Assure 360

The HSE calls out training malpractice

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday April 18th 2024

Last month, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) unleashed absolute chaos. For those that don’t know what happened, I’ll summarise…

 The HSE has become concerned about the quality of some training – and very concerned about the effectiveness of some RPE (respiratory protective equipment) face-fit testing (FFT). The regulator suspects even that in some cases, training and FFTs were not actually being done – just the certificate issued. Due to the criticality of a good FFT, it instructed the Asbestos Network members to share this concern with the world.

Where this got highly controversial is that the HSE issued a statement naming two training organisations of which it was particularly suspicious. And even worse, the first of these two was misnamed: the organisation’s acronym didn’t match its full name, which in turn was completely wrong – and a totally different organisation. No evidence was provided, so there was little for the relevant accrediting bodies to investigate.

 From the outside, it didn’t seem like the appropriate way for the HSE to raise or deal with its concerns. But a colleague of mine more involved summed it up more directly: ‘It’s a proper screw-up’.

 But as the dust settles, it’s important not to lose sight of the core concern here. For a very long time there have been rumours that training, FFT, mask maintenance certificates and even medicals can be and routinely are ‘forged’. I’ve personally not seen any hard evidence to this effect, but I’ve heard the suspicions of supervisors: “he’s never been trained in his life”, and “remote training sessions are too easy to pass – so what value is there in them?”.

The other week I came across a medical certificate for an operative who had been working on site all week in the south of England, but who had somehow managed to pop up to the North-East for his medical without missing a shift. Was this evidence of fraud? Actually no, as with some digging it turned out that the occupational health centre was providing medicals over the phone. This approach was brought in as an emergency measure in COVID and was withdrawn years ago. Not fraud, but certainly shocking.

 Despite the naming issue, the HSE has not withdrawn its statement, so certificates from the two named organisations (and presumably the misnamed one too) should continue to face additional scrutiny. What this translates to is that a licensed asbestos removal contractor (LARC) must conduct extra competence assessments on employees with these certificates. The press release didn’t offer suggestions on how we should approach the FFT, but I understand that the labour supply agencies themselves are ensuring all staff under their wings are being re-tested.

Elephants in the room 

This event should serve as a catalyst for the industry to reexamine testing more thoroughly, and ensure it’s delivering the high standards of protection that asbestos removal demands. For even when training is actually done – and done to a high standard – it’s fair to ask whether a three-day, new operative course should be enough to allow someone to work under challenging conditions with a carcinogen. In fact I think you’d struggle to find anyone to enthusiastically support this idea.

For those that can remember, labour supply agencies used to be licence holders, and were effectively employers for a stable of workers. Maintaining a licence is not an easy thing – it takes care, attention to detail and commitment. A good agency would be seen as a partner for a LARC and, if they could provide reliable staff that were competent, they would be able to command loyalty from their customers. Their licence would be precious, and they would have an incentive to train, assess and generally look after good staff.

This all changed in 2013, when they were removed from the licensing regime, and anyone could start up a labour supply agency without any checks and balances. The HSE’s argument was that they didn’t care where a LARC got its staff, providing the LARC ensured their competence. No thought was put into how the LARC might do this, particularly for workers who might only be with them for a couple of days. This has led to a lot more labour supply agencies, but the same pool of short-term workers (STW), who are self-employed people in their own right. 

There are good, dedicated agencies out there that endeavour to provide top quality staff, but there are also some that are very, very poor. The pay rates for all site staff are historically low, and therefore a bump of £5 per day has become enough for a worker to move. When demand outstrips supply, it also becomes a seller’s market. Desperate employers and desperate agencies need bodies on site, and sometimes that’s achieved no matter the competence.

We have created a market where the individual worker is the customer, and loyalty to the LARC or the agency is for mugs.

For the trainers, RPE Face Fit providers, and mask maintainers, the customer is now often the individual STW, and time has become a huge premium for these self-employed people.  Anything that keeps them off-site for a shift can represent a significant loss of income. The incentives are obvious, and help explain the rise of the online refresher course, rather than face-to-face training.

If we think a little on how this incentive could twist the market it is a short leap to questions such as: ‘how quick can the training be?’, ‘do I need a FFT every year?’, ‘this second hand mask looks alright – how do I get a maintenance certificate?’, ‘have you heard that NE doctor is still doing medicals by post?’. It’s the result of the pure free market meeting safety-critical requirements – and we are where we are.

The cliff edge 

Online and remote training became essential during the pandemic, and it seems they’re here to stay. In the right circumstances, they can be exactly what is needed. My understanding of the HSE’s current position on it is that such refresher courses can be suitable for experienced workers, if supported by the employer’s training needs analysis (TNA), i.e. an employer, having thoroughly assessed their worker, deems that they only need a light-touch refresher. This seems eminently logical to me. However, the obvious implication of this is that it is not suitable for self-sponsored, self-employed agency staff, as they don’t have an employer to assess them and perform a TNA.

Things are about to get a lot worse. On many major construction sites, individuals need Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) cards to demonstrate a basic level of safety training and awareness. These are backed up by NVQs, and these qualifications have lots more checks and balances. Evidence of a candidate’s competence is recorded, and there’s auditing of both the individual assessor and the training provider by the awarding body. They also represent a huge time commitment for both the worker and their employer.

As NVQs were initially a new concept in the asbestos industry, temporary red ‘trained’ cards were made available for workers who had no NVQ and only the traditional three-day training course. Fifty thousand of these non-renewable cards have been issued, and all of them will expire by the end of 2024. The only route for these red card holders to get black or gold cards is to complete an NVQ. That’s quite a commitment even for a full-time employed worker, and seemingly inconceivable for the self-employed.

If I try to look at this impending cliff edge with some optimism, the only thing I can come up with is that, once we’ve fallen off, the few employees available might at least be of a high standard. What it could mean for the already tight labour situation hardly bears thinking about.

How do we fix the problem?

Whilst the HSE’s intervention seems ill thought through, it has forced us to look at the current situation, which is dire. What’s the solution? I’m not sure anyone knows, and certainly I don’t, but something clearly needs to be done.

Graham Warren of the Asbestos and Environmental Safety Association (ASESA) has called for a complete reset of the training environment. In his vision, all of the training organisations (ASESA, ARCA, ACAD, IATP and UKATA) would get together and collaboratively decide what training and competence should look like. This agreed competency framework could then be followed by all. This kind of fundamental action seems to me like an excellent place to start.

It does seem inescapable that remote training will have to be part of the mix – but it is not suitable for everyone. That is one of the many fundamental questions such a collaborative re-assessment has to answer. What does training and competence look like for our sector? What is the right training for a given individual? How do they learn? What will they engage with?

If online refreshers aren’t suitable for the self-sponsored worker, then how do we make the new environment work for this critical pool of staff? Should we consider bringing back licences for labour supply agencies, and so recreate trusted ‘employers’ with skin in the game? Again, I don’t know, but we desperately need to look at the whole problem with honesty.

Wherever there is money, there will be bad actors prepared to cut corners for profit. But the new system should at least be designed so that most of the human nature levers are pushing us in the right direction. It is, after all, a fundamental matter of workers’ safety.

Five takeaways from the new exposure guidance

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday March 14th 2024

For the past few years I’ve been writing about personal monitoring and exposure guidance. It’s an area that the entire asbestos industry has struggled to grasp. By ‘the industry’, I include everyone: licensed asbestos removal contractors (LARCs), analysts, and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). And frankly if these last two have struggled, what chance did the LARCs have?

In a continuation of our focus on the issue, I thought I would highlight the main points from the guidance. Here I’ve listed the most important issues raised, along with their implications, and how you can make sure you’re in compliance.

It Exists!

My first takeaway is that the guidance exists at all. It’s always been amazing to me that an area of the industry so important has been overlooked for decades. But it is here now, and what’s more it’s pretty good guidance. It’s clear, as concise as it could be, and it’s muscular – as in it goes slightly beyond the why and how to help address some of the blockers.

You can get a copy from your trade association, from the AN’s new official home on the CONIAC website, or download it from our website.

Good Strategy

Takeaway number two would be that it demands a much improved strategy. The old approach to personal monitoring was that 40% of asbestos insulation board (AIB) jobs, 60% of pipe insulation, and 100% of ‘flock’ jobs would get a personal monitoring test. The obvious flaw with this approach is that both a one-day AIB boiler cupboard job, and a one-week AIB ceiling project with 10 operatives, count as one job.

I appreciate this might have been the best we could do before widespread use of Excel and computers, where everything was locked away on paper, but we’ve been able to do much better for decades. Now that we have access to databases, and Excel is commonplace, the guidance takes us to another place entirely.

Our monitoring strategy now needs to be risk based. So – other than what asbestos-containing material (ACM) we are dealing with – what makes one activity higher risk, and therefore one we should target with personals?

  • Quantity – debris is very different to multiple panels
  • The fixing – glued, nailed, screwed and lay-in are all very different
  • The environment (e.g. tight spaces or above head height) – Does the situation perfectly match your controls? Can you spray, will there be breakage etc?
  • Who is doing the job – a new starter (whether that is someone fresh from a new op course, or an agency operative you don’t know from Adam) is much higher risk than a trusted, careful employee

All of these will need to interact, so that Barry the new starter is targeted more than 10-year veteran Tom when removing a one-off AIB panel. Similarly, 10 operatives removing panels for seven days straight are targeted – and in particular Barry.

You need to collect data in much more detail to be able to work all this out. And that means your exposure record sheets need to be expanded to include all of this data: 

  1. Record the ACM and fixing
  2. Record what you are doing – normal removal, or if it is a more complex atypical method
  3. The scale of removal – differentiate between one-off panels and large-scale projects

You also need to create categories of people, breaking employees down into trusted, experienced workers, and those you need to focus on. Ultimately you need to cover everyone doing all of the activities. And once you start collecting this data, you need to process it.

There are only two ways you can unpick the meaning behind this very very large amount of information: a spreadsheet like Excel, or a database. If you go down the first route, you will need to build a sheet that can take all this data and automatically calculate the implications of your strategy. You need to build this out into a tool that allows you to commission the right personal test at the right time.

The first of my apologies, is that Assure360 does, of course, already do all of this for you. I’ve been talking about the subject for years, so it’s only right that I have built it into our system. The Paperless app takes data that the supervisor records (faster than they could have done on paper), automatically slices it up, and tells you who and what to test. This decision is based on up-to-the-second data and is not only easier than a spreadsheet, it’s actually admin-free, representing no additional effort whatsoever.

The guidance recognises that this is new, and that you might effectively be starting from scratch, so there’s a bit of humanity built in. It stresses that you should prioritise high-risk activities first, and back-fill to lower risk ones when you have sufficient data.

Clients should, and analysts must

The next takeaway is the huge elephant in the room: it doesn’t matter what you want them to do, the analysts and the clients won’t do it.

Understandably, the big drive for some time has been for clients to employ the analyst directly. This removes a potential conflict of interest, but introduces others. As the client is paying, they’re more interested in leak tests and the four-stage clearance (4SC), so personals get forgotten.

The guidance directs the client to consider their duties under the Construction, Design and Management Regulations 2015 (CDM duties), and makes it clear that personals help them discharge these. After all, a series of personals is evidence that the work is being conducted safely.

The next issue here is that the analyst often thinks that the data they record is ‘owned’ by the client, and therefore can’t be given to the LARC. This has been very firmly put to rest, as the guidance states:

“analysts must always provide full PM results directly to the LARC as soon as possible after the collection of the sample via either hard copy or electronic means.

And

“Failure to supply this information might be a breach of the analyst organisation’s duty H&S at Work Act 1974.”

The guidance also tells us that – whoever is paying for the test – the LARC should specify what and who is to be tested.

I have never seen guidance clearer than this!

What tests to do – and why

The guidance lists the four tests you could do, but it focuses us on two:

  • Specific short-duration activity (SSDA) 
  • Four-hour time-weighted average (4Hr TWA)

It also explains why.

SSDA

The SSDA is the workhorse test. It focuses on a specific activity, that is, not “AIB removal and fine clean”, but one or the other. With that restriction in mind, it is still hugely flexible and will provide you the data you need to answer a whole host of questions:

  • How effective was your method – does it need to be changed?
  • Are your assumptions about exposure correct?
  • Are some operatives better at doing things than others?
  • Can you learn from those differences?

It can even help you with assessing respiratory protective equipment (RPE) suitability and the 4Hr TWA, if you design it correctly. The only thing an SSDA will struggle to cover is the old 10-minute test (but the guide effectively acknowledges those as being a bit niche these days).

4Hr TWA

The HSE sees this test as equally important to the SSDA, and there is an element of ‘just do it’ in the guidance. But at least it does tell you how to do it. I won’t go into too much detail here, but in broad strokes here’s what you need to remember.

Where the SSDA is looking at one activity, the 4Hr TWA is looking at one person, and it can (and should) encompass everything they do. The result of the test will therefore indicate the average exposure in a working day. This might give rise to two questions: why is this important, and why only four-hours if we are talking about a working day?

Why is it important?

The 4hr TWA relates to the Control Limit, and the CL relates to decades of known occupational excess mortality data – i.e. how many people will die – if exposed above a certain figure per day over a 40-year period. We need to be as far on the right side of this figure as possible.

The average in a day is important, as the fact that no exposure was experienced at lunch, or when travelling to the enclosure and back, is relevant. It allows us to ‘calculate’ the likely total exposure in a working lifetime. Therefore whilst the SSDA helps us get better at what we do, the 4hr TWA is the ONLY risk assessment for asbestos exposure. 

Why only four hours?

The second question? Well that’s a bit niche. Back in the day, pumps weren’t capable of testing over an eight-hour working day, so the asbestos community went for four hours instead. That might sound like a cop-out, but in fact if you target the high-risk activities as you’re supposed to, calculating exposure over four hours imposes a stricter limit.

The maths behind the 4Hr TWA remains difficult, but the guidance goes into some detail on how to do it. In essence, we’re back to the Excel spreadsheet again. 

That said, It would be really remiss of me not to include 4hr TWA calculations in Assure360. I have, and it does. The system automatically identifies whether the test follows the strict rules. If it does, Assure360 will do the sums for you automatically and instantly. Again, our system solves a mandatory, time-consuming task, helping you focus on your work. 

Never ask an analyst to do a personal

One of the most common questions from LARCs over the past 20 years must be: “Why do we always get ‘useless’ short-duration air tests?”

Well, at least part of the reason for not getting the right answer is that we typically don’t ask the right question. Normally we would instruct the analyst “can you do a personal whilst you are there?”. They would look to the (old) analysts guide, where they had four options.

  1. The four-hour control limit
  2. The 10-minute control limit
  3. The (defunct) Action Level
  4. Suitability of RPE

As I have said earlier, analysts – along with the rest of the industry – have been scratching around in the dark. Without a deep understanding of the subject, their thought process might be: “I can’t do option one, because that’s four hours. The Action Level doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s nothing to do with RPE. So the only personal I can do is a 10-minute”.

The new guide is a huge improvement, as it introduces the SSDA, but we are still working in a subject area with precious little competence. To ensure you get the data you want, be clear in what you want.

Don’t ask for ‘a personal’. Ask for “an SSDA test on Tom, removing AIB on Monday. Please make sure the flow rate is two litres per minute, and that you run it for at least two hours.”

The specificity is important, and the last two parts particularly so. If you can get most of your personals to follow this pattern, they qualify for 4hr TWA calculations and you kill two birds with one stone.

As many of you will recognise, I’ve seen it as my mission to help address the competence gap in this area. That’s why one of the first features of Assure360 dealt with exposure, and it’s why I’ve returned to write about it again and again. It’s why we recently ran a webinar to help the industry understand and implement the new guidance.

It’s one of my proudest achievements that Assure360 is so ahead of its time, its users were compliant with this guidance more than four years ago. If you want to see how our system solves the issues raised here – and much more – please do contact us for a demonstration.

Gel Cutting – A New Removal Technique

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday October 25th 2023

In late 2022 I attended the European Asbestos Forum conference in Amsterdam. This won’t come as a surprise – I wrote about it shortly afterwards, and anyway I’ve been going since the very first conference. In part inspired by EAF, I’ve regularly talked about how important it is for us to look beyond our shores to find new solutions to old problems.

I’ve also talked about how UK asbestos innovation seemed to stop with the introduction of wet injection. Don’t get me wrong: injection – and the huge safety benefit that comes with removing asbestos that is properly suppressed – was a huge improvement on what went before. But for 20 years we have been resting on our laurels somewhat.

That’s why at EAF 2022 I was so interested in BCL Invent, and their product Easy Gel. In layman’s terms, this is a range of shaped plastic pouches filled with gel. The application that sparked my imagination was for cutting cement pipes, where the pouch is secured to the pipe before being cut through. Rather than just suppressing the dust – which it appeared to do – the gel remained on the surface, forming a barrier – separating the worker from the activity.

This is a crucial consideration if we want to improve safety: how do we separate the worker from the activity? It will become increasingly important as and when the European occupational exposure limit (OEL) is reduced by 10- and 50-fold in the coming years.

BCL Invent’s new approach transformed a very direct and personal activity into one that was significantly more remote. The air test results that they were obtaining were also very impressive; less than 0.0048 fibres per millilitre (f/ml) for cutting a cement pipe and <0.0032f/ml when cutting fibreglass-insulated pipe. I asked myself – how would it perform with the very common challenge in the UK of asbestos-insulated pipes?

Wrap and Cut

Of course, there’s already wrap and cut, a similar method which works as follows:

  • Wrap the pipe in polythene
  • Select cut points
  • Inject these cut points with surfactant so that the insulation is locally soft and doughy
  • Test to ensure that the insulation has been fully wetted (re-inject if not)
  • Start to remove – checking for dry spots (re-inject if there are)
  • Remove approximately 150mm of the insulation

wrap and Cut

The bare section of pipe is then cleaned, the exposed edges of insulation sealed, and the pipe is cut. The whole process is repeated until the entire pipe has been removed.

Wrap and cut has an advantage over cleaning the whole pipe, as it’s safer: there’s less asbestos disturbance, and it’s quicker so there’s shorter exposure. As a bonus, it’s also cheaper.

It has downsides – in particular vibration and noise. Hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) is particularly challenging. A reciprocating saw is so vibrating that the normal limit per person per day is just 15 minutes. There are also several points in the procedure where we expect the worker to stop, check and repeat. It’s therefore understandable that operatives tend to over-inject, reducing the possibility of coming across dry patches – but dramatically increasing the spread of contaminated water.

Easy Gel seemed much simpler, with very few ‘moving parts’. If its barrier approach worked, it could fall into that sweet spot that the original wrap-and-cut method occupied – safer, quicker and cheaper.

A practical test

If it works – but who finds out whether it can? The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) doesn’t approve methods: that’s not its job and it never has been. Innovators should be those creating the hazard. But we operate in a fractured industry where licensed contractors have a lot to lose. And we as consultants have become very risk-averse, guilty of blindly applying and enforcing guidance.

Step up BOHS and FAAM, who are in the ideal position to investigate the safety or otherwise of innovative techniques. We designed a rigorous experiment to examine the hypothesis that the use of a barrier gel would be enough to suppress fibre release.

As a control, we first tested the traditional wrap and cut method. Three cuts were made, which took 57 minutes. The results of the two personals for the cutter were both 0.02f/ml.

Here’s a video of the cuts being made…


 

I intentionally held the video on the last frame with the cut end visible. If we were relying purely on wetting of the insulation – the clear dry spots would have led to significant fibre release. But we didn’t see this.

Five horizontal cuts were made in a 45-minute period using Easy Gel. The results of the two personals for the cutter were 0.02f/ml and 0.04f/ml respectively. The cutter achieved a further four vertical cuts in a 48-minute period. Here the personals were slightly higher at 0.03f/ml and 0.06f/ml.

Our results confirmed that the key quality of the gel-cut method was the formation of a physical barrier, which prevented fibre release. You can see this in this still frame, which shows the extent of (imperfect) wetting from the gel. Were we relying solely on the gel’s wetting properties, this would have resulted in high fibre release.

Assure360 Wrap and Cut

While the individual personal results with gel-cutting were slightly higher, we were able to make cuts more quickly, so total exposure was reduced. Another way to look at this is to ask what would happen if more cuts were made.Twelve cuts using the wrap and cut method would take approximately four hours. The same gel cuts would take less than two. Reducing exposure time by 50% would reduce total exposure.

For this test we also used an ALERT constant monitoring device, and the data we received gave us fascinating insight into the fibre release. We could see the distinct cut points as they happened. The wrap and cut method was particularly interesting – giving us peak exposure after the cuts, not during. You can see this in the chart below, where the pink trace shows fibre levels, and particles are shown in green.

Assure360 Fibre Levels

Lessons learned

So what did we learn? While the results for vertical cutting with gel packs were still low, it’s slightly more difficult to control than horizontal, so they were slightly higher than the horizontal values.

There’s a more significant, if subtle, difference when it comes to HAVS. With a quicker process, workers could make more cuts in a shift, increasing their exposure to harmful vibration. In addition, the cutting technique required the user to keep the foot plate away from the gel pack to avoid crushing it. This in turn leads to less control and more vibration.

Assure360 Cut

There’s a narrower margin for error with gel cutting – effectively the width of the gel pack, rather than the 150mm you get with the wrap and cut method. When considered with the reduced cutting control, this reduced margin for error might be significant.

The increase of the already significant vibration hazard is particularly problematic for the method and must be addressed before it is used commercially.

 

Conclusions

We observed comparable air test results: wrap and cut at 0.02f/ml, and gel cut (horizontal) of 0.03f/ml. As wrap and cut resulted in an excess of injection liquid leaking out, gel cutting gave a higher degree of control – there was virtually no spread of contaminated gel.

The gel cut process is much quicker. If 12 horizontal cuts were to be made using the traditional method this would take approximately four hours. Using gel cutting would take approximately half this (meaning the exposure in the subsequent two hours would be zero) . Therefore, whilst the test results are comparable, a total exposure or four-hour time-weighted average (4hrTWA) calculation would be approximately 50% of the wrap and cut equivalent.

This increased efficiency could lead to shorter project duration – which would be commercially attractive to clients and licensed asbestos removal contractors (LARCS).

However, due to the commercially attractive nature of the method, the increased vibration and reduced control must be countered before the procedure is adopted. The following currently available solutions should be considered:

  • Low vibration (pneumatic) reciprocating saws to reduce HAVS exposure
  • On-wrist measurement of HAVS exposure
  • Chain clamps to impose a straight line cut (picture depicts the Yokotu pipe saw and clamp)

Assure360 Cut

Whilst the picture shows an uninsulated pipe, these devices are equally usable on wrapped insulated pipes. This approach imposes a great deal of control on the cut and virtually eliminates vibration. This modification should be considered for all uses of reciprocating saws, and would be crucial when considering the new method.

 

 

This project shows what a fully functioning, joined-up industry can achieve. The innovators must be the hazard creators, but FAAM can provide the structure, independence and academic rigour to prove a method can work.

I’d like to extend our particular thanks to Ben Ives of Horizon Environmental, for tolerating a research project on an asbestos removal project, and to G&L Consultancy for the analytical work. Special thanks also to ALERT for providing the constant monitoring kit, and last but not least BCL, for modifying Easy Gel for the UK application.

Our thanks also go to the site teams:

Horizon Site Team –

Lee Woodward

Jacob Rowley

Jamie Hewings

Matthew Hewings

G&L Site Team

Jim Scholes

Archie Charles

 

 

 

Asbestos in schools: is the awareness building?

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday July 12th 2023

The Times is turning into a real champion for those of us who want to change the UK’s approach to asbestos. The paper has kicked off a new – and extremely welcome – campaign to eradicate asbestos from schools [paywall], launching it with another excellent article. 

It’s fantastic to finally see the issue getting some mainstream coverage. You’ll probably remember that I’ve written before about asbestos in schools. I think it’s an issue that many of us in the industry feel increasingly strongly about.

It’s instructive to remind ourselves as to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advice to schools regarding asbestos. They must:

  • Keep an up-to-date record of the location and condition of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in the school
  • Assess the risks from any ACMs in the school
  • Make plans to manage the risks from ACMs in the school
  • Put those plans into action

In a school setting, those most at risk of disturbing ACMs are tradespeople, caretakers and others who work on the fabric of the building. The school’s plan needs to contain provisions to ensure that they have information about the location and condition of ACMs. The duty-holder should also ensure that any staff likely to disturb asbestos are suitably trained.

As I’ve pointed out before, this is essentially the same advice that applies to any other employer, and any other workplace: manage the ACMs in situ. But schools are unique.

In law, a school is a workplace, but the majority of people using them are children – sometimes as young as three. Despite the known vulnerability of children to pollutants, contaminants and other environmental hazards, when it comes to asbestos, schools are treated like any other workplace: they’re subject to workplace asbestos fibre limits, regulations and management approaches. And that’s a problem – both for our children, and the professionals who teach them.

The Times’ article brings together lots of stats that, when read together, paint a very stark picture of the current situation. Figures gathered by the National Union of Teachers’ Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) reveal that, since 1980, around 400 British school teaching professionals have died of mesothelioma, the cancer almost exclusively linked to asbestos exposure. An average of 19 school teaching professionals now die each year from mesothelioma – up from three per year in 1980.

 

Schools-Asbestos-Assure360

This is likely to be an underestimate, as occupation is not stated on the death certificate of those over 75 – which is the age group accounting for most victims of this horrible disease. To my mind, the real figure could even be double or triple this number.

Research by the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that for every teacher that succumbs to the disease, a further nine pupils  will go on to die from mesothelioma in later life. The JUAC estimates that as many as 10,000 pupils and staff have died to date due to exposure to asbestos in schools.

A unique challenge

Why is asbestos such a serious problem in schools? Aside from the particular vulnerability of pupils to the substance, the UK has a major problem with how widespread ACMs are – and also with the poor state of repair that some school buildings are in. More than this, schools are under budgetary pressure – heads are thinly spread as it is.

In 2018, the government asked schools to provide information on asbestos in their buildings, through the Asbestos Management Assurance Process. In 2019, AMAP reported that 80% of schools contained asbestos.

In addition to this, the National Audit Office has estimated that 24,000 school buildings are beyond their design life. Nearly two-thirds of these are the system-built buildings that so frequently contain asbestos. Last year the Department for Education revealed that there was a risk of the collapse of one or more blocks in some of these schools.

A recent Freedom of Information request by JUAC to 60 of these system-built schools revealed that nearly half did not have an “up to date” asbestos survey, and two-thirds had not identified where all of the asbestos was.

In an ordinary workplace, the HSE’s ‘manage in-situ’ advice can work very well. Surveyed, recorded and managed properly, ACMs should pose no risk – provided the management plan ensures that they remain undisturbed. Proper management starts with a management team that has the training and experience to properly understand the risk, and design and implement appropriate controls.

The Times’ article brings together a body of evidence demonstrating that, for schools at least, this is not working. Headteachers have been unreasonably forced into the role of duty holder, responsible for management of asbestos in their schools without adequate training, support or budget.

When you add in the fact that the majority of the school population can’t be considered competent around asbestos, and the complication that we don’t know the true scale of the problem, it is not surprising that the system isn’t working.

Phased removal

If management in-situ doesn’t work for schools, the only answer is surely the phased removal called for in the excellent Work and Pensions Committee investigation and report. As I have written before, the government rejected the report’s key recommendation to remove all asbestos from public and commercial buildings, and this is where the Times is taking up the banner for schools, with its five-point plan:

  1. A 40-year programme to remove all asbestos
  2. National register of properties 
  3. Make access to this information easy for those most at risk – via an App and online digital register
  4. Regular air testing in buildings that contain asbestos 
  5. Minimum standards of training for those in charge of managing asbestos

The paper’s campaign has already gained support from significant political figures including Nadhim Zaharwi , Alan Johnson and Matt Hancock, who between them have formerly held the roles of Chancellor, Education Secretary, Home Secretary and Health Secretary.

The Times clearly doesn’t want to let this lie, and I applaud it for that. Its launch article ends by asking if you have been affected by asbestos. If you have, email the paper at asbestos@sundaytimes.co.uk.

Reducing the asbestos exposure limit: a tough act to follow

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday June 22nd 2023

I’ve previously written about the ongoing standoff between the European Parliament, EU member states, and the European Commission regarding the exposure limit for asbestos. Well, that standoff is set to enter a new phase at the upcoming interinstitutional talks with the European Council.

To recap, the Commission has proposed a reduction in the exposure limit of asbestos at work to 10 times lower than the current value. That would mean reducing it from 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre (f/cm³) to 0.01 f/cm³. But for the European Parliament’s employment committee (EMPL), this is not enough – they are insistent on a 100-fold reduction, to 0.001 f/cm³, after a transitional period of four years.

In the UK there isn’t an exposure limit for asbestos, but it’s analogous to our Control Limit, which is also 0.1 f/cm³. We have another limit called the Clearance Indicator. That’s the level that an asbestos enclosure must pass before it can be handed back, and that’s set at 0.01 f/cm³.

The lines are fairly firmly drawn with the EU ministers of employment setting out their position in early December last year, which was to agree with the Commission’s 0.01 f/cm³ proposal. But Danish MEP Nikolaj Villumsen wants the Parliament to keep its stronger position.

