Assure 360

Defining the environmental clean

Written by Nick Garland on 10/03/2021

What exactly is an ‘environmental clean? It’s a phrase we’ve all heard, and maybe even used many times. But the term has never been defined by any regulation, or in official guidance. And therein lies the problem. Undefined, the ‘environmental clean’ is often used as a get-out, describing a situation that a client, consultant or contractor doesn’t think warrants an enclosure.

As a vague process, the environmental clean could mean almost anything. Some have long pushed at the boundaries of what’s acceptable: in practice environmental cleans reveal a very wide interpretation of what controls are appropriate, from the sensible, down to almost none.

Not surprisingly, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has always hated the phrase, and can get quite cross when it’s mentioned. The HSE has encountered a history of poor judgement by individuals in the industry on whether an enclosure was necessary. No doubt you’ve heard concerns dismissed with “It’s only an environmental clean” – it’s often been used as an excuse to justify cutting corners.

I’ve always counseled licensed asbestos removal contractors (LARCs) never to use the phrase. The alternative is to have it defined in your Standard Procedures. A detailed specification covering the meaning of the phrase, the narrow parameters in which it can be used – and what controls are required – would prevent its misuse. Just writing it down means that it will be reviewed by the team, and by the HSE during your licence assessment. If you define it, you have control.

The HSE takes control

But now the HSE is acting to solve the problem, via the newly renamed Asbestos Network Technical Working Group. Previously known as the Asbestos Liaison Group, and chaired by Martin Gibson until his retirement, the group is now headed up by Sam Lord – very much out of the same mould as Martin. In a new set of minutes, the group is trying to completely reclaim the term ‘environmental clean’.

As you may or may not know, the working group’s minutes are used to share the thinking of the powers-that-be as to how the industry should be doing something. They are highly considered documents, which have been pored over for many weeks and months. The minutes have a fuzzy legal status – they’re not official guidance, but certainly the HSE uses them as part of its best practice model. Ignore them at your peril.

So what do the minutes actually say about the environmental clean? The very first point they make is that all work with an asbestos containing material (ACM) falls under the Control of Asbestos regulations 2012 (CAR), and the Approved Code of Practice (ACoP). Accordingly, there is absolutely no difference between cleaning, removing, encapsulating and so on. It’s all ‘work with asbestos’, and therefore the nature and duration of the task will determine whether it is notifiable, and what controls are required.

This makes it the legal responsibility of the company doing the work to get it right. Getting it wrong could lead to the spread of asbestos. In turn that could lead to severe legal repercussions and very severe civil claim exposure.

So to reiterate the obvious, a job requires a licence if you are dealing with licenseable material as defined in the CAR. The ACoP (Regulation 2) offers this definition:

“Licensable work with asbestos” is work:
(a)  where the exposure to asbestos of employees is not sporadic and of low intensity; or
(b)  in relation to which the risk assessment cannot clearly demonstrate that the control limit will not be exceeded; or
(c)  on asbestos coating; or
(d)  on asbestos insulating board or asbestos insulation for which the risk assessment:
(i) demonstrates that the work is not sporadic and of low intensity, or
(ii) cannot clearly demonstrate that the control limit will not be exceeded, or
(iii) demonstrates that the work is not short duration work.

Note the overlapping use of the words ‘and’ & ‘or’.

So it doesn’t matter what you call the job. It is licenseable work if you are dealing with asbestos coatings, or insulating board / insulation – unless your risk assessment clearly shows that it is short duration (two person hours, once a week as per the ACoP paragraph 31). Even then it would need to be below the four-hour or 10-minute control limits. If the job involves some other ACM, it still requires a licence if the exposure is likely to be over the four-hour or 10-minute control limits.

The minutes seek to further clarify this tight definition in certain areas. For example, if the material was originally insulation, but now is so deteriorated as to be merely unidentifiable trace debris on a floor, how do we establish whether the work requires a licence?

Clarifying the guidance

The starting point taken by the minutes is to try to separate out the grey areas that tend to get covered by an “it’s only a …’ fig leaf. These are the:

  • Environmental clean
  • Re-clean
  • Pre-clean

Table 1

The minutes define environmental cleaning as picking up, wiping up, collecting or vacuuming unattached ACMs. If the ACM is identifiable as coating, insulating board or insulation (either because you can identify if or because the source material is right there) – it will require a licence and must be notified. The exception is if it will be a very short job (see paragraphs 30-31 of the ACoP).

The memo then goes on to recognise that if all you are doing is vacuuming a small patch of asbestos insulation board fragments, then the required controls might not include a full enclosure. This highlights an often misunderstood part of the regulations. Whether something requires a licence and whether it requires an enclosure are two separate questions. The first nearly always triggers the latter, but not always. Your risk assessment must determine what controls you implement. And remember you are looking for the worst case scenario: what if the method goes wrong?

The minutes open clear daylight between environmental cleans and re-cleans. A reclean is where you are revisiting a situation where someone failed to clean properly in the first place. The ACM is often surface residues which were difficult to get at, too hard to dislodge, or simply “missed”. The material is often randomly spread, particularly over imperfect surfaces. Recleans, the memo states, require a licence subject to the ‘very short duration’ caveat. It also implies that, because of the vigour required to remove ‘attached’ residues, the controls are likely to be more onerous (i.e. full enclosure).

Finally the group has addressed pre-cleans. The minutes point you at the Licensed Contractors Guide (HSG 247), paragraphs 6.27-6.28. Here it clearly states that a pre-clean is merely phase one of the licensed removal project. It may include sheeting over plant equipment, ACMs that are to be retained, wet floors and so on. The work may include cleaning minor ACM dust and debris, and it will require appropriate controls such as dust suppression, RPE and PPE. The risk assessment will determine whether or not this can be done in advance of the soon-to-be-constructed enclosure.

Summing up

Far from telling you what an environmental clean looks like in regards to methods, controls and PPE, the aim of the document is to focus you on the starting point of your decision making:

  1. Is the ACM unattached (dust and debris)? If not, it’s a re-clean, and almost certainly needs a licence and full enclosure
  2. Is it licensable work? If so, notify
  3. Do a worst case scenario assessment – and design the controls appropriately

The advice I have always given LARCS stands: what a job looks like in practice (enclosure, decontamination and so on) must still be defined in the working method, and in your Standard Procedures.

These minutes draw attention to the way that a failure to define a procedure, or the use of a ‘folk’ definition, can give rise to confusion. More importantly, they remove one opportunity for less scrupulous players to cut corners and compromise safety. In practice, I believe their biggest impact may be preventing the pressure that’s applied by consultants or clients trying to get a nice quick job, because they perceive it as ‘only a…’.

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