in a substantial release of asbestos fibres.
- The aim is to ensure nobody is harmed by any work on ACMs and the work will be carried out correctly and safely by contractors.
- The survey is more destructive and intrusive than a management survey. It is a more aggressive approach to surveying, as the inspection methods are destructive, e.g. breaking walls.
- It involves taking extensive samples to confirm ACMs that will be disturbed or damaged during the works. It should cover all of these materials. The ACM samples are then sent to an accredited laboratory for analysis.
- This type of survey is typically used for the removal of asbestos before work starts. It does not need to record the condition of the ACMs.
- The survey should be carried out by a competent surveyor.
- The area must be vacated before the survey, and once the survey is complete, it should be certified ‘fit for reoccupation’.
- The asbestos survey report must be in place before the work starts.
In some cases, both types of surveys may be necessary. For example, a school has a management survey for the building under normal occupation, but it wants to refurbish and modernise an older part of the building. In this situation, the school would require a refurbishment survey, in addition to a management survey.
Duty holders need to understand the type of asbestos survey needed for their particular circumstances, which should be agreed upon with other interested parties, e.g. building owners, employers and surveyors.
Who can complete an asbestos survey?
Only competent surveyors should carry out an asbestos survey.
Competent means that surveyors:
- Know how to carry out asbestos surveys and understand the risks of surveying.
- Possess the necessary training, experience and skills, and can identify the limits of their competence.
- Use an appropriate and effective quality management system when carrying out surveys.
- Can demonstrate independence, impartiality and integrity.
- Follow good practices when carrying out their work, e.g. HSG264 survey guide.
It is not a legal requirement for asbestos surveyors to be accredited. However, the HSE strongly recommends that duty holders use accredited surveyors (standard BS EN ISO/IEC 17020) to carry out asbestos surveys.
To ensure a competent surveyor is appointed, duty holders should check:
- They have the necessary training and experience by asking for copies of qualifications, training certificates, authorisation cards, accreditation status, and previous survey reports, and they should also seek references etc.
- They are accredited by a recognised accreditation body, such as the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS). Duty holders can search for accredited organisations on the UKAS website. UKAS accredited survey providers are listed as inspection bodies.
Duty holders should never be afraid to ask surveyors/organisations questions regarding asbestos surveys and reports. After all, they are paying for a service and are overall responsible for managing asbestos within the premises. Choosing the wrong surveyor could have disastrous consequences. Box 3 in HSG264 Asbestos: The survey guide provides further guidance on checking the competency of surveyors.
The survey report
Once an asbestos survey has been completed, the duty holder should be given a copy of a survey report by the competent contractor.
The survey report should include, as a minimum:
- The name of the individual conducting the asbestos survey.
- The date of the survey.
- Executive summary of the survey carried out.
- Scope of the survey, including type, i.e. management or demolition/refurbishment.
- Survey methodology and limitations.
- Locations of the ACMs in the building, often including photographs and a plan.
- Whether samples were taken and the results, including details of the laboratory that conducted the analysis.
- Survey findings, conclusions and recommendations.
- Any further actions that are required.
Some asbestos surveys will also contain an asbestos register, risk assessment and management plan. If the survey does not include these documents, the duty holder can prepare them from the information within the report. Survey reports must contain the required information. It should also be in an appropriate format to help duty holders with their register and plan.
The asbestos report must be clear, understandable and available to all relevant parties needing to access the information. If there are any caveats, they should be kept to an absolute minimum, agreed with the client and included in the survey report.
HSG264 Asbestos: The survey guide has further information on the sections that should be included in an asbestos survey report.
If asbestos is present and there is no asbestos survey, or it is inadequate, it can have severe consequences for duty holders. It increases the risk of asbestos being disturbed or damaged and the fibres becoming airborne.
If this happens, workers will be exposed, and the area/equipment will become contaminated. This can lead to enforcement action, compensation claims and associated costs, which can be significant.
Duty holders are legally required to manage asbestos in non-domestic premises and common areas in residential buildings. If asbestos presence is suspected, duty holders must ensure that a suitable and sufficient asbestos survey is in place, along with a register and management plan.
Once a survey has been completed, it is not the endpoint in managing asbestos. Duty holders still need to assess, manage and monitor the asbestos that is present in their premises.
HSG264 Asbestos: The survey guide provides guidance, not only to duty holders that manage asbestos but also to surveyors who carry out asbestos surveys.