“Sadly, we know that some member states are satisfied with a limit value 10 times as high as what we propose, with outdated methods of measuring and less stringent approaches to training and certification,” he said. “This is what we will be up against next.”

This matters to the UK because, if the EU reduces its exposure limit, it will be very difficult for us not to follow. But I’ve previously touched on a more fundamental problem if the limit chosen is 0.001 f/cm³. There’s currently no equipment or testing technique available that can do personal monitoring tests at these levels. The technology simply isn’t ready to support them.

Furthermore, the masks that asbestos removal workers use have a protection factor of 40. This would mean that to stay within the lower 0.001 f/cm³ exposure limit, any method used to remove asbestos must not release concentrations above 0.04 f/cm³. I’m not aware of any working method that would reliably achieve this.

There are two things at play here: what is safe to hand back to the normal users of the property, and what’s safe for the workers actually removing asbestos in enclosures. It’s concerning that the implications to asbestos removal appear not to have been thought through.

It’s vital to protect workers and other users of the built environment, and I can see a lower exposure limit is a positive move. More stringent cleaning and more accurate testing will be able to achieve this. But, how will these new levels affect the removal operatives themselves?  Protection technology improves all the time, and perhaps the lower limit will force some kind of breakthrough, but in the absence of that it’ll be a hard limit for the industry to meet.

The Retained EU Law Bill – is sense prevailing at last?

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday June 22nd 2023

You might have already read or heard my thoughts about the Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill, which is making its way through parliament. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a piece of Brexit legislation that aims to bring into UK law regulation that has its origin in European law. While it’s seen as a crucial step by those who want a stricter interpretation of ‘Brexit’, the bill as originally set out had huge and manifest problems.

First of all, REUL covers a vast amount of legislation – the current count is that it affects approximately 5,000 laws, and (terrifyingly), nobody seems to know exactly how many. It includes such critical and effective regulations as the Control of Asbestos Regulations.

The biggest issue with this is that the bill contains a sunset clause, which would essentially provide that, unless an individual piece of law is ported over to UK law or re-written (a mammoth task), then it will disappear at the end of the year. If this clause survives unchanged, the prospect of accidentally losing vital legal mechanisms is very, very real.

So it was some comfort when I came across a fantastic article published by the Institute for Government last month, which brought to my attention the significance beyond the headlines of a statement by Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch.

There seems to have been an outbreak of sense in the approach to the REUL, inasmuch as Rishi Sunak and Kemi Badenoch “have agreed to ditch the sunset from the bill and instead provide parliament with a list of all REUL the government intends to repeal.” It will now be these selected laws that disappear automatically at the end of the year, rather than all EU based laws.

It will still be a mammoth task for legislators to unpick the long list of regs that are disappearing – but at least the immediate risk of oversights and mistakes, has gone away.

As the Institute for Government article also recognises, the wording of Badenoch’s statement, suggesting a much more sensible approach to regulatory reform. Words such as “proper assessment and consultation” make a welcome appearance, for example.

However, a concerning element of the amended REUL is that in the original legislation, only the Supreme Court could depart from established EU case law, but the bill now effectively opens the way for any court to do it. That leaves a legal avenue for anyone who did not like a decision under EU law. The government is also giving itself a permanent power to amend REUL under the bill, without any additional commitment to consultation or proper parliamentary scrutiny.

In this matter, the House of Lords has done a great service to the country, forcing the government to address the unrealism and risks of its self-imposed deadline. But there are still big question marks over the amended approach – and more work to be done.

Approaching the cliff edge – unknown asbestos

Written by Nick Garland on Tuesday May 16th 2023

The Times recently carried a special report on asbestos (paywall). Steve Boggan’s excellent article was a rare example of a detailed, thoughtful, well-researched and intelligent piece of writing on the subject in the mainstream press. Without the unscientific scaremongering that is so often peddled out, this piece told the unvarnished reality – which frankly should be scary enough.

Boggan interviewed several sufferers and family members. These included Wayne: an HGV mechanic, Grace: a retired teacher, and Garry: who recently lost his wife Debbie to the disease. While their stories are all different in the detail of their unfairness and tragedy, they all share a central core – the fact that they didn’t know that they were being exposed.

The article discusses the recent Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee report, and focuses on the two main recommendations that would address this ignorance. These were a national register of asbestos, so we know where all of the material is, and a plan to remove it all. Both have been rejected by the government.

Boggan quotes the prominent campaign group ResPublica who state that 90% of hospitals and about 80% of schools contain asbestos. The recent study paper by the National Organisation of Asbestos Consultants (NORAC) and the Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association (ATaC) has similar figures, with 78% of the buildings they looked at having contained asbestos.

I don’t know how accurate the ResPublica figures are, and I know the NORAC/ATaC piece was only a snapshot, but in part that’s the point: no one has an authoritative overall view of how big a challenge we have.

The Cliff Edge

As a country we are heading towards two impending cliff edges. The first is that many of the schools and other structures that contain asbestos have a light steel frame construction. These have a design lifespan of 40 years, and we’re at least 10 years beyond that now.

The second is Net Zero. If we’re going to achieve this, there’ll be an awful lot of building work required.

Between these two massive construction challenges, many of the buildings we currently use are either going to be demolished or heavily refurbished in the next few years. Without knowing how big the asbestos problem is or having a national removal plan in parallel, it would be human nature to lose sight of the issue.

Many still see asbestos as a problem we fixed long ago. It’s still there, though, just not widely known or understood. The climate emergency, by contrast, comes with a very pressing and public deadline. But if we don’t get the asbestos plan right, it seems inevitable that the rush to Net Zero will lead to an avoidable spike in asbestos exposure – and it could be centered on the schools and hospitals used by the most vulnerable in our society.

Asbestos in cosmetics – why are we still using talc?

Written by Nick Garland on Tuesday May 16th 2023

Another great asbestos article by the Times (paywall), this time on a subject I’ve raised a couple of times in the past – asbestos exposure from makeup. Katherine Quarmby and Andrew Ellson’s story reveals that over 100 British women suffering from mesothelioma are currently taking on American cosmetic giants to get compensation.

A bit of background. Talc is a mineral that is mined out of the ground. What is not so widely known is that it’s chemically fundamentally the same as asbestos. The mineral develops into asbestos or talc according to slightly different geological conditions. In fact most talc mines also contain asbestos deposits and some fibres even start at one end as talc and end up asbestos. The low-tech nature of mining for talc has inevitably led to contamination of the supply chain.

What’s also not so widely known is that talc is not just sold as talc and in baby powders. Many brands and types of makeup use the mineral as a key ingredient. In fact you’ll be hard pressed to find eye-shadow, foundation or blusher that doesn’t contain it.

The article highlights that the latest UK statistics showed a 7% increase in women being diagnosed with mesothelioma, a faster rise than in the previous eight years. New cases in women have doubled since the early 1990s, while they’ve ‘only’ increased by about half in men.

The Times doesn’t draw a direct line between these alarming numbers and makeup, but the latest HSE statistics indicate that only around a third of female diagnoses are linked to occupational exposure, or living with a partner who was exposed.

It does seem the potential for asbestos contamination in talc has been known by these companies for decades. But setting that to one side for a moment, we certainly know it now, and we know that talc in makeup presents a health risk. Whilst we haven’t yet quantified the level of risk, the regulations state that there shouldn’t be any. There are safe and cheap alternatives, such as corn starch. Which begs the question: why does talc’s use persist?

An update on the Asbestos Network monitoring guidance

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday April 12th 2023

Regular readers might remember that, last summer, I wrote a summary of the monitoring, health and exposure guidance that the Asbestos Network has been working on since 2019. I’m reliably informed that, with a fair wind, this guidance will actually be released this summer.

I’m aware I’ve said this before, but the latest draft has come quite a long way since my last review. Now it really does feel like it’s nearly there, but this also means that it’s worth revisiting – as a lot has changed.

I’m going to cover the main points in this update to my previous review, but I strongly suggest you give the original a read. It’s also worth providing your feedback through the trade organisations, as there’s still time for your input to help shape the outcome.

In this review I’m going to highlight how Assure360 users are already prepared. Essentially, this new industry best practice has been Assure360 standard practice for years. It’s all powered by Assure360 Paperless, which is both compliant AND massively more efficient than using Excel and paper.

Overview

Since my last review, the guidance document has been honed down to eight pages, plus appendices. The Asbestos Network recognises that this is first and foremost a communication piece for licensed contractors, and by focusing on that audience it does the job well.

That said, there are nuggets for clients, which give the guidance a wider reach. The likes of FAAM will be looking at it closely in their attempts to investigate and improve the personal monitoring skill set of analysts.

The first couple of pages set out the what and the why. The ‘what’ summarises the tests that need to be done. It’s now been honed down to a simple four-bullet list:

  1. Four-hour Control Limit Time-Weighted Average (TWA)
  2. Specific Short-Duration Activity (SSDA)
  3. Ten-minute Short-Term Exposure Limit (STEL)
  4. Assessment of suitability of Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE)

Those who need more detail can find it in the appendices, but two tests are picked out as being key, and these get a bit more detail within the main body of the guidance. Not surprisingly, these are the 4Hr TWA and the SSDA tests that I’ve written about before. As a reminder, here’s my analysis of the techniques:

Specific short-duration activity (SSDA) Monitoring

This is the workhorse test that you will use most of the time. It’s used to test a specific activity. The guidance talks about the importance of really focusing on the individual task. To this end it stresses that it’s no longer good enough to, for example, talk about removal of asbestos insulation board (AIB) – now you need to detail the fixing too. An example given is breaking out a single AIB panel, followed by fine cleaning. This should be viewed as two separate tasks, and either you should test them separately, or prioritise the high-risk element.

As the purpose of the test is to examine an activity, you are allowed quite a bit of licence. The flow rate (how hard the pump is working) should be between two and four litres per minute, and the minimum volume tested should be 120 litres. These recommendations are very much intended to ensure you get a decent limit of quantification.

Four-hour time-weighted average (4Hr TWA)

The dreaded 4Hr TWA should be far less opaque if you’ve read my previous articles on the subject. Its main purpose is to discharge your duty to ensure workers are not exposed above the Control Limit (after taking into account the mask protection). Essentially, if an employer causes an operative to be exposed to asbestos, we should be able to tell them accurately how much they have been exposed to. The testing rules are set internationally, so the results can be accurate and comparable.

As 4Hr TWA is all about the person, rather than the activity, it can’t be used to populate the SSDA data. However the reverse is not true – if you select test parameters that comply with both, then you will be able to satisfy both duties in one. In short – if your default SSDA test is run for two hours at two litres/minute and 200 graticules – you will get a good accurate test that can also be used to populate the 4Hr TWA data. As Assure360 users will know, the system automatically does the calculation for you, provided your test follows the rules.

The guidance then goes into more detail on the ‘why’, mostly pointing you at the various regulations that demand compliance. However, littered through the document are more ‘whys’. Fundamentally, it makes the case that exposure monitoring – if done correctly – can be a practical management tool for testing competence.

Strategic guidance

The next part of the guidance focuses very helpfully on strategy. The starting point is to give an indication of absolute minimums – for example if you have a small, stable team, with consistently low readings and a predictable list of project types, you should aim for at least one test per month.

The first very important steer that you need to be aware of comes next. The traditional approach for LARCs’ exposure strategy is that 40% of all AIB jobs, 60% of all pipe insulation, and 100% of all flock jobs get a personal. This isn’t going to be good enough anymore.

Just as with audits, you should be targeting high-risk situations over low risk. The guidance gives you areas to consider when setting your strategy:

  1. Work activities – ultimately all should be covered, with a focus on high risk, but what constitutes high risk? The obvious first trigger is the asbestos-containing material, so AIB and pipe insulation are higher risk than floor tiles and cement. The next trigger is the fixing. Nailed is clearly higher risk than screwed, as is hard-set insulation over sectional. Finally, anything new – for example techniques that you haven’t used before – should be prioritised.
  2. People – everyone should be tested. People who are new-to-you, inexperienced, temporary (agency), or who have had high readings, should be seen as high risk, and targeted for higher frequency testing. Your long-term, experienced employees with good results are less so.

To obtain this data, the LARC therefore needs to be very clear as to what they want. No matter who is actually employing the analyst, you need to specify when, where, doing what, and who (will be doing it).

This new granular strategy, able to focus on individual removal techniques and the experience of a worker is going to really test your Excel skills. For Assure360 users however, it’s again very easy. We allow you to set targets for individual activities, and the system tracks how many times anyone uses each method on site. With every recorded instance it reassesses your strategy and alerts you to any personals you might need to do. Again, it’s all automatic through the Paperless system. We can even tag agency or new starters to increase their testing frequency.

Looking to the Construction (Design and Management) regulations and the duties that these place on clients, the guidance makes the point that personal monitoring data is a valuable measure for management of a project, and that clients should therefore insist on personal monitoring data in the contract. The implication is that if the client is appointing the analyst as good practice dictates, they should specify personal monitoring, along with leaks and clearances.

The LARC should view the dynamic between themselves and the analyst as customer and supplier. At this moment, no matter who actually pays the analyst, they’re providing the LARC with a service. To further underline this new way of looking at the relationship, the LARC should ensure the competence of the analyst to conduct personal monitoring, just as they should with any supplier.

The implication is that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is starting to believe that United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) accreditation alone isn’t enough. But the guidance doesn’t suggest how a LARC can be assured a consultancy has demonstrated competence in this area. Possibly this is where the likes of FAAM step in to investigate and improve the skill set across the board.

As delays in getting personal monitoring data could lead to increased exposure to asbestos, the guide states that analysts must provide the certification ASAP, no matter who is paying for the service. There is a stark warning that failure to do so could be seen as a breach of their duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Using the data

The second half of the guidance is very heavy on how you should analyse and use the data – which takes us firmly away from the thoroughly outdated idea that ‘we test because the HSE says we must’. The key to all of the points I’ll detail now is that you need to be responsive in how you interact with the data.

The supervisor needs to analyse the results, and there are two triggers for intervention:

  • Above the control limit – this is after the protection factor of the mask is taken into account. If this happens you should stop work immediately and investigate. This is not surprising, as the control limit when wearing a full face mask is a huge four fibres per millilitre.
  • Above what you anticipated for the works (with a 10% buffer)

With some training, the supervisor should be able to keep on top of this for you. Assure360 users have an extra layer of control, as any elevated result automatically sends an email to management and tracks what action has been taken.

All of the results must be reviewed by management, and the guidance tells you what you need to be checking:

  • Individual employees, and how they compare against each other at a given method
  • Trends – both for the tested method, but also for individual employees

There are really only two ways that you can do all of the analyses that the full guidance requires. The first is through a spreadsheet, which involves some skill with software and a great deal of time entering in the data from paper site records. The other is with Assure360 – there’s no real alternative system.

Our software takes the data that the supervisor is routinely recording, and does all the analysis for you. This doesn’t happen by luck, for years we’ve been exploring how to use site data more intelligently to provide greater safety and insight.

As our industry guidance increasingly calls for smarter data collection and analysis to drive safety, Assure360 customers are already reaping the benefits of this approach. In the words of one HSE inspector – ‘Assure360 presents all the information to you on a plate, allowing you to make sensible decisions’.

If you’ve got concerns around the guidance and the changes you’ll need to make, or simply if you’re yet to see what Assure360 can do for you, why not contact us? We’d be delighted to give you a demo, and set up a free pilot of the system.

Sorry for the inconvenience – the HSE cracks down on site facilities

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday February 9th 2023

Site welfare is something that’s all too often overlooked on asbestos-removal jobs. We’ve all worked on sites with incredibly inadequate facilities, whether it’s too few loos, unsuitable washing facilities, or just nowhere to sit and take a break.

One of the main reasons it’s so common is that a lot of these projects are quite short term. Sometimes it’s just one or two days. Management can become too focused on the complexity of the job itself, which leaves welfare as an afterthought. Another issue is that these short-term jobs are typically in flats and houses, and by their very nature they prevent access to on-site facilities. For example, asbestos removal of the riser in a toilet might mean that the loo is available for the first couple of hours, but then it’s very much not for the rest of the day.

But while the management may forget to provide it, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) views adequate welfare as a fundamental basic necessity for workers. In fact, during the COVID restrictions, Prohibition and Improvement Notices that mentioned COVID almost exclusively targeted inadequate welfare.

Management can also misinterpret the ‘so far as reasonably practicable’ (SFARP) exception, thinking along the lines of “It’s a one day job. What’s it reasonable for me to allow for?”. The law sets out a basic expectation of toilets, a supply of hot and cold (or warm) water for washing, changing facilities, drinking water, and somewhere to eat and rest. You’d have to have very significant reasons to not provide the minimum.

The HSE is reinforcing this with the release of some new guidance: Construction – Welfare Standards. I’m grateful to Graham Warren at ACAD for flagging it up in the latest newsletter. The guidance is actually for its own officers, not us, but understanding how the HSE will be looking at the subject is crucial: inspectors are directed to take ‘appropriate’ enforcement action to secure compliance.

HSE action

The guidance makes clear that where toilets, hand basins, drying rooms etc. haven’t been provided, or they’re inadequate, an Improvement Notice (IN) is the appropriate response. There will be local exceptions that might even dial this up to a Prohibition Notice (PN), for example if there’s an imminent risk to health. But the guidance also states that prosecution should be considered for repeated offences – or even if the first offence is bad enough.

The penalties for getting it wrong are therefore significant. The guidance quotes multiple regulations and guidance documents, weaving together a framework for the inspectors to justify enforcement action. The most significant is obviously the Construction (Design and Management) 2015 (CDM 2015) regulations. Among other things, these introduced clear definitions for all parties in construction (including clients), removing the cloak of invisibility that had allowed some clients to claim ignorance.

In practice a client needs to create an environment where work can be carried out with the appropriate welfare facilities in place. If the works involve a specific fenced-off construction site, use of the client’s own facilities should not be the default option. The regs go on to say that where there isn’t such a specific construction site, clients are legally required to make their own facilities available for use.

Domestic clients are the exception. CDM 2015 and the HSE guidance both recognise that they don’t have legal duties, so it falls to the principal contractor (PC) and other contractors to ensure compliance.

Contractors’ duties

Principal contractors have clear and unavoidable duties to provide facilities from prior to the start of construction work, all the way through to the end of the project. Contractors’ duties shadow those of the PC. If there are several contractors on a site, it’s a case of liaising and cooperating with the PC. If there’s only one, then all of the duties are yours.

That ‘so far as reasonably practicable’ get-out gets some clarification with regards to welfare. In essence it’s about weighing the measures needed against the sacrifices involved. Crucially, though, it’s weighted in favour of health and safety, i.e. it’s assumed you’ll provide the welfare, unless you can demonstrate it would involve ‘grossly disproportionate sacrifices’. Cost is not the primary focus and shouldn’t be considered ‘disproportionate sacrifice’.

Toilets are mandatory (i.e. you don’t get to say they’re not reasonably practicable), and there’s a hierarchy, with flushing toilets at the top and chemical Portaloos very much at the bottom. The guide states that for large or long-running sites the provision of ‘only portable toilets’ is considered insufficient – as it would very much be reasonably practicable to provide better.

All welfare facilities must also be ‘readily accessible’. What this means varies with the urgency: rest breaks can be planned, so the distance to travel can be greater. Toilet facilities, however, need to be much more convenient. The guide quotes BS6465(1) as stating that construction sites should provide WCs within 150 metres of the workplace. Arranging toilet use with a café that’s 10 minutes’ drive away would not cut it.

For the same reason the numbers of cubicles are also pre-determined:

Number of people Cubicles (not urinals)
1-5 1
6-25 2
26-50 3

There are some other key requirements:

  • Separate rooms for males and females. This HSE guidance is for the construction industry in general – it’s not specific to the asbestos industry – but it would have shown joined up thinking if inspectors were also directed to consider that most of our decontamination units are non-compliant with this.
  • Washing facilities. Unlike toilets, washing facilities are qualified with SFARP. In other words, they should be provided except where this involves grossly disproportionate sacrifices. The HSE’s view is that suitable washing facilities (separate ones for toilets and rest areas) are easy to plan for and provide, and that justifiable exceptions are few and far between. Note – specific mention is made that cold water on its own is not sufficient.
  • Drinking water. This must be readily available and – it nearly goes without saying – also fit for human consumption. Running water or sealed water bottles along with cups and mugs are specified.
  • Rest rooms. These are another mandatory facility, like toilets. What constitutes a rest room is not clearly defined, but there are some pointers, which indicate something more significant than many of the welfare areas I come across. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations (WHSWR) state they must be equipped with an adequate number of tables, and adequate seating with backs for the number of workers likely to use them at any one time.

What I find particularly interesting about this guidance is the way that it details other regs and approved codes of practice (ACoPs) detailed in the guidance. It features them along the lines of ‘areas to be considered when considering enforcement and prosecution’. But to think of it another way, I always like to ask one of my favourite questions: ‘Why are we doing this?’ – as understanding why is often the lightbulb moment.

Of course, there’s the basic human dignity of providing somewhere to go. Not to mention hygiene 101: wash your hands before you eat. But as these often don’t seem enough reason, how about:

  • First aid. Clearly things go wrong on site, and we are used to providing training for staff and first aid kits. The first day of First Aid school teaches you to wash your hands first, so a sink, soap, and hot and cold water is therefore a must.
  • Hazardous substances. Washing requirements are often a key control measure when working with hazardous substances. For example, with lead paint it’s crucial to wash after work and before each break. That washing needs to be more than just the hands, covering the whole forearm up to the elbow. A small sink is therefore not suitable, and something else would need to be provided.

I’m sure you can think of more examples and, if they apply to the work you’re doing, the HSE inspectors will doubtless think of them too. Perhaps it’s time for those of us who design and commission work to stop treating facilities as so much of an afterthought, and start planning work around the comfort of the people who do, after all, do the work on the ground.

The 100% clean – comparing blasting and needle guns

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday September 14th 2022

 

Photograph courtesy of Horizon Environmental Ltd.

 

Consider the case of a client with a boiler room, once liberally splattered with asbestos-based insulation material. It’s comparatively easy for a licenced asbestos-removal contractor (LARC) to strip out the bulk of the material with low-risk techniques, but it soon becomes a case of diminishing returns. The less asbestos there is remaining, the harder it can become to remove it, and the greater the expense.

When faced with asbestos insulation residues on semi-porous substrates like brick and concrete, removal of the final 0.1% of asbestos-containing material (ACM) is very challenging. Residual fibres can be embedded in pits, dimples and micro cracks – making the traditional, low-impact approach of hand scraping accompanied by suppression and shadow vacuuming extremely time-consuming. Often, the removal ends in an admission of failure and encapsulation – a process all too likely to be repeated by another LARC in a few years time.

Clearly this is quite an unsatisfactory position for the client. They’re spending a vast sum of money on asbestos removal, only to be presented with a residual risk that still has to be managed – and probably at the same level and cost as before.

It’s therefore easy to understand the temptation of aiming for 100% ACM removal in a boiler room. It’s broadly possible through the use of two competing techniques: blasting (using wet media), and low-vibration needle gunning. Both have their champions – two LARCs I know are very firmly in opposing camps. In the red corner we have: ‘Blasting is faster at cleaning than needle guns, even when you factor in the additional clean-up’. And in the blue corner: ‘Needle gunning is a much simpler method that creates lower exposure and is easier to manage’.

Comparing blasting and needle guns

It’s important to start with one thing that both needle guns and blasting have in common: you’re not supposed to use either technique unless you’ve already done your best to remove all significant deposits of asbestos through traditional methods. This means scraping off all but the last miniscule ACM traces manually – accompanied by sprayed surfactant and shadow-vaccing.

With the use of needle guns on the rise, I’ve also heard that HSE inspectors are coming across it more. And, quite rightly, they’re asking whether the method has been properly assessed. I’ve heard that while the HSE isn’t tremendously keen on blasting, it has questions over the vibration levels of needle guns (more on this later). Clearly this is crucial to any technique or technology: it must be properly assessed, and your team must be competent to use it.

Both techniques present their own challenges which need to be considered if you are aiming for spotless. You’ll need to balance all of the pros and cons when you complete your risk assessments.

Noise and vibration

The noise levels of blasting vary dramatically depending on several factors including the choice of media, and even the location (boiler rooms usually reverberate more, for example). Due to this uncertainty, Quill – one of the leading blasting manufacturers – is a little cautious about publishing noise figures. Essentially, it’s not possible to predict an accurate noise level unless you know the usage situation. Quill says that noise at the lance could be >110dB(A). Vibration magnitude is negligible at around 0.2m/s2. That’s 10 times lower than the EC-specified minimum level for unrestricted hours of work.

Needle guns used to be known for their huge vibration levels, but recent pneumatic variants are much improved. The one I am familiar with is the Trelawny VL303, whose manufacturer claim it has a noise level of 109.5dB(A), and vibration of 2.3m/s2. However, there does seem to be some question marks about this very low figure. Not least because normal operation is to use two hands… Clearly, unlike with blasting, whatever the HAVS (hand-arm vibration syndrome) data is, it is not negligible. If you plug 2.3m/s2 into the HSE’s HAVS calculator, you get a remarkable nine hours and 27 minutes to reach the lower exposure action value (EAV). However, worst case vibration data from the manufacturer indicates something nearer to 90 minutes or below. I understand Trelawny are conducting some independent HAVS testing and the report will be out soon. 

Whether blasting or needle guns are selected, then effective hearing protection will be mandatory. Vibration needs to be looked at, and hopefully accurate data will be available soon

Waste

There’s no avoiding the issue, blasting will add waste to the project. Quill states there’ll be 0.5-1.1kg of material created per minute of use. You’ll need to consider the increased manual handling issues that this will create for the project. These may be exacerbated if you have to lug waste up from the basement – especially if there is any restricted access involved.

Fibre release

Both techniques are high-impact, high-disturbance methods that should only be used on trace residues. Both techniques use different approaches to keep dust and fibre levels down. As the name suggests, wet blasting uses water – which atomises as it hits the substrate with the blast media. This will probably be most effective when removing chrysotile residues, as amphibole fibres such as amosite or crocidolite are hydrophobic (they repel water).

Needle guns use the shadow vac technique, and come with dedicated vac cowls. The H-Type vacuum is attached at point A in the diagram, providing effective local exhaust ventilation (LEV) at the point of disturbance (B).

Needle Gun Assure360

As with any asbestos-removal technique, you’ll need to test that exposure is as low as practicable, and investigate any elevated results.

The real problem for wet blasting comes with all that water; Quill states that you’ll be using 2-4 litres per hour. Water vapour plays havoc with air testing – whether that is standard optical or electron microscopy – occluding the filters so they can not be read. The default position seems to be that you should assume a high fibre release, and use supplied-air respirator (RAS) masks.

By contrast the needle and shadow vac technique is relatively easy to test. The results I’ve seen are favourable, with an average of 0.06f/ml (fibres per millilitre of air), highest reading of 0.12f/ml, and lowest of 0.01f/ml.

Water vapour

The high humidity of blasting creates two more issues that you need to allow for. Water does not play well with a negative pressure unit (NPU)’s HEPA filter. To counter this, Quill provides moisture vanes that work along with the standard pre-filter to protect the HEPA.

Another impact – especially in the cooler atmosphere common to basements – is that we often hit the dew point and visibility falls dramatically. Neatly, Beacon’s recirculating NPU incorporates an in-line heater to prevent this. You cannot underestimate the impact of low visibility on supervision – vision panels and especially CCTV will both become very limited, and you’ll need to identify enhanced supervision techniques to combat this. You may consider having a deputy supervisor in the enclosure to be the eyes of the lead supervisor outside.

Other considerations

There’s a rather unfortunate, nebulous bag of additional issues that you will need to factor in. As we’ve established, both blasting and needle gunning are very, very noisy, clearly requiring hearing protection. The follow on effect of that is that operatives will not be able to hear you when you try to communicate with them, whether routinely or in case of an emergency.

This is further compounded by the visibility issue discussed above – i.e. you can’t see them, and they can’t hear you. You might consider flashing beacons, activated externally, at the point of work, which will allow you to stop work quickly and easily. The extra internal supervisor would also help with this.

You also need to consider that needle guns are quite heavy, in addition, large-bore compressor hoses and metal coupling will add markedly to this. You should always step down to the narrower whip lines to minimise this manual handling issue. Generally, you should also consider fatigue as a hazard.

Another consideration with blasting is that the media obviously goes somewhere. Predominantly this will be the floor, but if operatives are working near the enclosure wall it could damage the sheeting and lead to a breach. A less obvious risk is that the media can be blasted into inaccessible voids, resulting in a spread of asbestos. Your design process needs to include careful planning of how and when to use the technique to avoid this.

Finally, while it’s not really part of the risk assessment, needle guns are much more mechanical than blasting equipment. As such they have moving parts, and need to be maintained through periodic stripping down, cleaning and oiling. They are also vulnerable to icing up where the weather outside is cold. For both cleaning and good maintenance, Trelawny recommends ISO22 low viscosity anti-freeze oil.

It’s hard to argue against a client’s wholly understandable desire for an asbestos-free boiler room, and these two techniques are the only options that get close to achieving it. As with all asbestos removal methods, however, they bring a range of issues that have to be individually and collectively assessed. It’s our job as professionals to understand the complexity, and ensure that we manage all of the risks.

Positive changes to improve personal safety in the DCU

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday May 11th 2022

At last year’s FAAM conference, Colette Willoughby delivered a raw and personal presentation about the personal safety of female analysts. It was eye-opening and shaming, and it focused the minds of all who heard it on the urgent need for change.

Colette herself set out what needs to change in our industry, and with the support of many colleagues I’m encouraged to see things moving in the right direction. Asbestech – one of the UK’s leading asbestos management companies – has announced that it is retro-fitting locks to all of its decontamination units (DCUs).

Asbestech contract manager Alessia Gilbey commented that “it’s a simple method to provide an additional reassurance to myself and other women that may be required to use a DCU”. And it is simple – a quick, inexpensive change to make existing DCUs safer workplaces.

I’m also encouraged to see that DCU manufacturers themselves are paying attention. I’ve recently been invited to meet with SMH to discuss potential design changes that would improve personal safety in the DCU, and I’m hopeful they’re able to put something effective in place.

It’s heartening to see that the bravery of Colette, and the other female analysts who spoke to her, is resulting in real change. It’s up to everyone now to keep the pressure on, and continue making the improvements to equipment, training and behaviour that our female colleagues demand and deserve.

Read more here about Colette’s talk, Female analysts and four-stage clearance testing

The Work and Pensions Committee asbestos report: five key recommendations

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday May 11th 2022

As you’ll no doubt all be aware, the Work and Pensions Committee has been conducting an inquiry into the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s approach to asbestos management. In its report, published in April, the committee calls for a raft of changes, including a proposed 40-year deadline for the removal of all asbestos from public buildings.

Predictably, I’ve already seen people commenting that 40 years is far too long, while others say the reverse and wonder how we’ll ever pay for it! But the asbestos management report is a substantial document, and I wanted to look at the changes and recommendations behind the headline. The committee has heard many opposing views from industry experts, campaigning groups, charities, victims groups,  government ministers and the HSE itself, and to its credit has produced a well-balanced set of proposals that deserve greater scrutiny.

The balance of evidence

Like most in our industry, I’ve been following the progress of the inquiry and the evidence presented to it. Everyone has their own opinion, but there were a couple of witness testimonies that I took issue with. In December, Professor Julian Peto of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggested caution over the mandatory removal of all asbestos, pointing out research in the 1980s showing that airborne asbestos levels in buildings were higher six months after removal than before.

I’ve no reason to doubt that research, but I have first-hand knowledge of how comparatively poor asbestos-removal techniques were when I started my career in the 1990s. In the 1980s it must have been even worse, as analysts weren’t even doing independent clearances back then. I’d be astonished if the equivalent research, conducted today, didn’t reach a very different conclusion.

In February, HSE chief executive Sarah Albon claimed that the 60% drop in asbestos enforcement notices over the last 10 years was evidence of better compliance. However, when we compare 2012/13 with 2019/20 (the most recent pre-pandemic period for which figures are available):

  • Visits by the HSE dropped by a huge 40%
  • Prohibition and Improvement Notices (combined) dropped by 48%
  • The number of Improvement Notices dropped by 67%
  • Yet the number of Prohibition Notices dropped only by 16%

What this suggests to me is that the HSE targeted the companies it thought would be the worst offenders, and pretty much saw what it expected, giving it a much higher hit rate of Prohibition Notices.

If that’s the case, then the figures rather undermine the suggestion of improved compliance. Instead, they suggest to me that some companies are simply avoiding having their collar felt, and I’m not alone. As Darren Evans of Asbestos Training and Consulting (ATaC) told the committee: “There are lots of people out there taking an informed view that they are unlikely to be visited, and therefore corners are cut.”

Let me stress that I’m not blaming the HSE here. Over the 10 years to 2019/20 the organisation experienced a 46% drop in funding – it did well not to cut visits even further.

Recommendations

Regardless of the details, the committee has managed to distil a mound of evidence and come up with some well considered proposals. The report’s key recommendations are:

  • The HSE should develop research to measure asbestos exposure in non-domestic buildings, and in particular schools and other public buildings. This came with dates – it should have a plan by October 2022, and then provide regular reports on its findings. The committee goes on to clarify that it doesn’t believe there’s a need to increase routine air monitoring, but research into the highest risk scenarios would be very beneficial.
  • There should be a deadline to remove all asbestos from non-domestic buildings within 40 years. The government and HSE should develop a strategic plan to achieve this, starting with the highest risk asbestos and the highest risk settings such as schools.
  • That more research is urgently needed to establish whether the historic view that it is safer to leave asbestos alone and manage it, rather than remove it, remains the case. This is especially urgent because of the likely huge rise in accidental disturbance that the race to Net Zero will bring.
  • There should be increased guidance to dutyholders and trades on their obligations. The committee suggests that lessons could be learned from the use of digital technologies in building management and in the health response to the pandemic. This should be a sustained campaign across a range of media. What works and doesn’t work with regards to getting the message over should be robustly evaluated.
  • A central, digital register of asbestos in non-domestic buildings should be developed, beginning with schools and hospitals.
  • There should be a sustained increase in inspection and enforcement activity by the HSE, targeting compliance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations. The HSE should establish from this whether it needs to specify a minimum level of competence for dutyholders.
  • Consolidation and simplification of the approach with regard to Licensed, Non-Licensed and Notified Non-Licensed work should be part of the ongoing 2022 review of the regulations.
  • There should be mandatory accreditation for all surveyors by a recognised accreditation body.
  • The HSE should assess the impact of making it a legal requirement (rather than the current strong recommendation) for building owners or occupiers to employ analysts directly and, by extension, make it illegal for asbestos removal contractors to do so.
  • The HSE should keep a watching brief on Europe’s move towards more stringent asbestos occupational exposure limits. It should carefully consider this in the context of Great Britain and what the costs and benefits of a similar move would be. The committee added a stern warning “It should ensure that the extent of the asbestos legacy in Great Britain is not seen as reason to tolerate poorer health standards.”

As I said, these are all well-balanced proposals. It’s hard to argue against any of them, but I can see a particular subset with the potential to bring the fastest, greatest benefits. Five particular points would have an obvious, immediate impact on safety and good management:

  1. Minimum competence for duty holders
  2. Central digital asbestos register
  3. Mandatory accreditation of surveyors
  4. Research into the real risk of management in situ versus the risks of removal
  5. Increase in enforcement

Just these five, if acted upon, would have the potential to transform our knowledge and our ability to act appropriately. Let me explain further.

Competence of dutyholders

We are long used to the absolute requirement for access to competent health and safety advice – why should it be any different for asbestos? This has always been something I care about, in all my work with clients – the central pillar is to ensure that they end up more capable of asking the right question at the right time. For large organisations, having this requirement might mean having someone on the books who is P405 qualified. For smaller companies it might be having the right health and safety consultant on retainer.

Digital Register

Whatever we are doing, we’re likely to be more diligent and careful if we know our work is going to be checked. We see the evidence of this all the time in asbestos management: there’s a difference between an unannounced audit and one where they knew you were coming, or a visual inspection with the UKAS assessor in attendance. If organisations know that they’ll be uploading their asbestos survey to the HSE, they’ll do it better. Just the very fact that a survey or register could be independently checked at any time will benefit standards hugely.

Accreditation of Surveyors

It’s always been unexplained why asbestos analysts must be accredited, but it’s only advisable for companies conducting a survey. It’s very costly to get and maintain accreditation, so it’s only really accessible to established organisations. But being un-accredited doesn’t necessarily mean bad – smaller firms and individuals may be unwilling or unable to go down that route.

Regardless, we currently have a situation where UKAS accredited companies must compete commercially against non-accredited companies and individual surveyors – that’s not a level playing field.

Interestingly the recommendation in this regard is that accreditation should be compulsory for the individuals conducting surveys, not the firms employing them. This change would immediately level things out: large and small firms along with individual surveyors should be able to demonstrate competence.

I’d expect that surveyors would welcome this professionalisation of the industry, as the employment power would be devolved down to them. The change wouldn’t allow companies to shirk their responsibilities, as it will remain their duty to ensure competence of the workforce.

Research

If the priority is to focus on schools and hospitals, just how big is the problem there? The short answer is that nobody knows, as very little research has been done. What we do know is that some schools have a good deal of asbestos-containing materials in them. We also know that young lungs are much more susceptible to damage from asbestos, and that youngsters are practically (and legally) considered not to be competent. This latter is crucial as ‘competent workforce’ is an important pillar in the current approach to managing in situ.

I’ve discussed the unique problem of asbestos in schools before, and the risks faced by teachers and pupils alike. As with other public buildings, UK policy has been to manage asbestos in place, but what little research this is based on is now well and truly out of date. Before we settle on any change in policy, we need to know for sure that removal is the safer option.

Increased Enforcement

I’ve said it before, but the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act is a beautifully written piece of regulation. If you render it down to a couple of sentences, it essentially says: “The employer must be an expert in their field, must understand the risks, and must eliminate them as much as they can. And if they don’t there will be dire consequences.”

The author was very cleverly identifying that proscriptive legislation would never be able to keep up with the best and safest way to operate across multiple industries in a changing world, but that a regulator would be able to use the power of hindsight to identify if something could have been done better.

And that’s where the HSE comes in. It’s vital that they are out there making checks and serving up enforcements to ensure things are done better. To recall Darren Evan’s point, companies need to know they cannot cut corners, because they will be caught.

 

Will it happen?

I’ve focused on these five very positive recommendations, because together they would improve our knowledge of the problem, make the scale of the issue visible, and leave dutyholders in no doubt that they need to act appropriately. However, they would also represent an increase in costs to business, an increase in health and safety regulation, and an increase in funding for a public body (the HSE).

None of these things have been particularly popular with the UK government for a decade or more. For several years there has been an effective ‘one in one out’ rule for new regulations. Consequently, much of the HSE’s excellent guidance of late has had to be be sneaked out as appendices to Asbestos Network meeting minutes – not exactly the ideal situation.

I would like to end, though, on a point of optimism, from Charles Pickles from the campaign group Airtight on Asbestos. Responding to the report, he told me it was a rejection of the existing line that asbestos was “yesterday’s problem: nothing to see here”.

Instead, he said, it’s a move to acknowledge that “we have a problem with current exposure, and we need a plan to deal with it”. The Work and Pensions Committee has asked the HSE for its plan, and soon. And as Charles put it: “That really is a significant move.”

When to visual in the four-stage clearance

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday February 10th 2022

One of the main objectives of the new analysts’ guide is to reduce analyst exposure, by clarifying what is licensed work, and what falls under the analyst’s remit. But the HSG 248 document is now massive, running to 238 pages. In cases where it hasn’t been fully read and understood there’s the potential for misunderstanding.

I’ve been thinking about this after a recent project, in which a difference in understanding created the risk of costs spiralling out of control. The project in question related to a wall that had sporadic asbestos insulation spatters underneath an imperfect layer of paint. The job was to scrape the wall back and then encapsulate the residues – so far so normal.

However, in this case the analyst was unwilling to enter the enclosure prior to encapsulation. This created the potential situation that, if the analyst wasn’t happy with their visual after encapsulation, the licensed asbestos removal contractor (LARC) would have to strip all the paint off and start again. The analyst’s view was that the project was not yet finished, the enclosure was therefore live, and that in line with HSG 248, ‘they do not do live enclosure entry’. For the LARC it represented a very expensive project risk.

So what does the guidance suggest? On the surface of it, HSG 248 is fairly ‘clear’:

The nature and extent of exposure will depend on several factors including the activity, the type and condition of the ACM and the effectiveness of any controls. For example, all entry into asbestos enclosures carries a risk of exposure to airborne fibres. Analysts should avoid as far as possible entering ‘live’ enclosures while removal or remediation work is still being carried out. If entry into a ‘live’ enclosure does occur there will be potential exposure to asbestos fibre concentrations above the control limit or short-term exposure limit.

Para 1.6, Pg 11 HSG248

However, if we look deeper (and when I say deeper, I mean we have to read to page 193) there’s more guidance under the section “Clearance for specific situations” – the bold is mine, for emphasis:

Inaccessible or impossible to remove asbestos

Spray-applied asbestos is often found in crevices or holes through walls where pipe work or girders run. These may leave asbestos residues that are impossible to remove. In these cases, the analyst may permit the use of non-flammable sealant such as foams or plaster to fill the hole and seal the asbestos within it. Before the sealant is applied the analyst must be satisfied that as far as reasonably practicable the asbestos has been removed.

Para A5.78, Pg 193 HSG248

Use of encapsulant or sealant

Where asbestos has been sprayed on to porous surfaces (e.g. breeze blocks, bricks, plaster and concrete), it is almost impossible to obtain an asbestos-free surface. The analyst should satisfy themselves that further removal is not reasonably practicable, and should advise the contractor and/or building client to seal the residual asbestos with a permanent proprietary sealant. The visual inspection can restart once the sealant has been applied and dried. In these circumstances encapsulation of asbestos should not take place before the analyst has seen the residual asbestos. A note should be made on the CfR and recorded in the asbestos register and management plan for the premises.

Para A5.80 Pg 194 HSG248

This second paragraph matches my example situation perfectly, but in fact both paragraphs make clear that the analysts must complete a visual before the LARC encapsulates any remaining asbestos to make sure (essentially) they are not hiding anything. While the general guidance in paragraph 1.6 says that analysts should avoid live enclosures ‘as far as possible’, this subsequent guidance takes us to the heart of the issue – a live enclosure is one where removal work is ongoing. In these situations, the enclosures are not ‘live’ as all possible removal has been finished.

Going further

In fact, my personal preference is to go a step further. I believe all such projects should be broken down like this:

  1. LARC cleans the enclosure
  2. Supervisor is satisfied that the surface is completely clean and no more dust or debris can be removed
  3. Analyst does visual and agrees or rejects the supervisor visual
  4. Reclean or not as appropriate
  5. Stage 3 air test:
    1. If it passes – optional encapsulation in half-masks after the enclosure comes down as an extra reassurance to the client
    2. If it fails – reclean. Encapsulate and repeat the air test

With either option after the stage three air test, the client gets valuable extra information that they wouldn’t get with the traditional approach. Based on what happens, they know to what degree they need to be cautious about the wall.

This is my personal preference, and I’d be interested to hear opposing views on it, so let me explain my reasoning. First, read this rather long paragraph from the Analysts’ Guide:

There may be occasions when some asbestos is to remain in situ in the enclosure. It may be that only damaged asbestos lagging is being removed from pipe work, and that undamaged material is to remain; or it could be that only a proportion of asbestos ceiling tiles is being removed. The analyst should have been made aware of this in the discussion on the scope of work as part of stage 1. The contractor should have checked the condition of the remaining ACMs as materials in poor condition could lead to a failure in the four-stage clearance when the analyst checks. If the analyst does find asbestos materials in poor condition these will need to be dealt with (eg repaired, encapsulated or removed, all of which actions are likely to need agreement of the building client and the involvement of a licensed contractor. The four-stage clearance should stop at this point and the contractor/building client should be informed. The four-stage clearance should not restart until the matters have been rectified. Any remaining ACMs in good condition should be recorded in the CfR so that the building client can update the asbestos register and management plan accordingly.

Para A5.76 Pg 192 HSG248

My logic is that if we are working on a wall that only ever had occasional splashes of debris – the risk starts at low. If:

  • the project is actually to remove all exposed asbestos, and leave any that is concealed by a stable paint layer;
  • the walls have been rigorously scraped and cleaned (possibly several times over the years);
  • the thorough visual inspection(s) cannot locate any asbestos / dust / debris / loose paint (or it would fail and a re-clean would be demanded), all that remains is the possibility of asbestos under some remaining stable paint.

The selection of the scrape and vac technique is therefore intentionally leaving some asbestos in by design, and paragraph A5.76 is the reference that we should be looking to. This allows the analyst to make a judgement that all loose paint has been removed, and the asbestos left in by design would be noted on the four-stage clearance (4SC) certificate.

While we haven’t 100% removed the asbestos-containing material (some is being left in by design), stage two has passed, and there is no absolute need for encapsulation. But if the air test subsequently identifies a problem then we must encapsulate. On the other hand, if the whole 4SC passes, and we still want to encapsulate, well, that’s an ultra risk-averse decision that can be completed as a non-licensed activity.

I appreciate this is possibly a left field opinion, but I believe it addresses what we are trying to do which is understand and mitigate risk, rather than blindly follow what we’ve done before.

 

Female analysts and four-stage clearance testing – the need for change

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday December 9th 2021

I normally do a roundup of the FAAM asbestos conference, letting those that didn’t get to attend know some of the more important areas that were discussed by the leading thinkers in our industry. I will be doing that, but this piece is in many ways much more important.

** ​Warning, the content includes an upsetting personal revelation, and some readers may be affected by the issues raised.**

Colette Willoughby’s talk on the second day, Female Analysts and Four-Stage Clearance Testing, was the most raw and personal talk I have ever heard at a conference. The talk was split into two parts – the first a short history lesson on how things have changed during Colette’s distinguished career.

Having started out in 1982, Colette really was at the birth of the new world of asbestos analysis. She entered an industry where – astonishingly – a clearance just meant the contractor dropping a pump off at a lab. She witnessed it change to one where analysts started actually doing tests and – most revolutionarily of all – a visual, where the analyst actually checked the contractor had done what they said they would. My career started shortly after this, where people still talked about what it used to be like. Now this seems more like myth and legend.

The main part of the talk, though, related to Colette’s own experiences, and those of four other women she had interviewed. The interviewees were Jean Prentice, Joanna Parker, Sam Collins and an anonymous analyst still actively doing four-stage clearances (4SCs). The five women between them represent a huge amount of experience, gained from the mid-1960s to the present day.

Colette’s talk frankly and openly discussed the widest range of experiences, from the broadly positive (Sam and Jean), to the worst you can imagine. Colette, despite being one of the warmest and most professional people you could ever want to meet, has experienced some of the most unwelcome experiences possible. From initially not being allowed on site at all, to – after years of campaigning – being told: “OK, but we don’t think you’ll cope”.

What followed was a litany of sexist ‘banter’ from contractors, with comments such as: “You’re a woman, you’re just picky” and “You’re more used to cleaning: no wonder you can do it better.” Yet at the back of Colette’s mind, a traitorous voice insisted that now she’d convinced her bosses she could do the job, this was something she just had to put up with.

The ‘banter’ was shameful enough, but examples of criminal abuse followed. On numerous occasions, naked operatives have intentionally followed her into the decontamination unit (DCU) – the most recent occurrence being only four years ago.

Then came a horrific experience where she was raped on site by the supervisor. As Colette explains: “I was sexually abused and was raped on numerous occasions, but did not have the ability to go back and say anything because I was quite consistently told by him ‘Nobody’s going to believe you. You’re 23/24 years old, I’m a middle-aged man. I’m well respected, you were just asking for it. You’ve come into our environment [and] you’ve got to put up with it’.”

How Colette kept it together after that I will never know.

While spared the full horrors of Colette’s experience, Joanna and the anonymous, still-serving analyst both had multiple examples of threats of, or actual sexual abuse. And they both shared the belief that reporting it would be futile.

The hostile environment

Asbestos is of course part of the construction industry. To put some numbers to the hostile environment that women in our industry endure, Colette turned to a 2017 report, which found that four in 10 women had been on the receiving end of unwanted sexual behaviour, and that one in nine mothers had been dismissed, compulsorily made redundant, or treated so poorly that they left the post. The pay gap was 17.3%, to add insult to injury.

Colette is the chair of NORAC, Principle Examiner for asbestos at BOHS, and Director and Technical Expert at ACL. She is, quite frankly, one of the most impressive consultants in the industry, but the abuse and discrimination that she and other female analysts have experienced left me and the rest of her audience stunned. Speaking personally, I am ashamed of the ignorance that I had been labouring under.

How do we change?

Colette then moved on to what needs to change, and how. The distance we need to travel is vast – but at some levels utterly basic. For example, PPE must by law be fit for purpose and fit for use. But disposable overalls and underwear are all made for the male body shape and don’t fit women. Here, companies are effectively in breach for failing to provide the correct protective equipment.

The DCU poses a particular problem. Construction (Design and Management) regulations state: “Separate washing facilities must be provided for men and women, except where they are provided in a room the door of which is capable of being secured from the inside, and the facilities in each room are intended to be used by only one person at a time.”

DCUs are shared, yet their access is controlled by either a key or a combination lock, both of which are external. Again, this means they’re not compliant. I can only think that DCU manufacturers must be ignorant of the issue, or they would have changed this already.

Finally, Colette stressed two more areas where we need to do so much more. The first is the glaring need for simple respect. It should go without saying, but is clearly, sadly, very very lacking. Male colleagues must do all they can to help here – calling out even the borderline ‘banter’ – never mind the sexist abuse above.

Employers need to acknowledge the differences, and provide training so that female analysts are better prepared for the pressures. Crucially, they also need to offer support, so that analysts are comfortable and secure enough to report and get help when they need it.

As I said, it was a raw and eye-opening talk, and one which I profoundly hope will bring about change. Hearing the testimony were HSE officers, asbestos removal trade organisations, and consultancy business owners among others. It’s an oft repeated phrase that asbestos is the most regulated industry after nuclear – surely there were enough of the ‘right’ people in the room to make a change.

If you’ve been affected by this subject and wish to respond or raise similar concerns, email concerns@norac.org.uk. This is a totally confidential inbox that is monitored by Colette, Jean Prentice and Sara Mason, who are all on the working group set up in the wake of FAAM to address the issue.

FAAM conference preview – don’t miss it!

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday November 11th 2021

After the roaring success of last year’s virtual FAAM conference, the team made an early, risk-averse decision that this year, FAAM Asbestos 2021 would also be online. We will all be ‘gathered’ for the 17th and 18th of November for an intense and varied programme of speakers that includes industry experts, doctors and academics.

So what ground is the conference covering this year? It starts with a deeper look into the use of AI in reading asbestos slides. You may remember that I wrote about Marvin the robot after Frontier Microscopy’s presentation at the 2019 European Asbestos Forum conference.

We were told how it was used in Australia, where getting analysts to remote places was a huge challenge. Instead, samples are sent to a central lab for analysis, where Marvin uses AI to analyse the samples more quickly and accurately than humans. At FAAM we’re going to hear from Frontier, Ethos and xRapid on where the technology has gone in the last couple of years.

After the morning break, we will be looking at more traditional approaches. But even here there’s a new slant – discussing how certain changes to how we take the sample can give us the opportunity to improve the limit of quantification.

The rest of the first day – with one notable exception – will be focusing on the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) Assessment for Asbestos. You may not be aware, but the ECHA produced a substantial report back in February, seeking consultation on its recommendation that the occupational exposure limits (OEL) be dramatically reduced.

You’d wonder who would argue against this kind of proposal, but in fact it seems that the science behind the move may be flawed, and the recommendations impractical. Andrey Korchevskiy, Robin Howie and John Hodgson are all speaking on the subject then, after the break, Gary Burdett will present the ECHA opinion.

Outside the ECHA chamber

The ECHA exception I mentioned is Dan Barrowcliffe, who will be presenting on the exposure study that he led on removal operative exposure during licensed work. Dan has been very present at FAAM conferences, but has recently taken up a post at the new Building Safety Regulator. I’m sure he’ll be at future conferences, though: we all know there is no real escape from the asbestos industry!

Day two kicks off with a series of talks on the UK’s asbestos legacy, with a focus on mesothelioma and treatment advances – a subject that is ever present in our minds. Before lunch we look at the law, and the role of the expert in asbestos claims. After the gripping mock trial last year I expect this will be a compelling examination of what can happen when it all goes wrong.

We round up the day with site-based issues, ranging from communication between clients and LARCs, and Sara Mason’s talk on the challenges to site analysis. Several talks here sound promising. I’m eager to hear from Dale Timmons of further advances in thermochemical asbestos destruction – a technology that could hold the key to preventing landfilling.

I’m also interested in Graham Warren’s look at the implications of ‘net zero’ for the asbestos industry. And finally, given that the four-stage clearance (4SC) is a topic close to my heart, I’m hopeful that Colette Willoughby will be telling us about some practical solutions to the additional challenges faced by female analysts during the 4SC.

It’s a packed programme, and my experience from last year suggests that – despite the virtual format – the event remains unmissable. You can sign up for FAAM 2021 via the BOHS website. I hope to ‘see’ you there!

The Contamination Expo, and the long road to events as normal

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday October 14th 2021

Cast your mind back 12 months and it was evident the pandemic was far from over. The government had introduced the three-tier system, and events were once again being cancelled and postponed. With this in mind, we should all be grateful that this year’s Contamination Expo was back at the NEC.

As probably the biggest event in our industry, the Expo is our major opportunity to come together, exchange ideas and information, and get a real feel for what’s going on. I was looking forward to being there but then, just a couple of days before, tested positive for Covid.

I’ve written loads about the ability – indeed the need – for firms to have technology that adds flexibility and remote-working capabilities, and it was interesting to get a chance to demonstrate first-hand. Our team leaped into action, helping me film my talk Demystifying the four-hour time-weighted average (4hr TWA) so that I could present it remotely to the conference – almost as planned!
 
 


 

Hopefully the talk still comes over well despite my not being 100% well – I’m happy to report that my symptoms were mild and I’ve recovered now. If you’re interested in reading more about the topic, this summer I wrote in depth about the HSE and personal monitoring, and took a deeper dive into the 4hr TWA.

Looking ahead

Brilliant though technology is, and as much as it’s changing the industry we work in, there’s still no substitute for in-person conventions and events. Things will be more normal by this time next year, and the Contamination & Geotech Expo 2022 will no doubt be bigger and better. Mark out 14-15 September in your diaries!

We list the Expo and all the other occasions we know about in our regularly updated diary of asbestos and construction events. Aside from the regular ARCA and ACAD regional meetings, we’ll keep you posted on the various events and symposiums that accelerate the sharing of knowledge in our industry. Please let us know if you’re organising something so we can add it to the list.

Personally, I’m most looking forward to the next European Asbestos Forum (EAF) conference. Given the ongoing challenges with international travel this has been postponed until 2022, but I’m reliably informed next year’s event will be worth the wait. Given the quality of the 2019 conference, I don’t doubt it for a minute.

Want to see first-hand how Assure360 simplifies the 4hr TWA? Get in touch for your free demo!

“It’s only an asbestos enclosure” – why temporary works are a problem

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday September 15th 2021

What on earth are Temporary Works? According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) they’re ‘the parts of a construction project that are needed to enable the permanent works to be built’. But this definition is a little misleading, and leads us to think only about major construction items, holding up partly built structures.

This over-simplified definition reflects a wider problem with how temporary works are perceived, and how the asbestos industry in particular deals with them. For the most part, we tend to ignore the whole issue as not applicable to us.

On the HSE’s side, there’s some problematic guidance in which the definition is subtly different. Essentially, here temporary works are anything that ‘might or might not remain in place at the completion of the works’. And if you’re thinking that could apply to anything, you’d probably be right.

Let’s step back from this confusion and explore the founding principles for temporary works (TW). TWs are assigned design categories, which reflect the complexity and innovation of their design. They also have a risk classification, which reflects the consequences should they fail.

The design categories are officially 1-3, but there’s an unofficial extra one – ‘0’:

0 – Standard solutions. Essentially off-the-shelf systems that have been previously judged or tested as safe.

1 – Simple designs. Some thought has been put into creating the solution. Examples might include simple formwork and propping.

2 – More complex designs. These would usually include piling and excavations.

3 – Complex, innovative designs. These are departures from the usual to solve novel problems or achieve an innovative result.

Depending on the category, the design requires a greater or lesser degree of extra checks.

Once we’ve established the appropriate design category, we determine the classification of risk by asking, ‘What are the consequences of failure?’ This often changes how temporary works are regarded. For example, temporary (i.e. Heras) fencing might be design category 0 – tried and tested. Put it next to a busy dual carriageway and it remains design category 0, but it becomes high risk. This raised level of risk means we undertake more stringent site checks to make sure the solution has been built as designed.

We’re actually very familiar with this kind of concept, as an asbestos enclosure is a great example. Enclosures are typically built to a very standard design, making them design category 0. But the consequences of failure will vary. In an open field there may be minor, manageable consequences. In a busy school they’d be very serious. Consequently, you may include additional checks for the latter.

Understanding risk categories

The obvious examples of TWs that we all think about are trenches, concrete formwork, and the propping up of partially constructed structures. But with the above definition in mind (anything that ‘might or might not remain in place at the end of the project’), they also include scaffolding, towers, hoarding, fencing and asbestos enclosures.

Essentially all the things we build in the asbestos industry are temporary works. So what do we need to understand about the rules?

Nearly everything that we do has a standard solution, and will have a design category of 0. Speedframe Airlocks, internal timber enclosures, Heras fencing, simple scaffolding, towers: it’s all off the shelf, so no specific design is required. However, there are times when we do something a little extra, and that changes things dramatically.

If instead of the standard Heras fencing we put up timber hoarding, the support and foundations for these are firmly in the category 1 arena. Adding logo sheeting to Heras fencing would also move it into category 1, with the associated changes in how it needs to be managed.

Many other common adaptations will modify category 0 structures in this way. If the existing site scaffolding is a standard design covered under the National Access & Scaffolding Federation’s TG20:21 guidance, great. But when we construct a full enclosure on this we’re adding a huge sail to a multi-ton structure. That’s very definitely no longer a TG20 scaffold!

If a temporary works fails, the consequences could be serious – and the HSE will certainly be investigating. Say for example that high winds topple the soffit enclosure scaffold, the scaffold company could well be in the clear – the reason it fell was because we added the sail. If we have specified category 1, 2 or 3 temporary works, but then not had them properly designed, it’s us in the dock.

Managing risk, avoiding disaster

So if everything we build is a TW, and mostly it’s category 0, but occasionally it’s not, what should we be doing? It’s unfortunate that there’s no official guidance. Instead, everything is effectively governed by the British Standard BS:5975. This document outlines the best practice you should be following. And in our industry we know that while we don’t have to follow guidance, we can’t ignore it, and we must do something equivalent or better.

BS:5975 states that you must have a procedure for TWs. This could simply be an extension to your existing standard procedures, essentially laying out what standard designs you use and what you will not do. You must also appoint certain roles. These include a designated individual: a senior person in the organisation responsible for establishing and maintaining the TW procedure. The designated individual must also appoint the temporary works coordinator: a competent person to manage the temporary works.

All temporary works must be designed by a competent person, or be to a standard (i.e. off the peg) design. And there may be a need to double-check aspects of the designs depending how complex they are. Anyone who designs a TW is a TW designer. They have exactly the same duties as any designer under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007.

All temporary works must be checked on site to ensure they have been installed or built as per the design. As we mentioned before, the degree of checks required depends on the risk.

How might this work in practice? The appointed roles might be shared out as follows:

  1. Health and safety lead takes on the designated individual role, as they have existing responsibility for the standard procedures.
  2. The contracts managers are appointed as temporary works designers. They design the job, and ideally they only select standard solutions.
  3. Supervisors are your eyes on the ground, ensuring that whatever you design is implemented correctly. After all, that’s their normal day job.

The first and second of these have to be formally appointed, and accept the position.

There’s excellent training available for temporary works coordinators – you can find much of it through Easybook – but it’s not compulsory. In the low-risk category 0 world we inhabit, you might choose to send one person, then have them cascade the information to all of the TWCs.

Practical steps

In any event, make sure your contract managers know what constitutes a standard solution – give examples in your procedures. Few licensed asbestos removal contractors (LARCs) have anyone in-house competent at designing scaffolding. If you’re using scaffold as the basis for a soffit enclosure, make sure the scaffolder knows it is unlikely to come under TG20, and that it will need a design. Similarly, don’t embellish Heras fencing with branded sheeting. If necessary, use the (expensive) netting designed for this purpose.

The supervisors, as usual, are the checkers. They need to confirm that the operative built, installed or erected the item correctly. Recording these checks can be time consuming, but it’s something we’re all used to. That’s exactly why we designed the Assure360 Paperless solution, which slashes supervisor administration time by up to 80%.

So in summary, the things that LARCs build or erect are always temporary works, and you ignore that fact at your peril. By following some simple steps we can repurpose the activities we routinely do anyway, ensuring that the job gets done properly, checked appropriately, and that we’re observing the proper guidance throughout.

Want to see first-hand how Assure360 Paperless streamlines routine safety checks, and makes the data available for insight and analysis? Get in touch now for your free demo!

Stay safer with Assure Incident 2.0

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday May 20th 2021

We’ve said it before and it remains true: the construction industry is an inherently dangerous business. According to 2019/20 figures, the sector recorded the highest number of fatalities of any industry, and the second highest rate of injury.

However, focusing on the top-level statistics overlooks a fundamental truth: that comparatively few workplace accidents happen truly without warning. All too often they’re the end result of a trend, or they become possible thanks to a blind spot in safety culture or supervision. Each year, lives could be saved and life-changing injuries avoided if we could better identify the conditions, oversights and company cultures that allow people to get hurt.

Without doubt, the most important pillar in driving down workplace accidents is to fully record and investigate them, along with the incidents and near-misses that often precede them. As we’ve written before, the accident triangle theory suggests that any near miss could be a warning of a potential accident. It’s essential to capture and analyse data – and act on the insight to prevent something worse.

Assure360-Accident-Triangle

The construction industry takes this seriously, and many employers do it well, but the same is less true in the specialised world of asbestos management. Historically, it’s something we’ve been rather poor at.

Across all industries, a culture of continuous improvement demands that any accident, incident or near-miss is recorded so that lessons can be learned. Recording should be mandatory, and any barriers to it should be removed: that’s the philosophy behind Assure360 Incident.

Incident exists precisely to minimise the barriers to recording safety incidents in the workplace. Providing a simple and intuitive interface, it improves record keeping. With the Assure360 dashboard, it helps provide the analysis and insight that organisations need to improve.

Now, we’ve improved the app itself, with a refreshed interface and a raft of other features. Chief among these is that, like Paperless before it, Assure360 Incident 2.0 is now available on Android.

Other major improvements include:

  • Multiple photographs – a full picture of an incident can be recorded for later review and investigation
  • Close out notes for action taken on site – encourages proactive site behaviour to prevent the near-miss from becoming an actual incident
  • Record of the PPE worn at the time of an incident – completing the picture for senior management
  • Instant upload to the Cloud Compliance system
  • Actions automatically assigned to the safety team. Email alerts notify the team so actions can be reviewed, and health and safety investigations undertaken if needed

Above all, we’ve focused on making Incident 2.0 as streamlined as possible. By making incident and near-miss reporting easy, our aim is to help you make it quick and comprehensive. Why not download Assure360 Incident now, and start strengthening your health and safety culture?

Assure360 Audit 3.0 – announcing the latest update to the Assure360 system

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday January 13th 2021

For Assure360, our Audit app has a special significance. Originally launched back in 2014, Assure360 Audit is at the heart of our streamlined and paperless health and safety auditing system. In 2017 we gave it a major refresh, adding more functions and a fresher look. As we pass 10,000 audits, I’m excited to announce that we’re hard at work on version 3.0.

The latest version is going to be brilliant, but before I tease you with the improvements, I thought I’d recap a little on the history of the app, and how it’s tied into our own. The Assure360 system is the result of my nearly 30 years spent working as a health and safety professional, specialising in the asbestos industry. One of our most important product features is that we offer our customers the benefits of everything I’ve learned in my ‘day job’.

The genesis of Assure360 came when I was working as an embedded health and safety manager for several licensed asbestos removal contractors (LARCs). I was designing audit schemes, completing training needs analysis and competence systems, and undertaking the analysis of exposure results… again and again.

I’d created a series of interconnected Excel spreadsheets to help me complete the work, but there was still plenty of manual work involved. It was repetitive, time-consuming – and prone to error.

A happy accident

In the space of a couple of months I met an app developer and a database company, and had a bit of a lightbulb moment. I realised that I needed an app to record the data quickly, and a database to do the tedious legwork in the background. Most pertinently, I realised that if I needed it, so would other professionals in our industry, and that’s how Assure360 and the Audit app came about.

From the start, the app accomplished most of what I set out to achieve, but our ethos has always been to work with our community to continually make things better. After three years of using the app myself and gathering feedback from our early customers, we updated it to version 2.0 – essentially the version you’re using today.

Version 2.0 had some big improvements over the original. It was better to look at, and added some powerful new functionality. Most importantly we added the ability to craft bespoke audit question sets, giving the app immense appeal to non-asbestos construction firms and specialists like demolition teams. It’s a testament to Audit’s appeal, usability and usefulness that it’s rated 4.5 out of 5 on the App Store.

“I just find it so, so easy to use, so simple. It doesn’t take up half the time of my own audit system – where I’m uploading photos, copying and pasting information. It’s none of that, it’s quick. It’s a great app really.”

Chris Pedley, CP Safety

Community-driven updates

Roll forward another three years or so, and we’re delighted to be working on another major upgrade. Just like with version 2.0, changes for version 3.0 will be the result of our continued experience using the app. And I mean ‘our’. I still use Audit daily in my ongoing work in health and safety, but the whole Assure360 team is tuned in to the feedback and suggestions we get from the ever-expanding Assure360 community.

So what’s new in version 3.0? As with our recent updates to the Assure360 Paperless and Incident apps, one of the biggest new features will be Android compatibility. With the release of Audit version 3.0, the entire Assure360 suite will be available for Android devices for the first time. This lowers the barriers to entry for our system, as Android devices tend to be a fair bit cheaper than those from Apple. Just as importantly it gives our customers more choice and flexibility, for example letting them run Assure apps on rugged tablets in the harshest environments.

Other improvements will include the ability to log multiple photos with an item, and the instant upload of audit findings – helping ensure teams are working with the very latest data.

We’re also excited to be adding new self-help tools that will let users craft their own bespoke audits. Much like when we introduced bespoke question sets, this allows auditors and other users to tailor the app and our system to the exact work they’re doing. The goal is to streamline the process further, and remove any obstacles and manual workarounds that could introduce errors.

“My clients aren’t just getting a box-ticking exercise, they’re benefitting from my expertise and feedback, and the software’s ability to help produce actionable information.”

Chris Pedley, CP Safety

Over to you

We’re working on lots of other improvements alongside those main revisions, but like everything we do, the upgrades are a community approach. If you’ve got a feature to suggest, an issue to flag up, or any other idea for making version 3.0 as good as possible, please do drop us a line.

Want to discover more about the refreshed and improved Assure360 apps? Read more about our health and safety and asbestos management apps

FAAM conference report – more than a virtual success

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday December 10th 2020

Who would have thought that a virtual conference could keep you glued to your seat? If I’m honest, not me. Times are busy for us at Assure360, and so when I looked at the programme for the BOHS/FAAM conference there were a few slots where I thought “I might be able to miss that.” More fool me – the two days were absolutely riveting.

So here’s my attempt to sum up a few of the highlights from the conference. I haven’t included all the sessions, but if you’re a FAAM member I think the plan is for you to be able to log in and browse them all.

The control limit

The conference got underway with a history lesson, but one that really set up so much else for the two days. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s Sam Lord took us on an interesting journey through how we arrived at the current asbestos control limit. She even explained the logic behind the name, and the important shift in thinking that it represented: that is, that there is no ‘safe’ limit.

Sam went on to give us an update on the HSE’s new Analysts’ Guide, which does finally seem to be nearing release next year. The guidance will contain two changes to the air testing criteria which I think are brilliant.

The first is that the UK will come in line with the World Health Organisation (WHO) method for sampling against the control limit. The four-hour time weighted average (4hr TWA) test has always been very challenging – not least because many tasks (when you take off breaks and decontamination) are not four hours long. But whilst they are difficult, these are legally mandatory duty-of-care tests.

The new guidance introduces important flexibility in the pump flow rate:

 

 

Application Sampling rate (l/min) Min air volume 25mm ⌀ filter (litres) Minimum number of graticule areas to be examined Calculated airborne concentration at the LOQ
4-hour control limit 1-2* 240 100 0.04
10-minute short-term exposure limit 4 40 100 0.24
Specific short-duration activities 4 120 100 0.08
Assessment of suitability of RPE >0.2-4 40 100 0.24

 

* Note the change from 1 to ‘1-2’. This allows for higher volume tests in a shorter period.

** Brand new test – see below

Sam’s talk linked nicely with a presentation by Dan Barrowcliffe on the second day, about personal monitoring. I was able to catch up with Dan after the conference for some more thrilling personal monitoring chat (I appreciate perhaps not everyone shares my enthusiasm).

He and I discussed how the minimum volume column is important. For a 4hr TWA test this volume is 240 litres, which means you need to run the pump for between two and four hours. If you’re running it for two hours, where do the other two hours of a 4hr TWA come from?

If you have good enough data, based on accurate personal monitoring, you can interpolate them from your anticipated values. This opens up exciting potential for Assure360 users, as with 18,000+ personals already in the system we can potentially convert an awful lot more tests into the difficult-to-achieve standard. Watch this space – we will have a new report to do just this in the new year.

Short-duration activities

The other crucial change to the guidance – and something I’ve been calling for for years – is the new ‘Specific short-duration activities’ test. This is essentially what a well run, competent LARC does all of the time: test the peak high fibre release activities to measure the effectiveness of their methods.

Now that it is in the guide, analysts will know what parameters to test against, finally allowing LARCs to do their job properly. I personally would like a little more flexibility (a flow rate of 2-4, rather than 4), but now I’m being picky.

At the end of day one, Dan did an updated review of his four-stage clearance (4SC) project (see my summary of the preliminary findings here), and how it has influenced the new analyst guide. The project showed some encouraging improvements in analyst behaviour and performance on site. One of the main points however, is the application of a hard limit of 10 minutes on how much cleaning can be done within the 4SC. Equally importantly, this shouldn’t be done by the analyst at all. This change should bring an end to nightmare jobs where a hoard of operatives are trying to clean in the enclosure during the inspection itself.

The day of the trial

Day two started with an innovative mock trial, which moved from fascinating to excruciating as we watched the full horror unfold. The ‘case’ examined what could happen when an organisation that thinks it’s on top of asbestos policy discovers the hard way that it hasn’t been. The actors were all asbestos professionals – and somehow were able to tone down their knowledge levels to stay in character. I still don’t know how they did it, but it was absolutely enthralling.

The afternoon focused on asbestos technology. I found it all very interesting, particularly when learning about Hysurv’s use of drones to conduct visual surveys of buildings. I was lining up plenty of ‘well, it won’t work because…’ and ‘all very well, but what about…’ comments, only to find them comprehensively eliminated by their capabilities. One highlight was watching a drone fly through a tangled ceiling void!

The ability to survey a roof in vivid detail, showing the precise location and accurate measurements of presumed asbestos materials, was incredible. The equipment also seemed well capable of surveying confined and restricted-access spaces – potentially improving safety and raising surveying standards in the most challenging jobs.

So, far from skipping sessions I found myself largely glued to my screen for the full two-day programme. If virtual conferences are the shape of things to come – and it looks like they might be for a few months yet – then consider me an enthusiastic convert.

2020: Covid, change, and cause for optimism

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday December 10th 2020

Let’s be honest, nobody’s going to look back fondly on 2020. The arrival of Covid 19 and the ongoing pandemic has ruined plans, destroyed businesses – and sadly cost far too many lives. But while it’s been a challenging and sobering year, new vaccines promise better times ahead. And many of the changes forced on businesses will be the basis for better trading as we turn the corner.

The year everything changed

You can’t look back on 2020 without discussing Covid 19. Mushrooming from a small outbreak centered in Wuhan, China, to a global pandemic in just three months, the virus has left few aspects of our lives untouched. From the outset, the lockdowns necessary to control the disease’s spread created social, financial and emotional scars that may take years to heal.

For many businesses, it was quickly clear that the pandemic represented an existential challenge. We in the construction and asbestos-removal sectors have been luckier than some, with much of our work allowed for most of the year, but still these have been difficult times.

So far, so obvious, but for the rest of this post I want to focus as much as possible on the positives from this year – the new tools and solutions that have helped us carry on at the pandemic’s peak, and which will continue to make business better as we emerge.

A lucky break with tradition

In April we marked a year since the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s introduction of the new digital service for asbestos-removal licensing. Fraught with challenges – and, for a short time, horror stories – the long overdue overhaul had a difficult few months, but in retrospect it got here just in time.

By the time the pandemic hit, the HSE had ironed most of the creases out of its new system. The industry, too, had a better understanding of what the HSE expected – helped in part by innovations such as Assure360’s custom licensing module.

As inspectors were grounded under lockdown conditions, the move to digital assessments began to seem uncannily well-timed. Asbestos-removal contractors could renew their licenses and continue working, where otherwise they might have been dependent on inspector visits that couldn’t happen.

A new way to work

If 2020 is remembered for anything other than Covid, it will be as the year that accelerated digital transformation. Global businesses were already on the path, digitising existing processes and inventing new ways to work, but few smaller firms had been caught up in the wave. Covid changed that at a stroke – forcing even the smallest firms to embrace Zoom, cloud-working, and countless other digital tools.

For the asbestos removal industry, it’s a big change. We’ve been around for a while, and our highly regulated industry previously depended on meticulous paperwork. Assure360 has been selling the technology to change that for some years, but 2020 has seen a dramatic growth in interest, as more firms sought out ways to support socially-distanced working.

This is particularly true for Assure360 Paperless. Our digital supervisor support tool removes the site paperwork from asbestos projects. In itself, this cuts the amount of materials being passed around between workers, but during the pandemic another benefit grew in significance.

By automatically synchronising site data with our cloud-based system, Assure360 presents managers with reports and analysis based on the freshest data from the project. Many users have relied on this to reduce their visits to site, confident that Assure360 is providing the insight they need to manage jobs remotely.

Zoom spreads

As the year drew on, people began to use these new digital tools more extensively. In the asbestos industry, briefings and supervisor meetings started to happen over Zoom. In the wider world, recruitment and induction was increasingly carried out remotely – some people are still working from home in new jobs where they’re yet to meet their colleagues!

And as it became obvious that the usual round of conferences and seminars wouldn’t happen, organisations began to think about how they could deliver essential events virtually. ACAD switched its regional meetings to a virtual platform, for example, while we provided a webinar on Covid-safe working.

While the biggest events like the Hazardous Materials Expo have had to be cancelled altogether, academic conferences like BOHS and FAAM were able to go ahead online – to great effect.

As businesses, event and training providers all get greater experience with digital tools, it’s likely we’ll all continue to do things in new ways as the pandemic begins to recede. For example, several of our Paperless customers are planning to continue remote management, with fewer site visits. As Phil Neville of Asbestech pointed out, aside from helping greatly through the pandemic, our paperless technology has helped him reduce vehicle mileage in line with the firm’s ISO 14001 undertakings.

For events, digital access could help more delegates ‘attend’ even far-flung conferences. Next year’s iMig2021 – originally due to be held in Brisbane this year, then postponed to next March – will now take place virtually in May. While it’s a shame for people who would have made it to Australia, the pivot to a virtual setting means that far more people can now take part.

For many, 2020 has been a miserable year, and it may be a few months yet before things get better. 2021 begins with the end of the Brexit transition period and whatever fallout that brings, and it may be some months before the vaccination programme really bears fruit.

In the meantime, paperless and remote technology continues to help us navigate the pandemic, and promises to improve efficiency and create new possibilities in the future. After a difficult year, that’s a welcome source of hope as we go into 2021.

 

Living and working in Covid times

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday November 11th 2020

If it wasn’t clear already, the arrival of second lockdowns in England, Wales, and several European countries confirm that this crisis will be here a while longer yet. Despite promising news from various vaccine trials – most notably the Pfizer/BioNTech candidate – mass vaccination programmes seem unlikely before Q2 next year. In the meantime the world needs to do its best to control the virus without disastrous damage to the economy.

What the UK government is trying to achieve with the second English lockdown is almost insanely difficult. The public needs to be fearful enough of the disease that it takes control measures seriously, optimistic enough that it can see light at the end of the tunnel, and yet still go out to work so that the economy does not grind to another halt. This despite a cycle of lockdown and release that’s likely to continue until late spring next year.

Processing what we need to do to come out the other side is going to be crucial. Construction and manufacturing have been targeted as protected parts of the economy, and the messaging is clear: keep safe, but keep going.

I’ve already written a couple of articles focusing on how to tackle the challenging working environment that Covid presents. Here I’m going to briefly revisit this and look at the latest advice. But it’s also important we acknowledge that changes such as increased remote working are going to be here to stay. I want to look at why embracing them, and making them part of a future strategy, is important to business success post-Covid.

What’s the latest guidance on safe working?

For all contractors, the first place to start is with the most recent version of the Construction Leadership Council (CLC)’s safe operating procedures (SOPs). At the time of writing these were up to version six, dated 20 October.

The SOPs have an excellent section structured according to the hierarchy of control, which succeeds in being both detailed and clear. However, the key points from this version are:

  • Workers should maintain a minimum two-metre separation. If this isn’t practical, one-metre distancing is acceptable provided there are other controls
  • Face coverings should be provided and worn if the area is enclosed, if distancing is not always possible, and where contact could be with a variety of people. One example would be when moving around in canteens
  • High-touch areas should receive frequent decontamination
  • Workers should wash hands before accessing the site. They should have breaks available to repeat frequently
  • Contractors should monitor compliance with the rules

The challenges that these guidelines present will of course vary depending on the site. Space is crucial. In smaller, enclosed sites with limited access, maintaining a safe separation is likely to prove challenging. On large sites with big workforces, there may need to be staggered start/finish times – and careful management of queues entering the site or core facilities like the canteen.

Other issues will tax everyone – for example, the difficulty of simply getting staff to the site in shared vehicles. The government’s guidance remains much the same: increased washing and cleaning, barriers, bubbled teams and short journey times. However there’s a key difference in lockdown two: public transport isn’t yet being reserved for key workers. If you must use it, cover your face.

Face Coverings and Masks

When it comes to face coverings, we’ve certainly moved on from when I last wrote. At that time, Royal Society president Venki Ramakrishnan was calling for face coverings to be part of standard procedures. Now the CLC agrees – up to a point. While the SOP clearly states that we should not be recommending additional PPE due to Covid, it does specify face coverings in certain confined situations.

My view – and it is certainly something I have practiced since April – is that we should be wearing face coverings when we can’t guarantee social distancing. On busier sites, and particularly indoor projects, that has been most of the time.

What hasn’t been discussed much is the problem of wearing face coverings with glasses, whether that is readers, safety, or – as in my case – both. Anyone who has the problem of fogging is balancing the risks of impaired vision against the protection of their fellow workers. For what it’s worth, the only face masks I have found that fit close enough to reduce fogging are the ones with the metal strip on the bridge of the nose.

Whatever face covering you wear, you should absolutely avoid dust masks with a valve. Remember that we’re wearing face coverings not to protect ourselves, but to disrupt our breath out – and therefore protect others. Valved masks keep glasses clear because they let our breath escape unimpeded. For similar reasons, face shields offer little other than immediate protection if someone coughs on us.

Lasting change

The most difficult, draconian measures will be gone with the pandemic. But I wanted to stress the importance of stepping back and looking at positive changes that will continue to reap benefits beyond it. Companies who have been forced to find ways to reduce site traffic and enable remote working are finding new efficiencies that will support a stronger recovery when the pandemic is over.

Let’s not kid ourselves – there’s no substitute for boots on the ground when it comes to construction work – but the technologies businesses put in place now will have a longer-term benefit than ‘just’ minimising the risks from Covid.

We know that remote workplace technologies reduce the risk to managers and supervisors, and lower the chances that they spread the virus to or from their colleagues. Yet at the same time they introduce new and lasting efficiencies. Video calls reduce the need to travel, saving on expenses and letting managers use their time more effectively. Video briefings and inductions help reduce face-to-face contact, but they can also be more flexible and convenient. We all recognise the difficulties caused by having to shut projects down for an afternoon just to get the whole team together, now this can just be an hour at the end of the shift where everyone logs in to a call.

We see the same benefits from removing the paperwork involved in asbestos management and health and safety auditing. During Covid, the Assure360 Paperless app has helped customers reduce the amount of paperwork and other material going on and off site, and improved visibility for managers as they seek to maintain quality while minimising site visits. In the words of GreenAir Environmental director Graham Patterson: “If it wasn’t for Assure360 I think we’d have a major issue with having paper method statements, everybody touching it, and the virus sitting on that surface which you can’t wipe down.”

However, the benefits to streamlining critical safety checks predate the pandemic, and will continue after it’s gone. Customers who have adopted Paperless and other Assure360 solutions as a way to improve their ability to manage jobs in a socially-distanced environment have already discovered the big efficiency improvements we can deliver in normal times. “The Assure360 system has streamlined the company massively,” adds Graham Patterson. “And if we were to go back to the old paper systems I think we would struggle.”

The second wave of lockdowns remind us that we’re not done with Covid yet. We’re continuing to improve our products to provide essential support now, and more worthwhile benefits in the long term. After redesigning Paperless to make it even easier to use and even more of a time-saver, we’re working on an update to Assure360 Incident – our accident and near-miss reporting app.

The same principles apply as with all Assure360 products: an effortless user interface, letting even non-technical users improve and streamline essential health and safety record keeping. And with this update, Incident will also become the second Assure360 app to gain Android support, reducing the cost of entry to the Assure360 system.

Now more than ever it’s imperative to cut paperwork and supervision overheads, while simultaneously ensuring greater compliance. And when things are better, the efficiencies your business discovers today will continue to deliver benefits and competitive advantages as the economy recovers. I think we should all see this as evidence that the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a brighter future.

Virtually there – the BOHS and FAAM conference

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday November 11th 2020

With Covid still here and big events like the Hazardous Materials Expo already postponed – again – this year’s conference season promises to be very different. Happily, some events are still going ahead, albeit virtually.

On 18-19 November the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) and the Faculty of Asbestos Assessment and Management (FAAM) are presenting what will be my first ever virtual conference. While I’m not sure what to expect, I am indeed looking forward to it.

The conference programme kickstarts with a review of the asbestos control limit: the limit for asbestos concentration beyond which legally imposed controls become necessary. Sam Lord of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and Rick Pomeroy of ABP Associates, will be talking about the history and challenges of air testing during works. I’m curious to know whether they’ll expand the conversation to take a broader look at licensed contracting and testing against the contractor’s own internal procedures – often much more stringent than the old control limit.

After the break on day one it’s the turn of Garry Burdett, principal scientist at the Health and Safety Laboratory. He’ll be giving us the lowdown on the implications of work done by the European Chemical Agency and the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency. Are we set for a change in the control limit? Sam Lord takes the final slot before lunch to give us a progress report on the Analysts’ Guide. Astonishingly my white paper on the draft is still relevant, several years on.

Working lunch

After lunch I’m keenly looking forward to what most people might see as a minor part of the sessions. When we became aware last year about asbestos identified in some marble, my concern was not so much ‘is that kitchen worktop hazardous’, as whether the worker cutting the slab to size was adequately protected. We haven’t heard much on that yet – hopefully we will on 18 November.

In the morning of the second day the programme will cover some interesting developments in duty holder training, along with the HSE’s view on where we are failing in this area. The final afternoon is taken up by technology and myth busting sessions – always a great way to end a conference!

If you have not signed up, I urge you to do so. In a year where so much of the usual industry networking and discussion has been blocked by the need to maintain social distancing, the FAAM conference takes on even greater significance than usual. And as with so many long overdue catch ups – while we can’t be there in person, doing so virtually is the next best thing.

Construction industry accidents – no room for complacency

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday October 15th 2020

Back at the start of July the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released its annual accident statistics, covering 2019 / 2020. Among these, as always, are figures detailing the worst case situation – people who die while at work.

The headline figure is encouraging. Over the period, 111 workers were killed – a significant decrease on previous years. Over the previous period 149 workers had lost their lives, and the average over the past five years was 137.

While this is clearly good news, the figures have – like so much else – been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Economic activity dipped in February and March – alarmingly in many sectors – so some reduction in injuries was to be expected. Those of you who work on construction sites will know they were eerily quiet at the end of Q1, only recovering near to full speed toward the end of the lockdown.

Our own Assure360 figures back up that impression, with a drop on year-on-year audits. In the past 12 months, 1,790 audits have been completed, whereas in the previous 12 months it was 2,048. That’s a 13% drop, against a background of rising subscriber numbers through the year, with most of the reduced activity seen between March and June. Thankfully we are now back to more normal rates, indicating that at least with Assure360 users, we are seeing some recovery.

How dangerous is construction?

If we go back to the HSE figures, we can drill down a bit to get more detail on how this year compares to last:

Sector Fatalities 19/20 Fatalities 18/19 5yr average (19/20)
Construction 40 30 37
Agriculture 20 32 27
Manufacturing 15 26 20
Transport 11 16 14
Wholesale and retail 6 18 9
Waste and recycling 5 7 9
Administration and support 6 10 4
Other 8 10
Total 111 149

 

As you can see, all sectors saw the drop that you might expect against a backdrop of reduced activity – with the exception of construction, which instead experienced a 33% rise in fatalities. The obvious question is, “Why?”

The HSE’s report points out that “in statistical terms, [the] numbers are small and subject to fluctuation”, but construction still looks like an outlier.

Superficially, things look more encouraging for the sector if you examine the fatality rates expressed per 100,000 workers. When viewed this way, we can see that agriculture and waste are significantly more hazardous industries. But again, construction is the only sector showing an increase.

Sector Fatalities per 100,000 (19/20) Fatalities per 100,000 (18/19)
Agriculture 5.96 9.21
Waste and recycling 4.57 6.05
Construction 1.74 1.31
Transport 0.69 1.00
Manufacturing 0.52 0.92
Administration and support 0.38 0.62
Wholesale and retail 0.10 0.31

 

The per-sector view makes it clear that the agriculture and waste industries face serious safety challenges. Construction is inherently hazardous, too, but effective legislation such as the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015) ensures we have tightly controlled working procedures. Even so, that’s cold comfort when the normalised rates above confirm that the increase in fatalities isn’t down to an increase in workers. The hard truth is that we just failed to keep our people as safe as in previous years.

What’s killing construction workers?

Look at the detail of the HSE figures and we see that working at height and related issues (for example, dropped objects) are by far the biggest killer – they make up 42% of all fatalities. While we can’t identify from the report how many of these deaths are in the construction and asbestos industries, height is clearly a hazard we encounter frequently.

Interestingly, there’s been a small increase over the 18/19 figures, where height-related incidents were a factor in 38% of fatalities. Perhaps this is an indicator of where we may be going wrong. Is the sector as a whole taking its eye off its most significant risk?

Again, we can shed further light on the HSE figures by examining our own. Assure360’s community-based approach to health and safety means that our users benefit from aggregated figures recorded across all auditing and near-miss reporting on our system.

Auditing and near-miss reporting have always been the traditional methods we use to identify and mitigate safety issues. So what does our data tell us about height-related non-conformance?

Question Text 18-19 19-20 % Difference
RA (Height) 27 8 -70%
Tied (scaffold) 23 13 -43%
Double hand rails (scaffold) 22 8 -64%
Scaffold (Fans) 18 6 -67%
Safe access between lifts 16 11 -31%
Inspection (Scaffold) 13 8 -38%
Scaffold (Design) 13 14 8%
Scaffold (Gates/hatches) 12 4 -67%
Ladders / Hop Ups (Suitable) 9 3 -67%
Scaffold (Boards) 8 12 50%
Scaffold (Matches Design) 7 6 -14%
Scaffold changed by site team 5 4 -20%
Inspected (ladder & podium) 4 2 -50%
Scaffold (Condition) 4 5 25%
Double hand rails (tower) 3 2 -33%
Ladders in use (where podiums could be) 3 2 -33%
Ledger Bracing 2 0 -100%
Inspection (Tower) 2 2 0%
Ladder & Podium (condition) 1 0 -100%
Lifting Plan (method) 1 0 -100%
Training (Height) 1 0 -100%
Trip Hazards (scaffold) 1 0 -100%
Work at Height (rescue plan) 1 0 -100%
Tower (condition) 0 1 100%
Unprotected openings (scaffold) 0 1 100%
Total 196 112 -43%
AUDITS 2048 1790 -13%

In fact, it reveals that observed height related nonconformances among our users have gone down dramatically, from 196 to 112 in year-on-year comparison. That’s a 43% drop in observed issues, whereas (as we covered earlier) the number of audits fell by only 13% during the same period.

That means one of two things. Either Assure360’s users are bucking the apparent trend in the industry, and fewer height-related issues are there to be seen. Of course, that would be great, but the figures could instead show that – perhaps like the wider industry – we’re not looking hard enough at this area.

This is the age-old problem of auditing: no matter how good you are, there’s always the chance of blind spots. As the circumstances behind some of the annual fatalities would doubtless reveal, being ignorant of this can be catastrophic. All the more reason to ensure you include external, independent audits in the mix, to help you challenge systemic bias or shortcomings in your processes.

Stay safe

Historically the UK has been the best in the world at bringing people home safely from work. This is absolutely an achievement to be proud of, but these figures remind us that safety is something we must all work at. Especially in high-risk industries, we can never be complacent. As health and safety professionals we should be redoubling our efforts to give workers the protection they deserve.

And if you can, it’s best to learn from other people’s lessons as well as your own. One advantage that Assure360 can offer its users is that they don’t have to wait for annual HSE reports to see what is happening in the industry – our shared benchmarked data is available 24/7.

Coping with Covid – how we can help

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday October 15th 2020

The last six months or so have been, to put it mildly, challenging. Since Covid-19 first gained a foothold in the UK, the restrictions on businesses and individuals have had a huge impact on the economy. At the same time, the toll on public health has been staggering. As the UK braces itself for ‘Covid winter’, many face an uncertain outlook.

Against this backdrop, there are of course positive stories – there have been boom times for home improvement, furnishings and supermarkets. The construction industry hasn’t been quite so lucky, but it’s not the worst hit. Work continues – and for many asbestos workers, existing stocks and experience with PPE meant that it never stopped.

The pandemic is by no means over of course, and at Assure360 we’re determined to help our customers ride it out as safely and successfully as possible. I wanted to take a moment to talk about the things we’ve been doing to try and help. And, as we prepare for more disruption across the winter, flag up a couple of other things we’ve got in the pipeline.

Improved apps

The first and most important thing we’ve done is to offer a free upgrade to our Platinum subscription level to those who aren’t already on it. Platinum includes the Assure360 Paperless app, designed from the outset to replace a supervisor’s site paperwork with the electronic recording of safety checks and information.

In normal times one of Paperless’ main benefits is a big uplift in supervisor and back office efficiency, but during the pandemic the app’s role in cutting site traffic has become even more important.

Electronic record-keeping reduces the paperwork that has to go back and forth, and provides management with an up-to-date, remote view of any developing issues, helping them manage more effectively with less time on site. As Graham Patterson, director of GreenAir Environmental put it: “Assure360 [Paperless] itself has streamlined the company massively, but it’s helped greatly under the lockdown.”

At the same time we released a new, improved version of Paperless, which now supports Android devices as well as iPads. The most significant change is a completely reimagined Site Diary feature, designed to minimise the amount of text entry by supervisors. Now almost every imaginable entry is covered by drop down menus, and evidenced by photos when needed.

We’ve also updated our system to reflect the changed circumstances we’re all working in. For example, we’ve added Covid-specific audit questions.

More help and advice

We’ve always prided ourselves on the help we offer our customers, both when initially setting them up on the system, and with the day-to-day questions and issues that arise. During the pandemic we’ve been very aware of the difficulty of travel, and the need to cut down on face-to-face meetings, so we’ve been working especially hard to improve our support for those new to the system.

We’ve improved and added to the Assure360 Help Centre, creating more “How to…” videos to support the quick and easy rollout of Assure360 to your team. For customers adopting Paperless as part of their response to the pandemic, these have become a central part of inducting staff.

“One of the things that was a Godsend were the videos on how to use Paperless,” explains Phil Neville of Asbestech. “There’s one for supervisors – like a 10-minute long video – on how to use the tablet on site. It’s very instructional. It runs through from logging on to the system to closing a project down, very succinctly.

“We used that video as the core of our induction because we weren’t able to bring supervisors in and do face-to-face training – because we were avoiding unnecessary personal meetings.”

Phil Neville also explains how the Android tablets bought for Paperless became essential to Asbestech’s ability to support remote working. “We had Zoom put on all the tablets so that we can have training sessions and screen sharing with the supervisors remotely. Alongside Paperless, we added virtual meetings to our toolbox.”

This ability of Android and iPad tablets to support more than just Paperless helps customers increase the return on investment from adopting the Assure360 solution. In addition to the multiple benefits of Paperless itself, the tablets support other ways to work safely and remotely during challenging times. If we assume the average licensed asbestos removal contractor (LARC) has a site team of 10, then the average saving per year is in the region of £10,000 – even when you factor in the costs of Assure360. Even a micro LARC with just one supervisor would save money overall.

Doing more

Despite this, we’re aware that some firms are still struggling to get back on track after a summer of disruption to essential paperwork and administrative tasks. Particularly, there are concerns for some businesses as they approach licence renewal, with paper site records yet to be processed, and vital evidence not available for easy entry on the HSE’s online form.

We’re doing everything we can to help new customers – and those upgrading to Paperless – get their existing data onto our system so it’s available to support licence applications and the proper management of their work. And we’re continuing the free three-month upgrade to the Platinum subscription level for those who aren’t yet on it.

We’re also working on new and improved versions of both the Assure 360 Audit health and safety auditing app, and the Assure360 Incident near-miss reporting app. Like Paperless, the updated versions will be available on Android for the first time, meaning we’ll support a far wider range of devices. And as Android tablets are generally cheaper than iPads, the cost of entry to Assure360 will fall further.

These are difficult times, and we’re not out of the woods yet. We’re working hard to support our industry and communities, but if there’s any way we can help you more, do please get in touch and let us know.

Confined spaces – the lack of understanding that could cost lives

Written by Nick Garland on Tuesday August 11th 2020

Confined spaces and asbestos removal often go hand in hand, yet the lack of understanding about risks and controls could be putting people in danger.

As I discussed in an article last year, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s confined space rules changed back in 2014. The changes were subtle, though. The minimal fanfare around them has meant that – even six years on – those that commission projects and their appointed consultants still miss much of the point. But the fact that licensed asbestos-removal contactors (LARCs) are unwilling or unable to correct the misguided instructions they’re getting has the potential to make dangerous situations worse.

To recap briefly, there are two triggers that together will make a work area a ‘confined space’. The first is whether access to the area is substantially confined, with ladders, ducts, and ‘enclosures for the purpose of asbestos removal’ specifically listed. The second is whether one or more of five proscribed hazards – fire, heat, gas, or free-flowing solids or liquids – are present. In essence, if the access arrangements restrict people’s ability to get in or out of the workspace, and there is a risk of sudden death, then the confined space regulations apply.

What’s The Hazard?

It seems simple, but the nature of the hazard is absolutely critical to determining what the correct controls should be. The proscribed hazards are for the most part quite different in the risks they pose:

  • Serious injury from fire or explosion
  • Loss of consciousness arising from increased body temperature
  • Loss of consciousness or asphyxiation arising from gas, fume, vapour or lack of oxygen
  • Drowning from an increase in the level of liquid
  • Asphyxiation from free-flowing solid

It only takes a moment’s thought to realise that the controls to mitigate risk from explosion, say, are entirely different to those required for drowning, poisonous gas or elevated temperatures. In fact, the controls required for any single hazard could actually make other risks more serious. Despite this, what LARCs often see is an insistence from their clients on implementing the stock controls for poisonous gasses – regardless of the situation.

This problem is particularly serious if we consider ‘increased body temperature’. Elevated body temperature can cause loss of coordination and serious health risks, and untreated can quickly become a major risk to life.

In warm weather, many typical asbestos enclosures – in roofs, for example – are going to become confined spaces by risk of heat. But when contractors realise that an area is a confined space, the common response is to require equipment such as an escape kit. Not only will an escape kit do nothing to help, but the extra bulk might make matters worse. And the outcome could be catastrophic.

Read more on safe working at high temperatures.

So how do you avoid catastrophe? Firstly, whether you’re the client, principal designer, principal contractor or a subcontractor, you must be aware that all asbestos enclosures satisfy the first trigger for the confined spaces regulations.

Secondly, and most important, as soon as you confirm that a second trigger is present, you must understand in detail what the hazard is. If you can’t eliminate it, you need to implement controls specifically to deal with that hazard.

The threats that trigger a confined space are different in their nature, and there is no one-enclosure-fits-all approach to properly managing them. The consequences of applying inappropriate controls could be as bad as – or worse than – not managing the risk at all. And if you’re imposing the wrong controls on a subcontractor out of ignorance you could be liable for the consequences.

Hot under the collar – how hot environments are the confined space we should worry about

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday June 10th 2020

When it comes to working in confined spaces, hot environments are the new challenge that the asbestos-removal industry needs to get its head around.

I say ‘new’, but as I wrote in an earlier article, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s confined space rules changed back in 2014. The changes were subtle, though, and the minimal fanfare around them has meant that, even five years on, some confined space training courses still miss much of the point.

To recap briefly, there are two triggers that together make a work area a confined space:

  1. Is the access substantially confined? Ladders, ducts, and specifically ‘enclosures for the purpose of asbestos removal’ are listed
  2. Are one or more the five proscribed hazards – fire, heat, gas or free-flowing solids or liquids – present?

In short, if the access arrangements restrict your ability to get out, or that of emergency responders to get in, and there is a risk of (frankly) sudden death, then it is a confined space, and the confined space regulations apply.

Feeling the heat

I want to focus on one of the five proscribed hazards: ‘loss of consciousness arising from increased body temperature’ – or simply, working in high temperatures. Normal body temperature is between 36.1°C to 37.2°C. If it rises above 38°C, something serious is going wrong. Heat stroke – a body temperature above 40°C -is fatal without urgent attention.

It’s important to remember that these are body temperatures – not the working environment. While humans cancool themselves when the air temperature is higher than body temperature, if they’re active, or wearing heavy clothing, much lower temperatures can prove dangerous. The same is true if there’s raised humidity – sweat is slow to evaporate when the air is already saturated.

Asbestos workers are particularly vulnerable to high temperatures, as many of the controls we introduce to address the asbestos issue make it very difficult for our bodies to deal with heat. Impervious overalls prevent effective sweating, masks stop regular hydration, and the rigmarole of exiting the enclosure is a barrier to rest periods.

Therefore, ANY asbestos enclosure where it could get hot should be considered a confined space. There are some obvious ones, such as boiler rooms and ducts with hot water or steam pipes. But there are some that come at you from the leftfield, for example any open air enclosure in the summer, along with roof voids, rooftops, soffits, contaminated land and so on.

Taking action

So what do you do? You may be able to eliminate the hazard, for example by isolating a boiler. The asbestos enclosure will still have restricted access, but as the second trigger has been removed, it is no longer confined.

Of course, there will be situations where you can’t remove the risk, and if you absolutely can’t (the client wouldn’t like it is not enough!), you need to try and reduce it. There are dozens of imaginative ways you might be able to do this depending on the source of the heat:

  • Man-made heat sources can be turned down or partially isolated
  • Over-negging – drawing lots of cool external air into the area
  • Air chillers
  • Scheduling – e.g. for summer where heating is not required, winter where temperatures are lower, or night – when the sun has set.

Even after you have reduced the temperature, the risk may remain. If so you will have to monitor it very carefully, and control the residual risk. It’s here that people often overreact, or more accurately, respond with controls which don’t address the fundamental risk.

When someone says confined space, the some consultants’ knee jerk reaction is often to introduce measures like gas detection, 15-minute escape kits, harnesses, tripods and so on. However controls are only useful if they are specific to the hazard. If the risk is pockets of poisonous gas, then this could be a good design. However, if the only proscribed hazard is heat, the escape kits could make matters worse – why carry more heavy kit during an already tough job?

If a confined space is so primarily because of a heat risk, you need to develop something different. The following are pointers and areas that you should consider when designing the project.

Designing for a hot environment

Staff

Fit and healthy is the key. Anyone unwell or recovering from an illness will be more prone to heat exhaustion and ultimately heat stroke.

Hydration – make sure that plenty of drinking water is available, and that workers drink it before and after each work period. Don’t forget the means to access it – it’s not good enough to have a tap on site if there are no cups!

Training

Staff need to understand how to recognise early symptoms of heat stress in themselves and their colleagues. They need to know what to do if they see these signs. It’s critical to have qualified first aiders on site to be able to spot, intervene and help in these situations.

Heat stress symptoms can include any or all of:

  • Headache, dizziness and confusion
  • Loss of appetite and nausea
  • Sweating, with pale clammy skin
  • Cramps in the arms, legs and abdomen
  • Rapid, weakening breathing (and pulse)

Heat stroke has similar symptoms, but sufferers can accelerate through them very quickly to collapse.

Health Monitoring

There are ways to monitor the health of operatives, and depending on the risk assessment some or all of these should be included in the plan

  • Urine checks – if a worker is lacking hydration this is where it will show up – straw colour is good, orange is bad
  • Interview – ask how they are feeling
  • Body temperature – this should be 1°C to 37.2°C. Above 38°C is a concern, above 40°C is life-threatening. Consider routine temperature checks at break times
  • Pulse – knowing what is normal for each person (before the first shift) will give you an indication of when things change. A rapid or weakening heart beat could indicate heat exhaustion, while a full or pounding beat could be heat stroke.

Monitoring

We’re not just interested in temperature, but in the effective temperature – taking into account other factors that may increase the risk for workers. For that we use wet-bulb globe temperatures (WBGTs), which factor in the effects of humidity, wind speed and infrared radiation (sunlight and other heat sources) on our ability to stay cool. Fortunately, these days we use electronic WBGT meters, which meansmean we no longer have to do all the calculations ourselves. There is no maximum safe working temperature, you will have to assess the lowest you can practically get the enclosure down to – and compare to that.

Method and Design

Slow, with frequent breaks. This will mean regular transiting through the decontamination unit (DCU) and an acceptance of low productivity. Regular breaks will also allow the supervisor to monitor the workers’ condition.

The enclosure should be designed to maximise the amount of cool air introduced. Consider the case of a roof void, a common example of what’s now clearly a confined space. These are enormously hot in the summer, so avoid the temptation to block the only access with a roving head! Use the natural leakiness of the roof tiles and eaves, and reverse the air-flow.

Communication and supervision become critical where workers are exposed to immediate risks, including heat. Work plans must ensure excellent communication, and the ability for 100% external supervision. There can be no lone working, and everyone should be on the lookout for symptoms in their mates.

PPE and RPE

You can’t do much about the overalls, but you might consider cool suits and air-fed masks, which may deliver cooler external air directly to the worker.

Emergency Procedures

Review the normal ‘absolute no’ of entering a confined space to affect a rescue. This standard rule is to prevent would-be rescuers becoming another victim, brought down by the same gas, water, free-flowing solid or fire as their colleague.

With heat it’s different: in all but the very hottest environments (where frankly I’d be questioning whether you can control the risks at all), heat exhaustion has a slow build up with warning signs. Clearly there is a critical role outside the enclosure – contacting emergency services and making preparation for first aid – but once that is done, should the supervisor rule out helping the rescue? You will need to assess the risks of this, rather than blindly following the ‘standard’ rules.

You should always ask, “How will I get ‘Big George’ out of this work area?” The plan might involve trolleys or harnesses to help them walk, and if there is a vertical ascent, the infamous tripod.

First Aid

What to do? I can’t stress enough: it’s critical to have qualified first aiders on site. Ideally both within the confined space, and up top. Heat stroke is very serious and can rapidly accelerate through the symptoms to collapse. Whilst the first aid response to heat stress, exhaustion and stroke is similar, – reduce the body temperature, liquids, salts and rest. However, if there’s any suspicion of heat stroke there should be an immediate call to 999.

When the old guidance for asbestos removal at high temperatures was withdrawn all those years ago, there was nothing to replace it. Fortunately that changed in 2014 with this revision to the confined spaces regulations – it’s unfortunate that our industry awareness, and the quality of our training, is yet to catch up.

Whatever the potential hazard – fire, heat, gas, solid or liquid – confined spaces are incredibly dangerous places to work, and we should remember that the projects we design have a direct influence on the life expectancy of our teams. The risks of confined spaces need appropriate and effective controls. Merely copying and pasting them in from the last off-the-peg training course might lead to disaster.

COVID-19 and asbestos removal: can we carry on?

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday March 25th 2020

Updated on 20/04/2020 10:30

Whatever your business, I’m sure you are trying to get your head around the crazy new world that we are living in.

The asbestos removal industry is pretty good at hazard identification, risk assessment and mitigation and all our personal protective equipment (PPE) is of the required grade. The other way to look at the immediate future is that we have a particular skill set, in that we clean up contaminated surfaces whilst keeping our workforce safe. As an industry our core competence may be called upon in the COVID19 national effort.

The Secretary of state for Business, Alok Sharma, supportive letter to all businesses operating in the construction sector was seen as real boost for the entire sector. This encouraged many of the Tier 1 contractors to reopen sites and insist that their subcontractors support them.

This will present significant challenges in the coming weeks as we all try and follow the latest government advice. The Construction Leadership Council have issued Site Operating Procedures. The highlights of the SOP are:

  • Non-essential physical work that requires close contact between workers should not be carried out;
  • Work requiring skin to skin contact should not be carried out;
  • Plan all other work to minimise contact between workers
  • Reusable PPE should be thoroughly cleaned after use and not shared between workers;
  • Single use PPE should be disposed of so that it cannot be reused;
  • Stairs should be used in preference to lifts or hoists;
  • Where lifts or hoists must be used – lower their capacity to reduce congestion and contact at all times;
  • Regularly clean touchpoints, doors, buttons etc;
  • Increase ventilation in enclosed spaces;
  • Regularly clean the inside of vehicle cabs and between use by different operators.

The underlying point of all this is critically we need to observe social distancing. I’m going to reword that for clarity: physical distancing. Because the ‘social’ bit makes us think that it is something we consider after work.

Physical distancing is keeping two metres away from anyone that you don’t live with – that’s likely to mean everyone you work with. The HSE will be all over whether we are succeeding and have a lot of powers to close down sites if they feel it appropriate. 

I’ve been considering how – and whether – we can continue to work safely in the current circumstances, and I wanted to share my thoughts in this post. But there’s a big caveat: I am not an expert virologist. Instead I’m drawing on my experience of hazard identification and mitigation. I believe these are all areas we should be thinking of. If you have anything to add, and especially if I have said something stupid, please shout asap.

Working through the steps to the following are some of the decision / hold points that we need to consider.

Let’s start by looking at the risk hierarchy:

  • Elimination
  • Substitution
  • Engineering Controls (e.g. physical barriers)
  • Administrative controls (e.g. procedures)
  • PPE

If our starting point is that the only ‘safe’ place is in an individual’s own home, it is possibly helpful to think of any asbestos-removal job as though the site is thoroughly contaminated with rat urine or pigeon guano. But where does ‘the job’ start and finish? We have to change how we think. Where does the risk now start? What new areas do we need to think about?

Good reason for the job?

The government guidance remains that with the exception of key industries, we should be attempting to carry on. Here’s a link to the latest guidance on what should and shouldn’t go ahead. Certainly with Work carried out in people’s homes, including repairs and maintenance, can apparently continue, provided they can maintain 2 metre distance from any household occupants AND the household is not isolating or where an individual is being shielded.  Here’s a link to the detailed guidance.

There are some examples of projects that will obviously be needed, where we may be remediating an existing risk, or facilitating oxygen lines in a hospital. The example of an asbestos removal job to facilitate a kitchen installation whilst is less clearcut, is not actually prohibited. 

Remember that the point of physical distancing is that if we cut the number of people those carrying the infection pass it on to, by just 33%, the knock on effect over time is enormous:

Covid-19

A graphic which shows how social distancing can reduce the spread of coronavirus. Credit: Dr Robin Thompson/ University of Oxford, via itv.com

Individual tasks should also be assessed – and where it is not possible to follow the social distancing guidelines in full, consider whether that activity needs to continue for the site to continue to operate, and, if so, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission. I go in to suggestions below.

Should I / they be at work?

You need to give very clear guidance to all workers on who should and shouldn’t come to work – and if they do turn up, when to send them home. Anyone who meets one of the following criteria should not come to work:

  • Has a high temperature or a new persistent cough – follow the guidance on self-isolation
  • Is a vulnerable person (by virtue of their age, underlying health condition, clinical condition or are pregnant)
  • Is living with someone in self-isolation or a vulnerable person

If a worker develops a high temperature or a persistent cough while at work, they should:

  • Return home immediately
  • Avoid touching anything
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue and put it in a bin, or if they do not have tissues, cough and sneeze into the crook of their elbow

I would err on the side of caution.

Getting to / from work

Typically we might have a driver and two passengers in the front of a van. Clearly this is not physical distancing. You will need to start thinking how you can achieve this. Can the workers arrive at site separately via their own transport (remembering that public transport is for critical workers now)? Many operatives don’t drive, so how do you mitigate the risk?. Can you limit the number, for example by carrying only one passenger? Maintain travelling companions (i.e. keep to the same passenger). Face away from each other and open the windows to increase ventilation. Daily disinfecting of the vehicle cabin by the site team, no eating, drinking or smoking (all of which increase the chance of touching the face).

It could mean donning RPE, but half-masks have a limit for how long you should wear them. For longer journeys you’ll need to factor in regular breaks. 

As a back-up it would probably be prudent to do regular full decontamination of the vehicles back in the yard – treat this like an ‘environmental clean’ with full face RPE and dilute bleach (1:60).

Induction and arriving

Again, physical distancing! Keep two metres away from anyone that you don’t live with – i.e. everyone you work with.

Setting up the Job

Again, is it possible to do the work and obey physical distancing? The nature of the property may help or hinder this (very small flats vs larger areas). Again consider the risk hierarchy. Just as with a site posing a psittacosis risk, we would ordinarily disinfect surfaces before we start, increase ventilation, introduce strict eating, drinking and smoking procedures, and require PPE (gloves, RPE and overalls). We’d also increase our washing frequency.

Hygiene

The normal challenge on sites is welfare, and that’s even more the case now. Again, if we are imagining that the area is thoroughly contaminated with rat urine or pigeon guano, we would obviously wash our hands before any break. We need to be thinking along those lines – but even more so. Workers should wash their hands on arrival at the site and then regularly after that. How can our guys frequently wash their hands for the required 20 seconds? They can use hand sanitiser if you have it, but this must contain more than 60% alcohol. Possibly better is a killer spray, with one person spraying whilst the second washes their hands.

 Home-brew Sanitiser Recipe

  • 75ml of isopropyl or rubbing alcohol (99 percent) – can be found online still
  • 25ml of aloe vera gel (to help keep your hands smooth and to counteract the harshness of alcohol) – can be found online still
  • 10 drops of essential oil, such as lavender oil, or you can use lemon juice instead.

I understand that this will come out much stronger smelling and thinner than you would expect. The ingredients are expensive online – but as you apparently only need a few drops, it should last. Remember that the advice is to ‘wash’ hands for at least 20 seconds, ensuring that every nook is thoroughly rubbed clean.

Welfare – Breakfast and Break times

I received a photo from a truck driver at one of the UK largest construction sites on the first day of the lockdown. It shows an enclosed canteen crammed with people just inches from each other – clearly madness.

The standard operating procedures published by Build UK – so hopefully this is a thing of the past.

It shouldn’t need saying, but DO NOT USE CANTEENS. Everyone should wash their hands before all breaks. There should be no crowding into the toilets – give everyone plenty of space and extra time if needed. Individuals should bring their lunch and drinking water from home – remembering that those working in a warm enclosure will need to drink plenty. There should be no eating together as a team. Stay at least two metres apart!

Asbestos Removal

Clearly, we are very well protected in the enclosure, although possibly less so on semi-controlled jobs. It may be worth considering full-face powered RPE for all works as that also prevents people from touching their face. Similarly, full transit procedures for all works may be a good idea. You will also need to consider staggered use of the DCU – allow the first operative to exit, before the next one starts to transit.

Plant and Equipment

Thorough external cleaning – again using the dilute bleach solution (1:60). This should be done at the end of the project and before issuing it to site.

Back Office

It’s much easier at the office, but still a challenge – again, the primary focus is physical distancing, so how do you achieve this?

  • Everyone who can work from home should – this may require additional computers and consideration of home broadband services.
  • Manage site operations remotely – can you reduce the number of site visits?  Assure360 Paperless will allow you to review the progress of the job and ensure that all of the paperwork is being completed from the kitchen table.
  • Virtual meetings and conference calls – for the past year we have used Zoom as a virtual meeting platform. Other services such as paperless solutions will help you manage remotely.
  • Rota system to set times for team members to attend the office to carry out work they absolutely can’t do from home. Perhaps one day each, to keep them separate. Alternatively, modular working. It may be that you have an office set up that allows workers to work in their own office and not mingle.
  • Delivery of stores and equipment – deliver to site to prevent unnecessary visits to the office. Consider setting up an external quarantine area for deliveries, and wipe down before it comes into the stores area.
  • Hand sanitiser stations at entrance and throughout the office.
  • Bring your own food, and create a rota for the kitchen.
  • Limit who comes into the office further. Pause exterior contractors (cleaners, window cleaners etc) to reduce the vectors into the office.

It may be possible to have an unmanned reception for visitors and deliveries, showing a number people can call (on their own phone) to let you know they’ve arrived. This ‘high risk area’ could be disinfected after every ‘exposure’.

It needs to be remembered that the virus can, apparently, survive on some surfaces for several days. Staff should be encouraged to wipe down surfaces with dilute bleach or a soap solution, and frequently wash their hands.

However (and it’s a biggie), the advice is still uncertain. I started by saying that the government advice is that construction can go ahead, but the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has said: “My view is no construction work unless it is for a safety reason.”

If, after all of this, you decide not to keep operating and you have spare stocks of PPE – our medics are in desperate need.

Further reading:

Build UK Site Operating Procedures – Protecting Your Workforce

HSE: Coronavirus (COVID-19): latest information and advice

Thanks to all those that helped with this note.

Good luck, stay in touch and we’ll get through this together.

Talking Asbestos – Nick appears on the Asbestos Knowledge Empire podcast

Written by Nick Garland on Tuesday March 10th 2020

We’ve long been admirers of the Asbestos Knowledge Empire – a series of podcasts run by Acorn Analytical Services’ Neil Munro and Ian Stone. Speaking to a cross section of health and safety and asbestos experts, the series is helping play an important role in spreading awareness and fostering asbestos expertise. So when Acorn asked if I’d like to participate I jumped at the chance.

In a wide-ranging hour-long chat, we covered subjects as diverse as how I got my start in the industry, the one-time ubiquity of asbestos, and the importance of analysts and removal contractors ‘wearing lots of hats’. We also talked in depth about the Health and Safety Executive’s new licensing regime, the problems it’s solved and the new challenges it’s created.

If you’re interested in what I had to say, or if you’d just like to hear from the industry’s other leading lights, head over to Asbestos Knowledge Empire. There you’ll be able to listen to the latest episode, and find links to follow the series on popular platforms including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed taking part!

Better Asbestos Removal – what to do when perfect isn’t possible

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday February 12th 2020

The Health and Safety at Work Act underpins everything we do in the asbestos sector, yet within it – and in copious Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance – you’ll find unnerving  phrases like ‘so far as reasonably practicable’. These create room for interpretation, with the result that people can be unclear how far they should go when removing asbestos. Even the way that some of the direction is framed can lead us into tricky territory: I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been told ‘it’s only guidance’.

So after a recent thread on the HSE’s forum, I thought it would be worthwhile analysing how the regulations are structured, and what we should be doing when designing a job. Particularly, if ‘perfect’ isn’t possible, what do we prioritise?

Chasing perfection

First let’s look at the ideal conditions for asbestos removal. We have an enclosure that is small, but big enough to allow efficient and safe removal of the asbestos. The air in and out is sufficient and balanced. The enclosure is perfectly sealed, and it’s designed in such a way that there’s no working from height. The combination of method, suppression and local exhaust ventilation (LEV) ‘eliminates’ all fibre release at source.

Obviously it’s a rare job indeed where we can get all of our controls by-the-book, so often there’s a need to find compromise. First up, I should stress that compromise should only come with need – you can’t just miss out controls. Where there are good practical or safety reasons why a control isn’t possible, you need to design others to mitigate. 

To track back and answer that common response when people depart from the direction, it is not ‘guidance’; it is ‘Guidance’. Project design should be in line with the ‘Guidance’, or be equivalent to or better than it.

The Health and Safety at Work Act is not a tick box set of regulations. It’s written with an understanding that no two jobs are identical, and is specifically designed to harness our imagination as professionals in ensuring safe working practice in all circumstances. To that end we need to really understand the hazards, the resultant risks, and the controls we implement to eliminate or minimise them.

A clear view of the risks

We, as asbestos professionals, are also guilty of being rather blinkered. We’ve got our specialist subject, so asbestos risk is all too often the first and last thing we think about. But take a step back and reappraise our typical work environment: while asbestos is complex, many other risks such as height or electricity pose a more immediate threat. In other words, we have to think of the whole project.

The particular example raised in the HSE forum was a small-to-medium metal frame shed with an asbestos insulating board (AIB) ceiling, and asbestos cement roof. Roof, frame and AIB were pinned together with J-bolts, and the building was in close proximity to neighbours.

  • The AIB couldn’t be removed in isolation without a lot of breakage
  • Cropping the bolts would uncouple the roof
  • Crosswinds made external sheeting prone to catastrophic damage

The conundrum posed was whether you would build a full enclosure – with the high cost and the risk from crosswinds – or crop the bolts and remove the cement and AIB at the same time with no enclosure, but with perimeter air monitoring. Because of the breakage, removal of the AIB alone was discounted as an option.

Consider the first option. A full scaffold enclosure would create a rather large working at height issue. Just constructing the canopy has a risk, but then sheeting internal ranch-boards would involve working above a fragile roof. This risk is difficult to control and can have an immediately fatal consequence. And if the winds get up, it could all be for nought.

My argument is that the overall risk is lower if we build the enclosure internally, and control the increased asbestos risk that we create. Controls in this case should include strongly over-specifying the negative pressure ventilation (or over-neg if you’re in the industry) . The considerable breakage of AIBs needs to be mitigated with surfactant, shadow vacuuming and increased respiratory protective equipment (RPE) provision, for example air-fed RAS masks. As Paul Beaumont pointed out, there would be the potential of AIB fibre / fragments to become trapped within the corrugated sheeting, too.

The four-stage safety clearance certificate would identify this likely residual risk, mandating further  controls when removing the cement sheets. As this is now a small asbestos risk, we may be able to approach the remaining stages of the project with a roofless enclosure, bringing the cement sheets down into the building.

Balancing the risks

This example distills a common problem, where we are faced with a choice between one or more risks that are potentially controllable, or another that is very difficult to control. I would go with the former – and this extends into all other areas of asbestos removal where we are too used to controlling the asbestos risk at the expense of ignoring or exacerbating others.

There are other examples. A classic is working in a loft in the summer. The new confined space guidance makes it clear that the heat makes this a confined space, yet often what I see when auditing is a cube at the bottom of the loft access, a three-stage air lock, and a negative-pressure unit (NPU) with roving head passed up through the single access point. This gives excellent control of the small AIB debris risk, but massively increases the risk of death from heatstroke.

What to do instead? You won’t find it in the books, so again it’s down to our professional creativity. Why not dispense with the roving head, harness the natural leakage of the tiled roof and over-neg the enclosure? Even in winter, this might be a good idea as the common setup would hinder an emergency evacuation, for example if there’s a fire in the building.

My argument is that the asbestos risk is complex and difficult to control, but we can’t let it blind us to the rest of the job. It must be properly balanced against the other risks of the working environment: addressing one risk in isolation may leave the site team in danger, or raise their overall risk. Training and refreshers for managers should therefore cover all construction hazards and how to control them. It’s important to remember this at the time of auditing or assessing performance: peer reviews must look at all hazards, rather than just how well the manager has dealt with the asbestos.

Indeed, if asbestos is the only hazard that a contracts manager understands, are they truly ‘competent’? I’m sure that being ignorant of other construction hazards would not be seen as a defence.

As professionals we are responsible for looking at the whole project, and balancing the hazards and risks against each other. Our controls should then be crafted to mitigate all of them. Some controls may elevate the risk from other hazards, which then have to be looked at again. Designing safe working environments and procedures requires the application of knowledge, experience, and imagination. As no two jobs are the same, the latter is not only crucial – but demanded by the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Reviewing 2019 – a year of change in asbestos management

Written by Nick Garland on Tuesday December 10th 2019

2019 marked the 20th anniversary of the UK’s total ban on asbestos, and – perhaps – the first tentative signs that asbestos deaths have peaked. Much to celebrate, then, but the year also saw upheaval in asbestos management, with the HSE’s long-overdue overhaul of the licensing regime becoming a talking point for the wrong reasons. Here’s our review of the year.

Back on 24 November 1999, the UK’s ban on importing and using asbestos finally came into effect. This year marked the ban’s twentieth anniversary, but sadly our use of asbestos is far from a historic problem. For a start, it’s endemic throughout our built environment, so in February we asked various industry experts: Is an asbestos-free world possible?

As we discovered, the reality is that there is neither the capability nor the budget to remove asbestos from the entire built environment, but is there a case for selectively removing it? In particular, more than 85% of the UK’s schools contain asbestos. In April we asked whether in this unique environment the current ‘manage in situ’ approach was good enough – read our asbestos in schools article here.

Licensed to ill

Within the asbestos-removal industry, the ban’s anniversary was undoubtedly overshadowed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s plans to overhaul the licensing system. This permissioning regime controls who can perform most asbestos-removal work, and there’s no question that it needed an update – back in 2016 I was one of many calling for a move to a single, three-year licence term, backed up by formal reviews.

In March the HSE made a bold move, introducing a three-year only licensing system in which the onus is placed more fully on the would-be licensed asbestos-removal contractor (LARC) to prove their competence. Instead of inspections, there’s a detailed online form comprising 14 sections – you can read my analysis of it here.

While there were positive elements to the new system, it quickly became clear that LARCs had little guidance on how to complete the form, resulting in huge time overheads as they dug around for information that could be relevant. For the HSE, the form’s open-ended nature meant that no two applications were alike, and LARCs quickly reported a processing backlog in which renewals were taking many weeks to complete.

From the start, I’m proud to say that Assure360 could help LARCs retrieve the proof they needed to demonstrate their competence. We moved quickly to develop a custom module, specifically designed to provide the exact information the HSE needed for each section of the form – at the touch of a button. We’ve now helped multiple clients through renewal under the new regime, and as it begins to mature and improve we’re working with the HSE to further develop our support.

Celebrating Paperless

2019 was the first full year for the Assure360 Paperless app, and it’s a pleasure to hear from clients how it continues to help them work more efficiently on site, and eliminate paperwork back at the office. Below we’ve highlighted just some of this feedback below – for each you can click the link to read the full case study.

  • “It’s saving me hours and hours and hours of going through paperwork.” – Jonathon Teague, project support manager, Armac Group
  • “Instead of going backwards and forwards to my site folder I can now just do it all on the app. Paperwork is all done unbelievably quickly and I can go out and help with the sheeting up.” – Gary Meads, senior supervisor, Sperion
  • “When it comes to the licence assessment, Assure quickly enables you to extract the information which will help prove that you are complying with the HSE’s licencing criteria.” – Clinton Moore, director, Sperion
  • “Paperless has helped us build smooth processes around our critical site checks and record keeping, and the app will be a fundamental part of helping us maintain quality and efficiency as we scale up.” – Tony Loughran, managing director, Amianto Services

Already, some 15% of all LARCs use Paperless, and more than one in ten licence applications to the HSE are submitted using the Assure360 system, but we’re not sitting still. Unique to Paperless, we’ve introduced a new Personal Monitoring feature that helps LARCs develop real strategies for personal monitoring that reflect operatives’ true exposure levels. Aside from ensuring that monitoring is effective, it ensures that monitoring programmes adapt to reflect what’s actually happening on site, helping minimise and manage exposure risks.

 

And what of 2020? There’s already a packed event schedule for the year ahead – you can see many of the key dates in our frequently updated events calendar. We’ll be rolling out further improvements to Assure360 and, I’m delighted to announce, introducing Android versions of all three Assure360 apps: Audit, Paperless and Incident. There’s much to look forward to, but for now let me wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy and safe new year.

Taking licence – how the HSE is shaking up asbestos removal

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday June 13th 2019

For some years, there’s been a question mark hanging over the Health and Safety Executive’s licensing regime for asbestos removal. With variable licence periods creating confusion among clients and an unintended hierarchy being created within the industry, attempts to overhaul the system are to be welcomed by everyone.

For those who don’t know, the existing system is a permissioning regime. Would-be licenced asbestos-removal contractors (LARCs) and those who want to renew must demonstrate to the HSE that they have the necessary skills, competency, expertise, knowledge and experience of work with asbestos, together with excellent health and safety management systems. The outcome is either no licence, a three-year licence, or any period between. Additional conditions are sometimes attached.

It sounds simple enough, but there are multiple problems. While nobody is meant to infer anything about competency from a company’s licence term, in practice customers choosing a LARC often treat the full three-year licence as a prerequisite. In addition, LARCs can’t notify a project that extends beyond their licence period – that means that bidding for complex, two-year-plus jobs is effectively restricted to the 35% or so of LARCs with a three-year licence.

Against this, in recent years the HSE has been less inclined to give out three-year licences. Among other things, that’s resulted in an increased workload for inspectors as they conduct more regular licence inspections. There’s a burden for LARCs, too, as there’s a considerable cost and administrative overhead to each licence application.

Time for a change

It’s no surprise that the HSE wants to shake things up. It’s already started to pilot a new regime that shifts the onus away from licence inspections, and more onto LARCs to provide evidence of their competency. In the new system, first-time applicants still get inspected, whereas existing LARCs re-apply via an electronic form.

A couple of years ago I called for an end to the fixed-term licence, and the introduction of monitoring visits. Essentially if you’re good enough, you get a licence. If not – you don’t. it’s recently emerged that in the pilot scheme the HSE are moving towards just that. As ACAD’s Graham Warren explains in a LinkedIn blog post:

“Some eagle-eyed people have been asking ACAD why all renewals [under the electronic pilot scheme] seem to be issued the full three-year term. HSE have confirmed this is not some chance occurrence, but actually how the new system works.”

At renewal, companies either won’t get a licence, or they’ll be licenced for the now-standard three-years. This doesn’t necessarily mean that LARCs that would previously have received a one or two-year licence will be turned down. In all cases where a company is judged competent, the HSE will issue a three-year licence, but it may require a formal review to ensure any improvements are fully implemented. Crucially, this review period will remain confidential, unless the LARC fails to make the required improvements, so it won’t affect the LARC’s ability to compete for contracts.

Improvements, and consequences

The change is virtually what I called for, and it’s a vast improvement. By settling on a single, three-year period, the HSE will reduce the confusion among clients who see one and two year licences as less of a vote of confidence. Moving the major work of re-licencing onto a three-year cycle will reduce the burden for LARCs, allowing them to concentrate on making the improvements the HSE wants to see at the review meeting.

For the HSE, it means less licence inspection work, and a relief from the commercial pressures to grant three-year licences to the biggest contractors, who may previously have needed them to bid for the most complex works. A more centralised approach by the HSE (all applications are reviewed by a single team) will mean much more consistency, too.

As Graham points out in his post, there may be some interesting consequences. With clients no longer able to select LARCs by licence duration, they’re likely to look for other ways to determine which companies are working to deliver the highest standards. Being able to demonstrate fastidious record keeping, management and analysis – for example through membership of a trade body such as ACAD – will become more of a competitive edge.

Assure360 can really help here, too. Our data-based system makes it easier not only for LARCs to manage asbestos removal, but for them to demonstrate the high quality of their training, competency, and analysis of key safety factors such as exposure monitoring.

In fact the new regime fits seamlessly with the Assure360 ethos. Being a health and safety system, specifically designed by asbestos industry experts for the asbestos industry, Assure360 has always allowed you to showcase your expertise. Vast quantities of evidence are now required in advance of the licence assessment, and Assure360 customers can simply provide it by running a series of reports. The database presents all the proof that the HSE could ever ask for. And with the new Paperless solution, even site files can be viewed with real date and time stamps on the certification.

We’ve got a great track record of helping clients prepare for, and excel at licence renewal: under the existing scheme our customers have consistently proven far more likely to achieve three-year licences. Under the new regime Assure360 will streamline the process even further, as our reports are mapped against the questions the HSE are asking.

So if you’re applying for a first-time licence, or preparing to renew an existing one, why not get in touch and see how we can help?

Assure360 will be at the Contamination Expo on the 11th and 12th of September – stand J7, directly opposite ACAD. So if you’re looking for guidance and insight into the new process, pitfalls to avoid and strategies to help – there couldn’t be a better first port of call.

I will also be speaking on the first day – 12:30 – 13:00 at Theatre 21 The subject – you guessed it is the only one that matters right now, the New Asbestos Licencing system and how electronic solutions can help.

HSE asbestos licensing: is the system broken?

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday May 29th 2019

We’re not alone in having wondered whether the HSE’s asbestos licensing system was entirely fit for purpose. With three possible licence durations and multiple conditions that can be attached, clients often use a LARC’s licence as a shortcut to judging competence. Re-inspection as frequently as every year creates lots of work, both for the LARC and the HSE, and doesn’t necessarily result in raised standards.

A couple of years ago, founder Nick Garland called on the HSE to settle on a standard three-year licence, backed up with formal reviews. It’s recently emerged that’s exactly what’s happening in the HSE’s electronic licensing pilot – in this article, Nick explains some of the benefits and consequences.

Note: The post below was originally published by Nick Garland on LinkedIn in 2016. You can click here to read the original post

The licence terms awarded to asbestos contractors have reduced year on year. I examine the latest data and offer an opinion on a better way forward.

Asbestos licensing is a permissioning regime

A phrase every LARC will be familiar with, as it seems to be in all letters written by the HSE. One of the principle purposes of such a regime is to:

“…maintaining and improving standards of health and safety”

The Health and Safety Commission permissioning regime policy statement

Are we getting worse?

Maintain and improve standards of H&S, presumably by weeding out the incompetent and promoting best practice. But why then are average licence terms shorter now than they were? I have been in the asbestos industry since the early 1990s, and I’ve definitely noticed the change. Can we infer that the HSE’s opinion is that the industry is less safe and less competent than it was?

Licence assessments can be a very unpredictable time. All of the companies that I work with have heard of, or experienced extremely intense assessment interviews, but at the same time hear of laissez faire ones with very little detailed examination. Requests (demands) from the ALPIs is often insightful but can also be bizarrely arbitrary, with little practical application. One licence assessment ended up insisting that filing cabinets be used (rather than the perfectly acceptable system the LARC already had) – resulting in the conversion of the one and only meeting room into an archive room.

We all know anecdotally that it has become harder and harder to get the ‘full’ three-year licence from the HSE, but the latest figures are quite stark.

Assure360

ALG figures, supplied by ACAD.

Assure360

ALG figures, supplied by ACAD.

Excluding new licences (always one year) there has been an alarming drop of 23% in three-year licences issued in that period.

Assure360

ALG figures, supplied by ACAD.

In my experience the industry, whilst there are some bad eggs, is getting much better. When I think back to the beginning of my career, where it seemed everyone had a three-year licence – the differences are remarkable. Now projects consider the wider job and recognise non-asbestos hazards. In fact, it seems a different industry with most of the stories of astonishing individual poor practice in the past.

So, if we are not getting any worse and the principle aim of a permissioning regime is to drive standards, why are the licence terms going down?

Could it simply be that there are less licensed contractors out there and the HSE want to exert more control. A tighter leash if you like? Certainly, the tone of some licence assessments and HSE visits indicate this.

Commercially driven or commercial driver?

The HSE tell the wider construction industry (and clients) that they shouldn’t use the licence term as a tool for selection. If the company has been given a licence (any licence) that indicates that they (the HSE) are satisfied and this should be good enough. The clients however (quite reasonably) take the view that well if you are concerned enough that you won’t give them a 3-year licence, then we are concerned too.

A licence holder can’t notify a project that extends beyond the licence expiry date.

We add then that the HSE publish the expiry date of licences – so if you track these things, you can plot a company’s standing. A client also instantly sees which companies can notify the project that they are considering. This might not seem a big concern, but very complex major works, might require 2+ years to complete – knocking out 65% of contractors.

With this in mind – are the HSE less inclined to reduce the term for a huge company? Do they back away when a downward tweak might stop a multi-million £ job in a power station? Certainly ‘the word’ is that they do.

The licence term is certainly a commercial driver.

How we could do better

In my opinion the HSE should remove the fixed term licence. The HSE should assess a company and give, or withhold a licence based on the interview and past performance during site visits. These licences should not expire (I hear howls of outrage).

What should replace it is a tailored review schedule for that specific contractor. Essentially, ‘Yes we are content for you to work with asbestos, but we want to see you again in 6 months, or 12 months or 3 years, just to make sure things stay on track’. A structured plan could therefore be put in place on what improvements must be implemented before the next monitoring visit.

The monitoring schedule would not be published and would not appear on the licence itself. This therefore could not be used for contractor selection. The pressure would be released from the HSE to grant 3 year licences for commercial reasons. There would be no issue of notifying jobs beyond the end of the licence expiry date – as there won’t be one. The HSE can concentrate on maintain and improving standards and do so in a much more structured way.

As I say this is an opinion piece, and I would welcome everyone’s thoughts and feedback.

I have been in the asbestos industry since the early 1990s, helping licensed asbestos removal contractors stay at the forefront of the industry.

Asbestos in schools: in a unique environment, why ‘manage in situ’ simply isn’t good enough

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday April 10th 2019

Schools are unique. In law, a school is a workplace, but the majority of people using them are children – sometimes as young as three. Despite the known vulnerability of children to pollutants, contaminants and other environmental hazards, when it comes to asbestos, schools are treated as just another workplace: they’re subject to workplace asbestos fibre limits, regulations and management approaches. And that’s a problem – both for our children, and the professionals who teach them.

Figures gathered by the National Union of Teachers’ Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) reveal that, since 1980, at least 363 of British school teaching professionals have died of mesothelioma, the cancer almost exclusively linked to asbestos exposure. An average of 19 school teaching professionals now die each year from mesothelioma – up from three per year in 1980.

Teacher Mesothelioma Deaths

There are no equivalent figures for children, but we do know that each year around 2,500 people die in the UK from mesothelioma. Giving evidence to the Education Select Committee in March 2013, Professor Julian Peto – a leading expert in occupational carcinogens – estimated that around 200-300 of these deaths are the result of childhood exposure to asbestos in school.

The shocking figures are compounded by the fact that the onset of mesothelioma typically comes decades after the asbestos exposure which caused it. While the incidence of the disease in the general population is finally thought to be nearing a plateau – 20 years after the UK banned all asbestos imports and use – there’s no clear indication that the same applies to school-related cases.

The authorities can’t claim to be unaware of this risk. Back in 2011 the Asbestos in Schools Group – a multi-agency organisation chaired by MP Rachel Reeves  – was damning, its report concluding:

Forty five years ago the Department for Education [was] warned about the increased vulnerability to children from asbestos, but for financial, commercial and political reasons the warnings were not heeded. Instead asbestos materials continued to be used in science and other lessons, and schools continued to be built using large amounts of asbestos.

Unfortunately it’s not just a historic problem. Scan the news for asbestos headlines, and on any given day you’re likely to find at least one story about asbestos being discovered, disturbed or removed at a UK school. Indeed, according to MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, 85% of schools contain asbestos, and the risks become greater as those buildings age.

What’s being done?

At present, the answer is not enough. Parliament says that the government doesn’t have enough information to address the problem, and it may have a point. The Department for Education’s first school property survey did not assess asbestos, and in 2016, when a second survey aimed to collect data on the issue, only a quarter of schools responded. When a third survey closed in 2018, 77% of schools had responded. Given the importance of the information, the survey was reopened and all remaining schools were urged to respond – the final results are due soon.

There’s no doubt the government needs more information, but there is a question over whether the survey will provide it. The safe management of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) is a school’s legal duty, and the fact that they are hardly being forthcoming with high-level information about the presence and management of ACMs is concerning. Some multi-academy trusts (MATs) couldn’t even gather information about their private finance initiative (PFI) schools, which shows a worrying lack of accountability.

The detail of what is known isn’t especially reassuring, either. Of the 77% of schools which responded within the original deadline of the most recent survey, 68% were found to be “assured by the appropriate responsible body”. It’s a singularly woolly phrase, which means nothing to asbestos professionals.

According to the JUAC, “These latest findings show that many schools are unaware of the risk or the extent of asbestos in our schools.” With the poor response to the government’s latest survey, can we be confident that this has got any better?

But while the survey leaves us in the dark, we do know that most schools contain some form of asbestos. The UK outlawed the majority of the most hazardous asbestos types in the 1980s, but the final banning of all asbestos – including asbestos cement, floor tiles, artex and so on – only came in 1999. Any school built before 2000 could – and probably does – contain asbestos.

Sophie Ward sums up the fundamental issue: “The problem is that in many cases the asbestos is decades old and in a deteriorating condition, and when asbestos is in a poor condition, it’s more likely to release asbestos fibres.”

Children’s comparative vulnerability compounds the problem. Ward adds: “If a child is exposed at the age of five, they have five times greater risk [of developing mesothelioma] than an adult exposed at the age of 30.”

Where does that leave schools?

Against this background, it’s instructive to look at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advice to schools regarding asbestos, as follows:

The duty-holder’s responsibilities include:

  • keeping an up-to-date record of the location and condition of ACMs in the school
  • assessing the risks from any ACMs in the school
  • making plans to manage the risks from ACMs in the school
  • putting those plans into action

Those most at risk of disturbing ACMs are tradespeople, caretakers, etc. The school’s plan needs to contain provisions to ensure that information about the location and condition of ACMs is given to anyone who might disturb these materials. The duty-holder should also ensure that staff likely to disturb asbestos are suitably trained.

As the Asbestos in Schools group pointed out back in 2011, aside from the addition of caretakers this is essentially the same advice that applies to any other employer. As with other premises, ACMs assessed as low-risk are managed in situ.

In an ordinary workplace, that can work very well. Surveyed, recorded and managed properly, ACMs should pose no risk – provided the management plan ensures that they remain undisturbed. Proper management starts with a management team that has the training and experience to properly understand the risk, and design and implement appropriate controls. Even in typical workplaces, that’s a big task.

A key component is identifying the people who might come into contact with any risk, and ensuring they know what that risk is. Anyone who might disturb the asbestos must have asbestos awareness training. In a normal workplace this would be the workforce, with tight controls for visitors and contractors. However, where the ACMs are in a classroom or a school corridor, the risk extends to children. The current rules require that this ‘workforce’ is trained – but clearly it’s hard to train away the risks of play, over-excitement, or a casually swung schoolbag.

Schools are essentially small businesses: employers, with all the duties of employment. Head teachers already have daunting responsibilities: is it reasonable to also expect them to manage asbestos for vulnerable building users? And yet, since The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, that’s become their duty. We have to wonder if heads are aware of this sea change in responsibility: have they been trained to take on the role, and are they properly resourced to fulfil it?

Again, the Asbestos in Schools group has been damning:

There has been a lack of asbestos awareness and a lack of resources so that schools have failed to adequately manage their asbestos. Numerous asbestos incidents have occurred and the exposure of the occupants has been widespread. The Medical Research Council concluded that it is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings. Teachers, support staff and children have subsequently died.

If our schools’ managers aren’t competent to manage asbestos, and the majority of our school population can’t be considered competent around it, and the government doesn’t know the scale of the problem anyway, managed removal would seem to be the only justifiable approach. Concerning a high proportion of the UK’s 32,000 schools it would be a big, expensive, time-consuming job, but our continued failure to act poses unacceptable risks to the most vulnerable in our society, and the professionals who teach and care for them.

Confined spaces: when does the HSE guidance apply?

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday April 10th 2019

It is – or it should be – easy to identify when you’re working at height, but when does a work area constitute a confined space? You might think it’s equally obvious, but the seemingly subtle change in the regulations that occurred in 2014 has made some dramatic changes in what is and what isn’t a Confined Space.

For a workspace to be considered confined, there must be restricted access AND risk of one of five proscribed hazards:

  • Serious injury from fire or explosion
  • Loss of consciousness arising from increased body temperature (e.g. due to hot pipes or strong sunlight)
  • Loss of consciousness or asphyxiation arising from gas, fume, vapour or lack of oxygen (e.g. stale air within subterranean ducts)
  • Drowning from an increase in the level of liquid
  • Asphyxiation from a free-flowing solid

A basement boiler house, for example, is largely enclosed and might have restricted access, but if the heat is turned off, it’s unlikely to be a confined space for the purposes of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance.

When the HSE updated its confined spaces ACoP (approved code of practice) in 2014, it specifically added asbestos-removal enclosures to the list of ‘largely enclosed’ areas which could be considered Confined under the guidance. Since then, all enclosures should have communication and escape procedures specific to that situation. Standard enclosures can be covered by standard procedures, but as soon as you add in a loft ladder it needs to be bespoke.

Because the first (enclosed) trigger is automatic for all enclosures, the risk of stale air, hot conditions, or fire will qualify many more asbestos projects. If the hazards can’t be avoided – for example by isolating heat sources or using different equipment – the confined space code of practice needs to be followed. That does not mean escape kits and tripods on all sites – but it does mean you need to specifically address the identified hazard, eliminate or mitigate it and factor it into your emergency procedures.

Some unusual work areas will now count as Confined, whereas others that were considered to qualify do not. An open air enclosure, in the height of summer – will be Confined because of the risk of heat exhaustion. A subterranean duct might not be!

FAAM brings us the latest developments in the asbestos world and inspiring Mavis Nye

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday November 29th 2018

The inaugural FAAM (Faculty of Asbestos Assessment and Management) conference on 8 – 9 November lived up to expectation. Not just a one day seminar, this was a rigorous academic conference with internationally recognised speakers.

The asbestos conference opened with the inspiring Mavis Nye, the first mesothelioma patient to enter remission and the founder of the Mavis Nye Foundation. Her and her husband Ray, and others just like them, are the reason we do what we do and they certainly keep me going.

The keynote speaker on Friday, Dr John Moore-Gillon, shared the other side of that same story, the diseases and their treatment. He talked about his 42 years as a doctor: the first 37 years saw incremental change in treatment but the last five have seen extraordinary progress. ‘Today, there is no point in writing a textbook on cancer treatment’, he said. ‘It will be out of date before it gets to the publisher’. This was one of the stand out moments for me at conference.

Real risk assessments based on data

We were all plunged early into a fascinating talk on how to understand raw data and translate it to actual risk. As professionals, we may believe that we can do that already – but the reality is typically that we go from the readings to an assessment via opinion and experience. Some of us may go back to WHO figures – but there is a great deal of ‘us’ in the end result. Andrey Korchevskiy and Andrew Darnton brought us back to published research. They presented a simplified method of using this data to produce lifetime risk answers and the probable extra cancer cases that would result from that exposure.

Asbestos in our homes and  everyday life

Next came three related presentations:

  • Sean Fitzgerald, a respected analytical geologist from the US, – Global Issues, Asbestos in the USA
  • David de Vreede (Center of Expertise for Asbestos & Fibers in Holland) – Asbestos found in cosmetics
  • Yvonne Waterman and Jasper Kosters (European Asbestos Forum) – Asbestos imports into Europe

All three had enormous detail and on the surface were very different, but they had a common thread running through them.

Talc.

The scandal in the US has, ridiculously when we think about it, seemed so far away, almost not real. But running through all of these talks was the fact that the mineral talc is formed by exactly the same geological conditions as asbestos is. This means that most, if not all talc mines, also contain asbestos to a greater or lesser degree. The risk is recognised to an extent by the mines and quality control put in place to eliminate the contaminant. However, the techniques used are woefully inadequate resulting in an erroneous clean bill of health.

If we look as Sean Fitzgerald does with transmission electron microscopy (TEM), or scanning electron microscopy (SEM) the story is very, very different. He illustrated that with a modified preparation technique, the very fine fibres that are invisible to the standard technique are revealed.

All three talks discussed the global nature of the talc mining industry and consequently how much of the talcum powder in the world is contaminated with asbestos.

David De Vreede talked about his campaign to highlight the dangers of asbestos in talc. He was instrumental in alerting the EU to asbestos found in some of Claire’s products. The EU subsequently sent out a recall of those products back in April.

Yvonne Waterman and Jasper Kosters continued the theme of the inadequacy of standards and testing of talc used in Europe.

I guarantee everyone there was thinking about the cosmetics in their hotel room and back home.

Is asbestos ever not asbestos?

John Addison (the John Addison) came next with his talk on amphiboles. This left me with more questions than answers – as a 30 minute talk on such a broad subject will inevitably do. Rather than there only being five amphibole species – there are in fact over 100 – and these are just the ones catalogued by Mindat.com. All of these can cleave, causing elongated fibres in the respirable range. But does this make them asbestos?

Asbestos or ‘asbestiform’ is a term we use to describe the capacity to produce hazardous fibres. The definition is as follows:

  • a range of aspect ratios ranging from 20:1 to 100:1 (or higher); 
  • capability of splitting into very thin fibrils;
  • two or more of the following:
    • parallel fibres occurring in bundles;
    • fibre bundles displaying frayed ends;
    • fibres in the form of thin needles;
    • matted masses of individual fibres; and/or
    • fibres showing curvature.’

Then comes birefringence. Summarised brutally – when we pass light through a mineral suspended in special fluids, we see different colours depending on the direction that light passes through it. When specific colours are observed this is the final evidence we need for identification. Here would be a ‘positive result’ for chrysotile (Taken from HSG248).

John argues that the key test that is not always performed in the lab is durability – can the fibres be bent without breaking them – or does it splinter like bamboo? If it can’t, then even if the birefringence indicates ‘asbestos’ then John would argue that it isn’t.

However regular analytical laboratories would not have the skills, never mind the accreditation, to positively identify these rare species.

He also added that most of the soil in the midwestern states of the US contain amphibole minerals (from the last ice age). John posed the question – if they all qualified as asbestos,- where are the bodies?’

I’m not sure where that leaves us, but I am certainly going to look further.

Why PCL is still a critical tool in the asbestos analyst’s box

The morning of the second day ran through analytical techniques – Phase Contrast Light Microscopy (PLM), Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and it’s big brother Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM). In talk after talk we had been told how inferior PLM was to either of the two electron methods. But, the speed of the test and the relative cheapness means that many more instant tests can be made.

Building on this, Jean Prentice reminded us all of why PLM was selected in the first place and where it sits in the analyst’s toolbox. I started my career in the early 90s. My mentor at the time still referred to visual inspections as being relatively new, before that the analyst only had an air test to pass or fail some work. Unsurprisingly, as all enclosures were dripping wet, many filthy enclosures (in the absence of a visual) would pass first time. The HSE’s position is that the most important part of the Four Stage Clearance (4SC) is the visual. Get that 100% right and the air test will probably be OK. A key feature of the airtest is therefore the speed of response. Within an hour or two of starting a PLM test, the analyst knows whether there is a problem or not. Being secondary, it is merely a final indicator on whether something has been missed in the cleaning process.

What is the purpose of the 4SC? Jean reminded us that it is in reality a quality control check on the LARCs cleaning. It is not intended as an absolute measure of how much asbestos has been left in the area – there should be none. She asked the question – would increasing the sensitivity of the air test improve standards? Would lavishing more time and money by moving to SEM analysis help? Or would this distract us from the more important stage – the visual? Something I had lost track of and represented a moment of clarity for me.

An inspiring closing keynote from Moore-Gillon

Dr John Moore-Gillon, the keynote speaker, who closed this asbestos conference, was truly inspirational. He built up his presentation, giving us real insights into the various asbestos-related diseases and the seemingly insurmountable challenges they present. The sheer scale of a developed mesothelioma tumour is daunting.

Five ways to reduce accident risk in your business

Written by Nick Garland on Friday November 9th 2018

There’s no getting around it: construction is a high-risk industry, and specialist fields such as licensed asbestos removal especially so. In the UK, the ground-breaking 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act has gone a long way toward creating a culture of safety: fatal workplace accidents have fallen six-fold in the intervening 44 years, while employer-reported non-fatal injuries fell by 58% over the 30 years to 2016/17.

Yet the nature of the industry is that accidents, incidents and near-misses still happen, with their associated toll on workers’ health and wellbeing – not to mention the emotional, financial, regulatory and reputational fallout for employers. As a licensed asbestos removal contractor, the most important assets you have are your employees and your license. What should you do to help manage and minimise the risks inherent in your work?

1) Understand your workforce

It’s imperative to identify the strengths, weaknesses and skill levels across your employees, at all levels in the organisation. Not only will it allow you to ensure that projects are staffed with appropriately experienced and qualified employees, it will allow you to support any identified weaknesses with corresponding strengths.

Audit, audit and audit again: only with direct observation can you truly understand behaviour. You shouldn’t just focus your efforts on the supervisors, even though they are the easiest. It’s vital to include the full workforce in a comprehensive health and safety auditing scheme – contract managers, operatives, the admin team, stores and even the SHEQ (safety, health, environment and quality) department all have enormous impacts on the smooth running of a project.  

Clearly this increased observation – not to mention the analysis of the extra data –  is a task in itself, so significant thought should be put making the process as effortless as possible. If the solution is complex or time consuming, it will impose barriers and won’t be implemented effectively.  

2) Tailor your training

Once you know in great detail what you are facing, where the weaknesses of the team are and where you need to add extra support, you can do something about it.

You are now faced with a huge opportunity. If your team is great at A, B and C – but weaker at D and E – then you don’t need to waste time on training the first three. Having a clear idea of current skills lets you plan and deliver more focused and effective training, effectively improving skills and optimising your staff development budget.

3) Learn from your projects

We’re back to auditing – but now we look at the same data from a different angle. All the audits you did to get a comprehensive understanding of your team are an excellent basis from which to learn valuable lessons. Say that X, Y and Z went wrong on a site. Ask Why? What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again? Are there any trends building up? Are there any linked underlying causes?

Having a dashboard or high-level view that allows you to see your projects globally – or all of your team at a glance – will unmask seemingly discreet linked issues. Strategies can then be designed to get ahead of these issues before they become a major headache.

Everything I’ve been saying so far should be the standard approach for any industry, but the next is particular to asbestos removal. Measuring the exposure to asbestos is another way to test the success of a project. When removing asbestos, it is inevitable that there will be some exposure for the workers you task with the job. As employers it is our moral and legal duty to measure and minimise this.

You can’t be specific enough when it comes to monitoring exposure. And with this detail – so long as it’s recorded correctly – you will be able to directly measure the success or failure of a particular method. Treat any spikes in exposure as an accident. Investigate immediately, find the cause, and change the method. Success can be rolled out to other projects, failure can be learned from to drive change.

The key is that – just like audits – a simple but clear system needs to be designed that allows you to do all of this at the touch of a button. Any obstacles means that at best it is a task that will be delayed. At worst it could be put off entirely.

4)Learn from near misses

The HSE tells us that the average cost per non-fatal injury is £8,200. If you include litigation (private or regulatory), the financial and reputational cost rise exponentially.

Near misses are the accidents and incidents that didn’t quite happen. Rather than a collective sigh of relief and a ‘let’s forget about that…’ we should be gathering and analysing this health and safety gold.

There is considered to be a direct relationship between the number of near misses to the number of minor and major accidents. Heinrich, Bird and the HSE have all produced accident triangles: here’s the HSE’s one:

Accident Triangle

Any accident that didn’t happen is a warning of what might have happened. If we can learn and implement change before something has occurred… well, I don’t need to labour the point.

We first have to get over the natural human response of ignoring a near miss. Who would want to get someone into trouble when no one actually got hurt? However, the correct way of looking at this is: “That was close. Right, what can we do to make sure it can’t actually happen?” It’s an education process. Encourage the reporting of all near-misses through talking, explanation and rewards: regular analysis of the data you receive will allow you to preempt accidents.

5) Cut the paperwork

One huge advantage that every licensed asbestos removal project should have is the supervisor. You have someone on site whose primary role is to ensure the job runs safely and to plan. There are obvious competence questions here that I have dealt with earlier, but the other unavoidable issue is paperwork.

Certainly with asbestos projects there are a multitude of safety-critical checks that have to be completed every day. No one would argue with that. Importantly though, the supervisor has to record that these checks have been done. Whilst this is unavoidable, it does take time away from supervising the works, reducing the supervisor’s impact in helping to prevent accidents.

Streamlining this paperwork will release the supervisor so that they can supervise – shifting their focus more towards overseeing and ensuring workplace safety.

Nail the fundamentals

Asbestos removal combines many common construction dangers with the specific risks of handling a highly toxic material. You can’t entirely remove the risks from such an inherently hazardous activity, but:

  • By knowing your workforce you can immediately mitigate weaknesses
  • By tailoring your training you can eliminate these weaknesses
  • If you learn from past projects you won’t make the same mistakes twice
  • If you can predict accidents before they happen, they’re less likely to happen
  • If you free supervisors from paperwork, they’re more available to ensure safety

Get all five nailed and you have the fundamentals of how to de-risk your business.

That’s exactly what has driven the development at Assure360. With the combination of intuitive apps and a powerful database, our entire solution is directed at streamlining and simplifying H&S effort. Audits are made easy – and the legwork required for analysis largely eliminated. Exposure monitoring is instantly analysed to allow a constructive review of the success of each method. Incidents, accidents and – importantly – near-misses can be reported directly without adding to the paperwork.

All of this gives you unparalleled understanding of your people and your projects, but in a fraction of the time. Now, with the introduction of Assure 360 Paperless – the first out-of-the box solution for the supervisor – we free them to get back to what they do best: supervising.

Want to discover more? Get in touch today to book your free demo.

Events preview: the best events and conferences for asbestos and safety professionals

Written by Nick Garland on Friday October 5th 2018

Here are some dates for your diary – Nick Garland has put together his list of upcoming events for asbestos and construction safety professionals. We’ll update this page regularly.

Assure360 Paperless Webinar

27 February 2019

Join our February webinar and find out why more and more supervisors and managers in the asbestos removal sector are using our latest Paperless app to streamline on-site paperwork. Created by our expert team, Nick Garland will take you through everything you need to know about the system and demonstrate how it saves teams time and money. If you’d like to register for our February webinar simply sign up and we’ll send you more information.

Sign up here

IOSH No Time to Lose campaign – spotlight on asbestos

18 February 2019

University of Reading, Agriculture Building, Whiteknights Campus

In this free evening event chaired by IOSH vice president Michelle Muxworthy, the IOSH addresses the role and significance of asbestos in workplace cancer.

Find out more

OH2019 Brighton

1-4 April 2019

Hilton Brighton Metropole

Occupational Hygiene 2019 is the leading conference in the field of worker health protection in the UK, focusing on occupational hygiene and the prevention of occupational ill-health and disease. The conference programme combines inspiring and thought-leading plenary sessions with scientific and technical sessions, as well as a range of interactive workshops and case studies. The conference will bring together researchers, practitioners, regulators and other experts from around the world to discuss the very latest in issues that affect health at work.

Find out more

The Health & Safety Event

9-11 April 2019

The NEC, Birmingham

The Health & Safety Event provides the perfect networking and educational opportunity to anyone responsible for running a safe and efficient workplace, anywhere in the UK. The CPD-accredited seminar programme will feature over 130 speakers from across the world of safety, fire and facilities.

Find out more

ACAD Annual Awards Dinner and Golf Day

6 June 2019

Location to be confirmed

Save the date for the annual ACAD golf day and awards dinner.

Expo 2019

11-12 September 2019

The NEC, Birmingham

Registration for the Contamination Expo Series 2019 is now live. Claim your complimentary tickets to the Hazardous Materials Expo with seven events making up the Contamination Expo Series. The Assure360 team will be on stand J7, opposite ACAD.

Find out more

 

If you’re hosting or attending an event you’d like us to list here, please get in touch.

Beyond Grenfell – Welcoming the Hackitt review

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday July 18th 2018

The Grenfell disaster was, among many other things, a failure of building regulations to protect residents. It’s clear to me that the Hackitt Review had to re-learn the lessons of work health and safety, and with Dame Judith a previous head of the HSE, I awaited her review with some optimism. Here’s why I believe she has grasped the opportunity. (more…)

What to do when you find asbestos contamination on site

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday March 28th 2018

Finding asbestos contamination on a site or building project can feel paralysing. But there’s no need to panic. Here’s a simple guide to help.

The words ‘asbestos’ and ‘contamination’ are probably two of the things you least want to hear. Whether you’re involved in commissioning or designing a construction project or just occupying a building, asbestos can lead to worry, cost and delays.

Outside of the nuclear industry, the management and safe removal of asbestos is the most regulated process you can be involved in. And regulation invariably means expense – particularly if there’s regulatory infringement.

Why is there so much asbestos in the built environment?

What is asbestos? As far as day to day practicality is concerned – ‘asbestos’ refers to the actual product that has been installed into a building. Because the ‘benefits’ of asbestos were so far reaching and its production relatively cheap – the type of products it was used in were virtually unlimited.

Asbestos can be found in:

  • Insulating panels
  • Cement corrugated sheeting, guttering and downpipes
  • Pipe insulation
  • Plastic floor tiles
  • Gaskets and electrical insulators

And many other materials and structural elements.

Tony Rich, a respected asbestos consultant in the US, has taken and collated a vast collection of photographs of examples of materials and locations where asbestos has be found from roofing to cigarette filters

With the number of different products so extensive it’s no wonder that properties constructed before the early 1980s almost certainly contain asbestos. As the ban only came into force in 2000, even those built as late as 1999 could have some.

How does asbestos get into the ground?

As we increasingly look for asbestos in soils we are finding more and more. Even if we ignore fly tipping and re-burying on site, there are several reasons why the ground we stand on can become contaminated.

Alas for many years we were not very good at finding asbestos in buildings. In defence of the surveyor, the proliferation of asbestos is huge (especially in the UK) and progressive refurbishments can cover over and conceal it. But the approach to intrusive pre-demolition surveys used to be quite weak.

The guidance on what you needed to do with asbestos once found in buildings about to be demolished was not always in concert with the hazardous waste rules. For example, it was widely accepted that Textured Coating had low asbestos content, was bonded to the surface it was painted on, and when demolished, did not constitute hazardous waste.

Buildings could be demolished without even looking for asbestos, either intentionally (we don’t want to know) or as an incompetent oversight.

Whatever the reason, if a building is demolished with asbestos still in it, that asbestos will find its way into the ground. The site itself could become contaminated and / or the subsequent rubble could be converted into secondary aggregate for other sites.

What to do if you find asbestos

Whether you find asbestos in a building, or find it contaminating land you’re going to be building on, I’ve created a simple acronym to help remember the useful steps to take:

R – Respond calmly

2 – Two important questions to assess risk

D – Decide what you’re going to do next

2 – Two trade organisations who can help you find a licensed asbestos professional to help

Respond calmly

If you discover asbestos, in the first instance – do not panic. As the HSE’s Martin Gibson has said – in the UK we have a long history and genuine expertise in managing the risk from asbestos. This does not always mean remove it.

Two simple risk assessment questions

With the proviso that you shouldn’t touch or disturb asbestos – the best rule of thumb when assessing the risk of asbestos in a building is to ask these simple questions:

  1. ‘How hard or soft is it?’
  2. ‘Is it protected / out of reach?’

For example, if the asbestos material is a corrugated garage roof: this is out of reach (or at least not easy to knock into) and clearly quite hard. So the risk is low.

If it is low level pipe insulation, it’s easy to touch and relatively soft. The risk is high. Simple.

You need to have as much knowledge as possible to answer these questions. And when it comes to asbestos that means a survey. This will tell you where any asbestos is and what the risks are.

The challenges of ground contamination

The very nature of ground contamination makes the ‘problem’ an entirely different beast.

By being in the ground the material is buried and therefore hard to find. It degrades – breaking down and dispersing the asbestos fibres. Surveys have to follow a different pattern and are detailed in the HSE’s asbestos analyst guide (read my recent summary for more information). On the positive side, (especially in the UK) the ground is damp – important as wet asbestos does not get into the air too easily.

The risk assessment for ground contamination though remains essentially the same. Ask yourself two questions:

  • How near to the surface is the material?
  • How degraded is the material?

Loose insulation at the surface is high risk. Buried cement is low risk.

Decide what you’re going to do

The next step is decide what you are going to do about it.

For asbestos in a building, providing that the material is in good condition there are plenty of options that do not include costly removal. In fact this is the HSE’s primary recommendation. If you can avoid touching, damaging or in any way disturbing the asbestos – then it is safer to manage it in situ. Even this is relatively straightforward – it involves a periodic check to make sure that its condition has not deteriorated.

If you do leave asbestos in the building – anyone who could come into contact with it should know it is there. If they could damage it through their work, they should have Asbestos Awareness training. These courses are so widely available that it is almost certain that there is a company near you that provides them. Check out the IATP or UKATA website to find a provider.

If however the asbestos is in poor condition, or it is in such a position that it could get damaged in the future, action may need to be taken. This still doesn’t necessarily mean removal but it does mean that you will need professional assistance. Options other than removal could be to protect the asbestos – help ensure it doesn’t get damaged. This can range from covering it up, painting it or to simply close and lock the door.

Again with ground contamination, we are faced with different challenges. We often only know of the existence or the contamination because digging is planned. But it could be something as simple as buried broken cement coming to the surface on a walkway. In either case some form of action is usually required. Just like asbestos in buildings though, that action could be ‘close the door’. In this case it would be to install a capping layer above the problem to seal it off. If however digging is unavoidable then some form of controlled removal will be required.

The rules on where this material goes is simple, but has huge implications:

  • Does the ground comprise >0.1% asbestos by weight?
  • Are there any visible fragments, that in of themselves are >0.1% asbestos by weight?

If either of these are the case, then the material is ‘hazardous waste’ and therefore expensive to dispose of. If not at these levels, but still present, it is not ‘hazardous’, but must be disposed of at a landfill site that has an ‘asbestos cell’. Significantly less expensive, but still onerous.

Therefore a single fragment of visible asbestos can render a whole load contaminated. Careful early planning, screening and segregation becomes critical.

Two trade organisations who can help you get licensed help

I have always recommended that a licensed contractor is used for any work on asbestos. This is (strictly speaking) not always legally required, as some low risk asbestos (the cement sheeting I mentioned earlier) does not need a licence. It does however need special equipment, training, medical supervision and insurance. In my experience you are much more likely to get it done right first time with a licensed contractor.

There are two main trade organisations: my one: ACAD, and ARCA. Both can offer lists of members that have passed their audit scheme. However, I would counsel that you would need more than this. Any company that operates an internal competence scheme like Assure360 gets a gold star in my opinion. Beyond that – personal recommendation (if your procurement will allow) is always the surest way to a happy outcome.

Land remediation is a specialist, complex skill that most (even licensed) contractors don’t have. The approach does not normally include enclosures, but could in the most serious of cases. Careful selection is therefore vitally important.

How to become an educated client

The final piece of advice I always offer is to become an educated client. Asbestos removal is expensive, complex and scary. Going ignorant into a contractual relationship in those circumstances is brave indeed. What’s more, CDM15 no longer allows clients to say ‘I didn’t realise’, or ‘that’s not my area’.

So, either get someone in your organisation that understands the subject (e.g. the BOHS course P405), or appoint a consultant independent of any of the asbestos project team who can be your expert advocate.

There is even help in selecting the right person: FAAM is the new faculty for asbestos professionals and commits its members to a level of expertise and an ethical code of conduct. Ask are they full members of FAAM (MFAAM)?

Expertise in asbestos land remediation is unfortunately less widespread. Whilst asbestos in the ground is a problem that has been with us for nearly as long as asbestos has, it’s been somewhat under the radar for most professionals.The introduction of the comprehensive document CAR-Soil has allowed training course to be developed often by CL:AIRE. CL:AIRE also publish a list of their members, but I don’t believe there is a formal auditing or vetting process.

The importance of safety auditing

Either your in-house expert or the external advocate would then be able to directly check that the project is being run safely according to the plan. In other words audit. Assure360has been specifically designed to help clients like the Royal Mail to monitor asbestos projects whether in the built environment or in the ground (no apologies for the shameless plug).

Whilst asbestos is a scary word – the Brits are world leaders in managing the risk. Get the right people around you and don’t panic.

FAAM – the new home for asbestos professionals

Written by Nick Garland on Friday February 2nd 2018

Asbestos: Britain’s biggest occupational health problem

Britain was the first country in the world to have an industrial revolution, and we were the first to start importing asbestos. We have imported the most asbestos of any country in the world. In fact in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s we imported 40% of the world’s capacity to produce amosite / grunerite.

We have so much asbestos that we can’t remove it all – we have to manage it.

These startling facts were shared by Martin Gibson (HSE) speaking at the European Asbestos Forum in September. They perfectly crystallise the unique situation that the UK finds itself in. The reality that we can’t remove our asbestos – only manage it – is also the foundation of all of our legislation. In essence: assess the risk and design solutions to keep people safe.

Asbestos professionals need unique skills

This takes a special kind of professional – one who is expert in the regulations, but who can see beyond the guidance to the purpose. They need to be able to design practical solutions rather than gold-plate and over specify.

How do you know you’re working with someone with these professional skills? Who can you trust? Asbestos is the biggest occupational health problem the UK has ever seen, yet anyone can claim to be a consultant or expert.

“We are a highly qualified asbestos consultancy firm”

“We are specialist consultants to survey and test any asbestos”

“Leading accredited asbestos management consultancy”

These are all genuine marketing lines promoting the skills and qualities of asbestos consultancies. Do they mean anything? How do we know, what confidence do we have?

The two existing professional asbestos management bodies have never been quite right. IOSH is focused on Health and Safety and BOHS has the whole breadth of Occupational Hygiene to consider. Being chartered in either does not speak to your asbestoscompetence, but there hasn’t been any real alternative

Until now.

Introducing the Faculty of Asbestos Assessment and Management (FAAM)

Finally, there is a home for the asbestos professional. BOHS, with it’s shiny new royal charter has created a new faculty – Faculty of Asbestos Assessment and Management (FAAM). The launch event was back in October last year and the first few full members – myself included – were accepted into the faculty over Christmas.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLIgwq5sEL8

Now for the first time we have a home. One that insists on the maintenance of professional standards and where failure to maintain those standards will have consequences.

FAAM’s stated principles are:

  • Pursue excellence for all those who practise in the asbestos assessment and management profession
  • Establish, develop and maintain standards of competence in asbestos assessment and management practice for those who are members of FAAM
  • Act as the guardian of professional standards and ethics in the profession of asbestos assessment and management

FAAM will support members with

  • Professional membership grades, depending on qualifications and experience
  • Continual professional development
  • A strict code of ethics
  • Promotion of asbestos expertise as a profession
  • Guidance, advice and positions on common issues and problems – promoting good practice
  • Enable individuals to keep up-to-date with asbestos developments
  • Providing a home for professionals to share and discuss views

To be clear – FAAM will not be claiming that non members are incompetent, only that those who are members, have demonstrated competency, maintain that level and operate to an ethical code.

Membership levels

The levels of membership and the qualifications you need are:

Technician

• Level 4 – (one of P401 to P404), S301, W504, RSPH L4, or • Level 3 – RSPH Level 3 (plus written bridging exam) – OR…

Associate

• P405 or P407, or

Three from P401, P402, P403, P404, S301 or W504

Licentiate

Certificate of Competence (Asbestos)

Member

• CV, professional experience portfolio (or PEP) and personal interview

Fellow

… to follow … significant contribution to the profession

Whilst BOHS as a whole has a royal charter the new faculty does not – but there is the tantalising possibility that it might in the future.

The whole concept has excited me since it was first mooted – but I must say getting my acceptance documents through was a thrill and for the very first time there are letters I will be proudly using after my name – MFAAM. I urge all like minded professionals to apply.

Find out more about applying to become a member of FAAM

Project Analyst: a peek at the HSE’s findings

Written by Nick Garland on Friday February 2nd 2018

In 2014 / 2015, the HSE carried out their Analyst Project – or to give it its full name ‘TheAsbestos Analyst Inspection Programme’. Its aim was to examine the performance of analysts in the removal process. At the BOHS roadshow last month, the HSE’s Martin Gibson revealed the initial findings and the first conclusions – perhaps the most surprising is how it might impact on the licensed contractor.

The UKAS accredited lab survey

The HSE contacted all UKAS accredited labs and asked them to complete a questionnaire – the results were extremely enlightening.

  • More than 40% of Four Stage Clearances (4SC) were completed by just 13 labs.
  • 43% of companies stated that 81-100% of jobs required additional cleaning before they could pass it.
  • 76% of analytical companies stated that they fail up to 20% of enclosures first time.
  • Nearly 10% of analytical companies fail under 1% of enclosures first time.
  • Approximately 2% of companies fail 81-100% of enclosures first time.

Of the 145 UKAS accredited labs not everyone responded (obviously) – more than a third of them in fact. But if they thought they would stay under the radar, they were mistaken and the team targeted them for visits just the same.

Targeted four stage clearance visits

Twenty 4SC visits were planned and in all cases the analysts were told to expect the HSE. Whilst this solved the issue of turning up when nothing is happening, it did mean that the analysts would be on their best behaviour.

I have broadly split the findings into the four stages of the process. I have also tried to highlight areas in the draft analysts’ guide that is intended to correct this. A copy of my white paper summarising the guide can be obtained on the Assure360 website.

One general point to be made is that wherever I mention photos – each has to be digital and date and time stamped to prevent forgery. And as usual there is a health warning with this post – this time from Martin Gibson – he stressed that the findings did not apply to all the analysts!

Stage 1: Initial checks

Whilst the analysts were checking that the asbestos had been removed, a detailed review of the surrounding area was a different matter. Whether the general site conditions were fit to start the inspection was often ignored. The worst example was this transit route – strewn with rubble and other non-asbestos material. It should have prevented failed at Stage 1.

The new draft guide has detailed the key inspection areas for the first stage of the process (including the transit routes and the areas surrounding the enclosure). Photographs are now required to demonstrate the adequacy of the situation.

Stage 2: The visual inspection

The HSE’s view is that this is the critical part of the whole process, and raised the most number of issues in the investigation.

Analysts were observed moving randomly around the enclosure. Guidance (and logic) has always had it that a methodical pattern will help avoid missing something.

20% of the analysts wore domestic clothes underneath their overalls. This would have prevented them from decontaminating properly in case of a failure. Any of my regular readers will know that I believe that full decontamination via the DCU should be followed with every enclosure entry.

Formal failure certs were not always issued when an enclosure was rejected by the analyst. Whilst I can understand the instinct not to create paperwork, these failed certs are critical for addressing the root cause – that the LARC didn’t clean it sufficiently and the Supervisor failed to identify the issue. Clearer guidance on when to formally fail an enclosure is included in the new guide.

Two analysts arrived without overalls and two were unshaven. I don’t know whether these were the same individuals, but when you remember that the analysts were expecting HSE attendance – this kind of sloppiness is shocking.

What PPE and what to wear underneath is also detailed extensively in the new guide – the handy table is reproduced in my white paper on page 44.

There were also some startling implications over the amount of cleaning that analysts do – but I will leave that till later in the piece.

Stage 3: The air test

There were incidents that raised questions over basic competence namely calculating fibre concentrations incorrectly (decimal point wrong). This may just be the nerves of being overlooked.

More significant, in my eyes, is that one of the analysts forgot the brush for the disturbance test. Again, when you recall that the analyst knew the HSE would be in attendance, wouldn’t the instinct be to double and triple check your equipment? A photograph of the brush is now needed in the new look Certificate for Reoccupation.

Generally, the HSE found insufficient time was spent on reading the slides – one took just nine minutes to read three slides. This compares with the 10-15 minutes per slide in the current draft analysts guide and the 10-25 minutes in the old version! Just as I was forgiving to the analyst that got the decimal place wrong, to race through this phase of the process when observed by the authorities makes you wonder ‘what normally happens?’. The new look certificate with time and date stamped photos and time declaration at the signature stage should help this.

Stage 4: Final assessment

This is where the final checks are conducted post dismantling the enclosure, but I also include decontamination and PPE.

Frequently the analysts did not wear overalls when conducting the final checks. This is obviously unwise as dismantling the enclosure can reveal hidden problems. Mostly the analysts were entirely unprepared for these unpleasant surprises including not carrying RPE. Whilst the guidance is a little clearer in the new guide – Stage 4 is missed off the handy summary table, and the reader must go hunting in the Appendix. Hopefully the final draft will be amended.

The HQ visits established that practical training for decontamination was lacking. On site this was evidenced by analysts being unsure when to decontaminate and following the incorrect DCU entry/exit procedures when they did. Much more detailed guidance on decontamination procedures is included in the new guide – including training as a core skill.

Personal Air Tests

No apologies for this section, though my regular readers might think that I am a broken record. The project established what we have been seeing with the Assure360 data. Most personals air tests were very short term and usually only 10 minutes. Further, they included no contextual information – just ‘removal works’. To compound this, the analysts often reported the calculated results which were below their own Limit of Quantification (LoQ). This is next to useless to the LARC who is attempting to improve their methods. They need long duration tests, with decent (low) LoQs and detailed information over what was happening during the test. Assure360 has analysed over 5000 personal air tests and even here we are finding that approximately 10% are for only 10 minutes.

More on visuals

This is what I hinted at earlier – something that all analysts will already know – analysts do quite a bit of cleaning as part of the visual. What makes it startling is the implications.

I am very aware that the LARCs have views on analysts and the ‘helpful’ ones are those that pitch in to get the enclosure through the clearance. I counted myself as one of those. In the Project, many analysts stated that they conducted minor cleaning. But what constitutes ‘minor’? Well in one case it was cleaning for over an hour!

The HSE’s view of this is that >15 mins cleaning constitutes licensable work and must not be done by the analyst. What’s more – any such breach is considered, at least in part, the LARC’s fault:

HASAWA

36. (1) Where the commission by any person of an offence under any of the relevant statutory provisions is due to the act or default of some other person, that other person shall be guilty of the offence, and a person may be charged with and convicted of the offence by virtue of this subsection whether or not proceedings are taken against the first-mentioned person.

All change for the supervisor?

Whilst the new analysts’ guide (still draft) has been written in such a way as to take some of these findings into account (get a copy of my white paper here), some last-minute changes have found their way in.

  1. Strongly worded guidance – ‘Do not carry out cleaning’;
  2. If >10 mins cleaning is required – the analyst should formally fail the 4SC;
  3. The supervisor is to complete a new handover certificate. A draft version was briefly flashed up at the roadshow and will no doubt get amended further – but key elements include:
  • Have you got access equipment?
  • Have you checked all floor surfaces and ledges?
  • Have all ACMs been removed?
  • Have you checked all rooms?
  • Have you checked all cables and wiring?
  • Time taken on visual.
  • Statement of any defects.
  • Signed by supervisor.
  • Signed by analyst BEFORE 4SC can commence.

The new Licenced Contractor Guide which I understand was complete – just awaiting a slot in the HSE schedule to publish it – will now need a re-draft. Further guidance will be included on

  • Thorough fine cleaning.
  • Supervisor re-inspections (the process).
  • Time for the supervisor’s re-inspection.
  • Supervisor to provide photographic evidence. This had several ‘???’ against it – so we’ll have to wait and see.

“It is very rare that site supervisors carry out an inspection before the analyst arrives.” Analyst – Anon

My experience however is that the good supervisors take their role seriously and complete these visual inspections. However, the required declaration by the supervisor ‘time taken on visual’ may come as a bit of a shock.

The HSE’s view is that the visual inspection is by far the most important part of the whole clearance process. If the responsibility is primarily the LARC’s – a light touch / brief visual by the supervisor won’t be acceptable. The draft analyst guide gives us very detailed suggested times for these visuals.

This table indicates that a small boiler room should be inspected by the supervisor for 2-4 hours before the analyst can start stage 1 of the process. It also begs the question if the Supervisor is conducting a visual and therefore not supervising the rest of the team – does all activity stop?

There will have to be a sea change in expectations.

Asbestos Analysts’ Guide White Paper

Written by Nick Garland on Monday October 23rd 2017

Essential reading to help you unpick the significance of the changes coming our way by Nick Garland, CEO of Assure360.

Here’s my summary of the draft of the new Asbestos Analysts’ Guide from the HSE. I’ve been publishing blog posts on this over the last six months, and this white paper is the complete set of articles on this with some updated additional analysis.

Download the Asbestos Analysts’ Guide White Paper [PDF]

The HSE’s new Asbestos Analysts’ Guide is coming soon or so we have been confidently told for the past year. When we do get it, it is designed to help both Analysts and their clients comply with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and its ACoP.

It’s the client I am particularly aiming this summary at, but those with technical backgrounds should also find it useful. It is also for this reason that I largely don’t cover the appendices – in of themselves a whopping 178 pages long!

This is obviously a summary and clearly not intended to replace the guide. In particular, the appendices contain a lot of important detail and should still be studied to gain the fullest picture. A further note of caution, this is a review of the ‘draft for consultation’ – there may well be changes before final publication. Publication of the consultation paper was a surprise when it was issued over Christmas, so stand by your beds.

I regularly write about this and other topics relating to safety and asbestos management. I’ve been working in the industry for over 20 years, so I have a fair bit of experience to share – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Why not connect with me at LinkedIn if you’d like to talk more about this. I’d be delighted to hear from you. 

New analyst guide part 4: soils

Written by Nick Garland on Monday October 23rd 2017

In the fourth part of my summary of the new draft Asbestos Analyst’s Guide from the HSE – I’m concentrating on soils.

For those of you who have read either of my other summaries – this stand-alone article is a continuation.

If you want to read the first three instalments:

Part 1 – Appointing the right asbestos analyst

Part 2 – Testing for asbestos

Part 3 – Reoccupation certificates and clearances

You can download a PDF of the complete white paper on the new analyst guidance here

This time I am concentrating on the age old, but simultaneously new issue of asbestos in soils.

It should be remembered the HSE’s interest starts and ends with protection of the worker and others directly affected by the project. There is a very real difference between HSE and Environment Agency take on asbestos in soils. Another much more ambitious and targeted document on this other angle is:

‘Asbestos in soil and made ground: a guide to understanding and managing risk’.

CIRIA 733 must be read to gain any proper understanding of the subject.

My usual health warning – this is obviously a summary and clearly not intended to replace the Guide. The appendices contain a lot of important detail and should still be studied to gain the fullest picture. Finally, this is a review of the ‘draft for consultation’ – there may well be changes before final publication.

When are asbestos surveys required?

Asbestos surveys are required under the duty to manage and the current Construction Design and Management (CDM) Regulations. Where there is ‘a reasonable expectation that asbestos would be, present and could present a risk to workers’– surveys must be completed. This is no different for the ground.

This is an area of asbestos analytical work that has been too long ignored, but growing dramatically. Historically – poor surveys and removal projects have failed to identify or remove asbestos containing materials (ACMs). Subsequent demolition would therefore create contaminated rubble to enter the aggregate supply chain. QED. Other than poor practices, there are other reasons:

  • low take-up of demolition surveys;
  • illegal dumping activity;
  • the accepted practice of leaving well bonded ACMs (e.g. textured coating) in buildings to be demolished.

Speculative sampling?

The guide specifically states that speculative sampling should not be undertaken. We’re told only complete soil investigation if other (desktop) analysis indicates that there is a risk:

  • earlier surveys;
  • local historic maps and records;
  • knowledge of pre-1990 demolition or major redevelopment;
  • previous uses of the site (e.g. asbestos product manufacturing, high temperature processes, heavy manufacturing, power stations, shipyards etc.)

However, as I said in the introduction, the potential source of contamination is very broad and could be totally unrelated to the list given us in the guide. I agree – don’t do speculative sampling, but if there is planned ground works – asbestos surveys should be mandatory.

ACMs present in contaminated land can vary from whole sheets of asbestos or sections of pipe insulation to smaller fragments. Clearly, condition will deteriorate over time, leading to the presence of fibre bundles. When lying close to the surface and especially when the ground conditions are dry, fibres can be readily disturbed and released to the air. It is this interface with the air that brings the risk to the worker.

The desktop study and subsequent survey (if deemed necessary) should determine the risk to workers doing the digging. The risk assessment should establish the locations(s) of asbestos in the ground and identify the type, product, condition and amount (e.g. areas/depths). Soil type and moisture content are also key. Adequate controls can then be designed and implemented. Clearly discoveries during the project may require us to revisit the assessment.

Types of ground surveys – preliminary surveys

The guide suggests a targeted approach.

Careful examination and picking of the area *. This would allow the surveyor to present the lab with larger pieces of ACMs (about 3-5cm2) and smaller pieces of debris and fibre bundles as distinct samples.

*Sieving may also help to separate the coarse fraction (stones etc.). Detailed procedures on decontaminating the sieve to prevent cross contamination of samples is needed.

The team’s task is to hunt out asbestos and only present suspect materials to the lab. To get any type of risk assessment, there would have to be an adjustment factor (suggested at ‘x 0.1’) – this would allow for the fact that the ACMs were collected over a much larger area.

This method has the advantage that a large area of the site can be covered more quickly. Its principal use is to establish if a main survey is needed. It will also allow a main survey to be better planned.

A note of caution – the naked eye, in site conditions, is especially vulnerable to fatigue. When you add the likely requirement for wearing safety glasses – the potential for missing ACMs must be acknowledged.

Types of Ground Surveys – Main surveys

The guide indicates in the appendix that the targeted method is suited to the Preliminary Survey, but the Main Survey (if needed) would employ the traditional approach.

Select the sample points and carefully map the area (including depth).

The normal approach is to reduce (using coning and quartering) a 1m2 area of soil down to a 1-2 litre or 1-2kg sample. This is a method to reduce the sample size without creating a systematic bias. The technique involves mixing the sample, pouring it into a conical shape, flattening it out into a cake and dividing the sample.

Image courtesy of Eija Alakangas, Technical Research Centre of Finland VTT Ltd.

The exercise should be repeated to get to the end sample size of approximately 1kg.

The soil type at the depth should be detailed to allow greater understanding (i.e. made ground, sandy, clay etc. will all have an influence on the final risk assessment). All should be logged on a site plan. This will allow not only a register of what has been identified – but can also be compared with previous site plans to better target further investigations. E.g. an old site plan indicates that a boiler room used to stand where a few positive samples were taken.

Whichever method is used, the guide highlights an important safety issue in that the activity should be done at the surface and the surveyor should not enter trenches or holes, unless properly shored up.

Analysis

Laboratory identification of asbestos is obtained using the standard analytical methods. However, there is significantly more preparation required. Concentrations of dispersed fibres down to approximately 0.001% can be identified using the standard method – but I have found that this is very dependent on how long the analyst is prepared to look (20 minutes is suggested).

Quantification is critical to develop an assessment of risk; an appropriately accredited lab must therefore be selected. In such cases, results would be reported as a weight for weight (w/w) percentage of the matrix. Note the current rules for hazardous waste is 0.1% w/w, or (crucially) if any visible fragments of ACM are in of themselves >0.1%. This would mean (taken to extreme) a single 10p sized piece of AIB or cement in an otherwise clean load would render it hazardous waste.

I am not detailing too much that appears in the appendices in this summary – however, there is a table in appendix 2 which seems to contradict this:

  • All asbestos waste is subject to Schedule 2 of CAR2012 and most waste is subject to the Hazardous Waste Regulations.
  • Firmly bound asbestos – asbestos cement and articles with asbestos reinforcement – does not release hazardous or respirable fibres easily. XXX does not apply
  • The XXX Regulations applies for all other asbestos waste

The presence of ‘XXX’ indicates it is unfinished, but the guide seems to be adrift of what I understand is the hazardous waste rules.

Assessment

These surveys, coupled with ‘near source’ and ‘far source’ air testing (see my second summary here), should be used to assess the risk and design the control measures.

As with all asbestos controls, the starting point is don’t disturb it, but as the land is due for remediation this is unlikely to be a solution. The guide states that where there is mostly bound asbestos in soils below 0.1% w/w, airborne levels are unlikely to exceed 0.001f/ml. However, where this is free fibre and especially in dry soils – the fibre release can be greater. Just like with standard asbestos removal suppression is a key element of any designed control.

The guide produces a flow chart to clarify the decision-making process, but I think it will get reworked before final publication. I will not reproduce it here, but the chart indicates that if samples identify asbestos that is buried and unlikely to be disturbed – it should be reported as ‘no asbestos found’ – certainly a typo. The principle will likely be that if the asbestos is buried and unlikely to be disturbed it will present no risk to the workers and therefore as the guide is only interested in these workers – we’re back to where I started – leave it alone.

Because of our historic failures, this whole area of remediation is where the future of the industry lies – as we strive for an asbestos free world.

 

The shadow of Grenfell and Aberfan – what building regulation can learn from workplace H&S

Written by Nick Garland on Monday October 23rd 2017

With the shock of the Grenfell Tower fire still raw in our minds, Nick Garland look to echoes of the past for lessons to relearn.

“Grenfell Tower met all required building regulations – as well as fire regulations.” This is the statement from the contractor responsible for installing the cladding. The thing is, it might very well be true – but does that make it right?

Do what I say

In 1974, the year that the Health and Safety at Work Act (HASAWA) became law, the number of fatal injuries in British industry was 651, over six times higher than today. Pre-1974, the H&S framework had not been slack – in fact it had been highly proscriptive. The regulators set a list of targets, which industry would strive to achieve.

Simple.

The inevitable problem with this kind of approach to safety regulation comes where regulation is not drafted perfectly, so compliance to the letter of the law falls well short of what is needed. Problems that the regulator did not foresee will be missing from the guidance and therefore never complied with.

The Aberfan disaster in 1966 was a clear and horrific example of this. A previously unknown underground spring found the surface under the dramatically increasing slag heaps. The spring turned the foundations of the heap to an unstable slurry, and the whole lot slid down the hillsides killing 144 people, 116 of whom were children. The Coal Board had complied with the 1966 regulations because there had been no mention of what was required if underground springs appeared under your workplace.

Now take a look at the building regulations of today.

“External walls are elements of structure and the relevant period of fire resistance (specified in Appendix A) depends on the use, height and size of the building concerned. If the wall is 1000mm or more from the relevant boundary, a reduced standard of fire resistance is accepted in most cases and the wall only needs fire resistance from the inside.”

and

“… it is possible for some or all of the walls to have no fire resistance, except for any parts which are loadbearing.”

The Building Regulations 2010

It may be the case that the infamous cladding at Grenfell Tower was not approved as a fire proof panel. But it seems that the regulations are drafted in such a way as to suggest it doesn’t need to be. I am sure that it is more complicated than that and the height of the tower has a big influence – but the fact that cladding on dozens of tower blocks is now failing fire safety tests suggests that the regulations are at the very least easy to misinterpret.

Time to re-learn the lessons of Aberfan

Lord Robens, the much-criticised chairman of the Coal Board at the time of the Aberfan disaster, used this experience to revolutionise how we think about H&S. His report in 1972 directly led to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the creation of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive.

This didn’t stop him from continuing to be unpopular. His most controversial idea was that those that own the hazards are best placed to assess them. This therefore is the core of the Health & Safety at Work Act (HASAWA): the simple goal to ‘create a safe place of work’. I believe this idea is ingenious because this twist harnesses the imagination and expertise of the hazard creator (the employer), allowing the regulator to stay ahead of the game.

Is ‘this’ good enough?

Now comes the next touch of genius. ‘So far as reasonably practicable’ (SFARP). But what is ‘reasonable’? There is guidance to help the decision, but to a large extent it is down to the employer. But woe betide them if they fall short of SFARP, because the regulator checks, carry warrant cards and severely punish those not doing enough.

Health & Safety gone mad

I loathe this phrase, it is lazy and misinformed. Billy Brag posted on Facebook recently – remember Grenfell Tower the next time you hear someone complaining about health and safety. Well done Billy.

‘So far as reasonably practicable’ is by contrast inspired. This clever phrase completes the circle:

1.  Create a safe place of work;

2.  Do all you can to achieve this and critically …

3.  We will check that you do.

This harnesses the employers’ imagination, and in this age of private litigation – their fear too. ‘Is this far enough? … let’s just do that bit more…’.

The reality is – all the examples of seeming ‘H&S gone mad’ (including the famous conker ban), was the employer choosing to go the extra mile or two (rightly or wrongly). The legislation was written specifically to get this extra mile because ‘not far enough’ is just that.

If legislation can be beautiful – this is.

What has been the effect?

Dial forward to the 2014/2015 stats and the impact of the remarkable legislation can be seen. Fatal injuries in British industry have dropped by 85% and reported non-fatal injuries are down by 77% since the HSAWA became law.

But only at work

This is the rub; the revolutionary legislation is the Health and Safety at WORK Act and has no bearing on domestic situations or appropriateness of design – unless it is to be a place of work. The main supporting regulation for construction that sits under HASAWA is the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015. The main duty for designers in this document is:

…so far as reasonably practicable, eliminate foreseeable risks to:

  • workers or anyone else (eg members of the public) who may be affected during construction;
  • those who may maintain or clean the building once it is built; or
  • those who use the building as a workplace.

Again, a gaping hole for us to slip through.

There are two saving graces: firstly common parts (areas of a building used in common – so the fire escape, foyer, lifts etc…) all count as workplaces. Secondly there are very detailed building regulations which everyone must comply with.

But now we are back to the shadow of Aberfan – if the regulators do not spot a problem and allow for it, then it is effectively invisible.

Do what I say (again)

Today’s building regulations are just as, if not more, proscriptive than the legislation predating HASAWA. For those that are calling for the regulations to be reviewed – I could not agree more. The regulations should be entirely re-written, with Lord Robens’ vision at the heart – so that it is the employer, the developer – those that make the money out of our toil that have a duty to ensure that what they do is without risk – so far as reasonably practicable.

Come and see us at Contamination Expo 2017

Written by Nick Garland on Tuesday August 29th 2017

We’re exhibiting at Contamination Expo 2017 again this year. Find out why you should be going – and why you should come and talk to us on stand C3150 about your asbestos and safety management headaches.

When and where?

The Hazardous Materials Expo 2017 is happening on 27 and 28 September at the ExCel Centre in London. Doors open at 10am. There’s more visitor info on the Expo website hereYou can find a floorplan for the Expo here

Come and talk to us at stand C3150 – you could win and iPad

We’ll be hosting a stand ready and waiting to talk to your about your asbestos and safety management headaches. We’ve got more than 20 years’ experience in the industry so no matter what your challenge, you can pretty much guarantee that we’ve been there.

We’ll be holding consultation appointments on both days and offering demos of the Assure360 – our simple app that brings health and safety innovation into the 21st century. Everyone who books a demo while they’re at Expo will be entered into a prize draw to win an iPad worth £500.

Get your free copy of ‘An Asbestos Analyst’s Guide’

We’ll also be launching our new whitepaper – ‘An Asbestos Analyst’s Guide’. This free resource offers our take on the HSE’s draft new analyst guidance. It’s essential reading to help you unpick the significance of the changes coming our way. Get your free copy when you come and see us at stand C3150.

Get in touch if you’d like to book a demo of Assure360 at the Expo

Three more reasons to go to Contamination Expo 2017

  1. The Hazardous Materials Expo is the UK’s largest event designed to showcase the latest innovations that further the detection, management, testing and removal of hazardous materials and the protection of the environment.
  2. It’s completely free to go to the Contamination Expo 2017 and there are more than 120 CPD-accredited seminars by some of the most knowledgeable experts in the industry for visitors to attend.
  3. One of those sessions is hosted by Dr. Yvonne Waterman, the founder and president of the European Asbestos Forum Foundation (EAF), who will talking about ‘The asbestos (in) industry’. She’ll be sharing her expert view on what asbestos has meant for the development of industry in the past, present and future.

Get your free ticket to Expo here

Our new app: evolution or revolution?

Written by Nick Garland on Friday June 2nd 2017

We’ve just released an updated version of the Assure360 app – here’s how it helps to turn auditing into meaningful improvements in safety.

How the Assure360 app helps turn audits into action

Our app was born to help companies manage asbestos removal projects (the most regulated UK industry after nuclear), so compliance is critical. But the structure also encourages the auditor to examine ways to improve. The app identifies good innovation on site as well as allowing the user to record aspirational best practice identified elsewhere. The combination of the app and the cloud database, instantly links audit findings with actions. Whether the observation is something that has gone wrong, innovative best practice, or a lesson learned from external sources –the sophisticated workflow process makes sure no one forgets.

The most comprehensive audits available

The audits completed on the free app are the most comprehensive available, developed by myself over the past decade. They are uploaded directly to a database in the cloud, where the system interprets them for you. Non-conformances are presented to the designated managers for them to close out. It even reminds them if the due date expires. The high-level dashboard not only shows the immediate information required to spot trends, track close-out and develop strategies for improvement, it also allows a structured walkthrough so that you can showcase how you go about managing H&S to clients and regulators. A warts-and-all approach, where ‘challenged’ sites are discussed, becomes real evidence of proactive management.

The whole team involved

Multiple organisations can participate in the process. The company themselves will obviously take the lead – but customers and trade organisations can also complete audits on the free app. The cloud structure can be designed so these 2nd and 3rd parties can view their audits and relevant internal inspections too. As all the audits are on the same system, close-out of non-conformance and learning from best practice is streamlined.

An app that has evolved through real learning and the experience of users

With the help of the army of auditors who use it, Assure360 has been evolving since its creation. As findings are anonymously shared on the central cloud database – this means that users constantly and automatically learn from others in their own sector and beyond.

Assure360 now covers safety auditing in every workplace and is so flexible it can be tailored to any industry, language or country. This flexibility was a key demand from our users who have been an integral part of the research and development. Continuous feedback, active participation, innovation and plain bright spark ideas have allowed us to design the experience to match not just what users need, but what they want.

We are still very close to our roots, but now the asbestos industry can start to learn from other sectors.

Read my feature on LinkedIn to find out more about what needs to change in safety auditing.

Download Assure360 App

 

How Assure360 can help with your HSE asbestos licence assessment

Written by Nick Garland on Tuesday May 30th 2017

For decades, the HSE’s requirements have not been well communicated, or have been described in terms frequently misunderstood by the industry. The license holder (or the prospective one) has too often been left to work it out for themselves.

It takes a courageous removal company to stand their ground when presented with the opinion of the inspector on the spot. To be fair, there is no manual that the HSE can pull off the shelf describing the perfect asbestos removal company. But this ad hoc, local, opinion-led approach has produced a host of different solutions:

  • How do you manage H&S?
  • How do you ensure Competence?
  • What do you do for exposure monitoring?
  • And the follow up question – how do you use that to improve methods?

Whilst some of these questions are new to the last few years, exposure monitoring has been causing licence holders problems for my entire career.

The challenge

But why is this so difficult? The LARCs – licensed asbestos removal consultants – do manage health and safety, producing method statements and documentation far more detailed and considered than their construction counterparts. They spend vast sums on training staff, and ensure levels of supervision beyond what other industries would even consider. Exposure monitoring has been a challenge, but the tests are done in line with guidance and by skilled analysts, perhaps just not frequently enough – but done.

So why do these questions become so difficult to answer in a licence renewal meeting?

First, there is no 100% right answer and nowhere to look for advice, beyond asbestos specialised health and safety consultants (like myself). The trade organisations can also pitch in with this, but the independents are too few and far between to help everyone. However, as all industries can tell you, parachuting in a consultancy to ‘identify and solve underpinning problems’ sometimes leads to superficial solutions. The way I have always approached it is to become embedded in that company – almost as a part time H&S manager or officer. This degree of understanding is vital for crafting solutions.

Second, the nature of licence renewal is often adversarial, with the future of the company on the line. This does not lead naturally to a relaxed environment where ‘business as usual’ can be showcased.

The solution – managing health and safety

So, how can Assure360 help?

Firstly, all reputable asbestos removal companies conduct audits. These are sometimes conducted on Excel, or iAuditor (an interface with Excel) but often on paper. The problem with these solutions is that they tell you little beyond high level non-conformances and it can be challenging to extract meaningful trends. The paper version (or a PDF) is often a cul-de-sac, with non-conformances trapped on the paper, hidden in a file.

When asked – ‘How do you manage H&S?’, too often the answer is a jumble of files, hard to decipher Excel spreadsheets, and in worst case scenarios un-actioned paper audits.

Not so with Assure360. The audits completed on the free App are the most comprehensive available, developed by me over the past decade.

  • They are uploaded directly to a database in the cloud, where the system interprets them for you.
  • Non-conformances are presented to the designated managers for them to close out. It even reminds them if the due date expires.
  • The high level dashboard not only shows the immediate information required to spot trends, track close-out and develop strategies for improvement, it also allows a structured walkthrough so that you can showcase how you go about managing H&S.

A warts-and-all approach, where ‘challenged’ sites are discussed, becomes real evidence of proactive management.

One client, Rob Wasson from Delta Services, recently contacted me after a licence renewal. He told me: “When I demonstrated the Assure360 system to the HSE, it made me proud of all that we had achieved.”

That degree of confidence and enthusiasm can only be massively influential at renewal time.

The solution – competence

The new question that the HSE can nail us with is how do you ensure the competenceof your workforce?

Competence is a tricky customer and can be a complex thing to measure – after all, just showing them the training certificates is not enough. I’ve written previously on our blog about what to look for in a good competence scheme. Assure360 however does it all for you. The same comprehensive audits are just interpreted in a different way.

  • At the touch of a button you can bring up Competence assessments and Training Needs Analysis for anyone in your organisation.
  • The system covers everyone from the most senior Contracts Manager to the newest apprentice, it even covers agency staff.

The beauty of this is that you have already done the work. So instead of one more job that your overstretched team are asked to do – it is a matter of moments.

The solution – exposure monitoring

In my experience when helping a licence holder prepare for the HSE, the one thing that they are least confident with is exposure monitoring. Often there has been plenty of ‘personals’ done (though sometimes not). Sometimes these are compiled into an Excel spreadsheet, though often not. When asked ‘how are these used?’ it is frequently met with a pregnant pause.

In some ways, the LARCs have been led up an exposure monitoring blind alley. People in asbestos removal often only have a vague understanding of what exposure monitoring is for (you can read more on this in my earlier article here). They get provided with dozens of 10-minute ‘personals’ that tell us next to nothing. The feeling of ‘what is the point of this beyond keeping the HSE happy?’ has some justification.

The approach that Assure360 has transforms every personal monitoring test into an assessment of how successful the method was.

  • Any result above what was expected is investigated, root cause assigned and underlying issued rectified.
  • The high-level dashboard allows trend spotting and highlights if there are gaps in the coverage.

With 360, ‘the point’ is clear – it has a direct impact on the improvement of methods.

The solution – licence assessment

Assure360 is specifically designed to address all the challenges I have identified in my nearly 25 years in the industry. For the past two years, it has been helping LARCs improve themselves and with that, the industry.

Ken Johnson from Delta Service recently told me: “The moment I saw the system demonstrated I knew it was an absolute must for us. It ticked so many boxes – all the areas that the entire industry seems to struggle with.”

The central theme is simplicity, Assure360 is a system, one that you follow, implement and operate yourself. Just by doing so you gain greater understanding of the management of your company. You operate it yourself (no expensive consultants) and everyone contributes – this simultaneously saves money and strengthens your health and safety culture.

To find out more how we can help, contact us today on  0845 226 4318

Audit insights: what’s causing non conformance issues on site?

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday May 24th 2017

The Assure360 app collects a huge amount of data and this gives us unique insight into the issues our peers in the safety industry tackle during site audits and tech reviews.

Our app is the only community audit and compliance tool available for the asbestos removal and construction industry. With more than one hundred safety professionals using the system – so far they’ve completed more than 2000 audits – we are developing real insight into the challenges and issues our clients and peers face and overcome. As a result, Assure360 has the power to genuinely improve the construction industry.

What kind of data does Assure360 collect?

The Assure360 system incorporates site audits and also records tech reviews during the planning stage. This allows managers to learn from common issues picked up by their peers – before the project goes live.

We regularly share the community’s findings with our army of independent auditors through our customer newsletter (you can sign up to this at the bottom of this page). Here is a taster of the most recent findings we shared covering audits and site reviews from January 2017.

The 10 most common non conformance issues for Jan 2017

If we look at the overall top 10 we see predominantly paperwork issues, that either are, or can be identified during peer reviews:

The top 10 list looks like this:

  1. Method statement
  2. Drawings
  3. Risk assessments
  4. Report compliant with guidance
  5. Analyst recorded
  6. All required plant, equipment and materials on site
  7. ASB5 present and accurate
  8. RPE maintenance – certificate on site
  9. NPU inspections
  10. Post project documentation

Whilst there are some favourites here, Risk assessments (site specific) indicates that the auditors are trying to come to grips with that age-old problem of generic risk assessments. Assure360 will automatically record this with an action to identify and resolve the underlying issues.

Whilst on the surface – ASB5 (present and accurate) seems alarming, I am aware that this is being used to track when teams are not on site when they should be.

The most common issues for supervisors

Assure360 allows us to drill down and identify issues faced by supervisors. This allows the teams to address targeted issues within supervisor meetings, rather than allowing company wide concerns to cloud the issue:

The top 10 for supervisors looks like this:

  1. RPE daily checks
  2. RPE maintenance
  3. Buddy vac
  4. Consumables stored securely
  5. NPU inspections
  6. Vehicle (external)
  7. Vehicle (internal)
  8. Vision panels / CCTV
  9. All required plant, equipment and materials on site
  10. Amendments – appropriate, sanctioned by senior management recorded

Again, for supervisors there are some familiar hurdles to overcome. But some surprising issues are being targeted as well. Vehicle inspections – when taken together – is the most common issue.

The most common issues for contracts managers

Similarly, contracts managers can focus on their challenges:

The top 10 issues for contracts managers are:

  1. Method statement
  2. Drawings
  3. Risk assessments
  4. Report compliant with guidance
  5. Analyst recorded
  6. All required plant, equipment and materials on site
  7. ASB5 present and accurate
  8. Post project documentation
  9. Supervisor’s name
  10. Air changes

How could Assure360 help you?

How does this data compare with your own audits? Do you have a tool that can help you monitor and tackle these issues, saving you time and money and keeping everyone on the project up to speed?

Let us know what kind of data you’d be interested in seeing and book a demo.