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 This approach was brought in as an emergency measure in COVID and was withdrawn years ago.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 Despite the naming issue, the HSE has not withdrawn its statement, so certificates from the two named organisations (and presumably the misnamed one too) should continue to face additional scrutiny.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.

In case you missed it: our personal exposure webinar

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday January 24th 2024

The Asbestos Network (AN)’s new guidance on personal sampling and exposure is very welcome, but it also contains a lot of detail, and requires some significant changes to the way things have traditionally ‘been done’. That’s why we organised our recent webinar, in which I aimed to give attendees a practical guide.

I’m delighted by how well it was received, and I’d like to thank everyone who turned up and took part in such an engaging Q&A session at the end. We were joined by nearly 50 attendees, comprising many old friends, but also some new faces. It was great to also welcome two members of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and representatives from our trade associations.

This guidance covers a very important topic that as an industry we have struggled with. It’s the first official guidance that the AN, and therefore the HSE, has provided to licensed contractors on the subject. Crucially, it contains some major departures from how LARCs traditionally approach personal sampling, which is why we wanted to offer the industry our support.

Our webinar explored practical steps on how to implement the guidance, and demonstrated how Assure360 can be used to achieve full compliance – at the same time as saving hours of work both for supervisors and the admin team. Although, like the guidance, it was focused on the needs of licensed contractors, we hope it was also helpful to analysts and end-clients.

Many of those who joined us later asked if they could have access to a recording, and we’re happy to share it again here. Please feel free to watch, and share it to anyone else who needs support or guidance.

 


 

As always, if you do have any further questions, or you’re keen to know more about how we can help you achieve full compliance, please do get in touch – we’re only too happy to help. If you’d like to go ahead with a free demo, book here.

 

A look back at 2023

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday January 11th 2024

We’re just two weeks into 2024, and 2023 already seems like a distant memory. It was an important year, though, so we’ve put together a quick look back at some of the key things that happened.

For me, one of the key themes of the year was a renewed focus on innovation and research. From FAAM taking an active role in researching working methods and techniques, through to the excellent and highly promising product development and fresh thinking presented at conferences, 2023 showed a lot of promise.

In March, FAAM held a unique workshop on the four-stage clearance (4SC), bringing together analysts and licensed asbestos removal contractors to examine the purpose of the 4SC, its potential conflicts, and how the two sides of our industry could learn from each other.

In October I was delighted to also be involved in a second FAAM project, investigating a new gel-pack removal technique for asbestos-lagged pipework. Both were featured in November’s FAAM conference, where my colleague Cat Holmes reported on the findings and actions from our 4SC workshop.

The summer brought some welcome news, as the government climbed down on the sunset clause initially contained within the Retained EU Law Bill. Had this made it into law, might have seen vital legislation – including the Control of Asbestos Regulations – struck from the statute books at the end of the year.

On a more personal level, July saw Assure360 hit the 15,000-audit milestone – an incredible achievement, underlining the wealth of data and experience behind Assure360 and its user community.

The summer holidays also saw a last-minute announcement that multiple schools would not reopen, while long-standing reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) was assessed. Many schools are still fully or partially using temporary buildings while they wait for affected structures to be made safe. It’s an awful scenario, compounded by the high proportion of school and other public buildings that also still contain asbestos.

The end of the year brought the shock announcement of ACTA – a new trade association with the potential to shake things up – and two highlights of the events calendar: the aforementioned FAAM conference, and the European Asbestos Foundation (EAF) conference. For 2023, another excellent EAF was given even greater credibility by stronger government buy-in – the Dutch state acted as co-sponsor. The presence of policy makers from across Europe added further weight to EAF’s uniquely brilliant approach.

Looking back

As I say, a year of much promise, but in 2024 we need to continue building and improving. Changes driven by the Asbestos Network’s new personal monitoring guidance require us all to adapt – that’s the focus of our free webinar on 16 January.

Beyond that, the EU’s Asbestos at Work Directive, and by the more general push to renovate and refit Europe’s ageing buildings, will require us all to be open and receptive to new ideas. As I reflected at the end of last year, there’s a real danger that we in the UK could be left behind as Europe pushes ahead with better protection for its workers, and continues to be the driving force behind the innovation needed to make that happen. We in the UK must be sure to keep pace.

I couldn’t end without also mentioning our dear friend and inspiration, Mavis Nye, who very sadly passed away in November. I’ll always remember Mavis as one of the warmest people you could ever wish to meet. She led a seemingly miraculous life, being in remission for many years from the hideous disease mesothelioma following immunotherapy treatment. She leaves an incredible legacy in the Mavis Nye foundation, and all she and her husband Ray have accomplished in their campaign for an asbestos-free world.

A webinar on the new exposure guidance

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday December 13th 2023

I’ve written several times about the Asbestos Network (AN)’s personal sampling and exposure guidance, which was published in August. Both ARCA and ACAD have spent a good percentage of their recent regionals taking members through the details – of which there are lots.

This guidance covers a very important topic that as an industry we have struggled with, and it’s been worth the wait. It’s a fairly weighty 21-page document. Overall it’s very much aimed at the licensed contractor – i.e. the sharp end – but it’ll be useful to analysts and end-clients too.

This is the first official guidance that the AN (and therefore the Health and Safety Executive) has provided to licence contractors on the subject. And there are some major departures from how contractors traditionally approach it.

That’s why we’re hosting a webinar to talk in detail about the changes that the guidance demands. We’ll be exploring practical steps on how to implement them, and demonstrating how you can use Assure360 to achieve full compliance – at the same time as saving hours of work for both your supervisors and admin team.

So whether you’re an Assure360 customer or not, please join us on January 16, 2024. To book your place, please just fill in the details below. We hope to see you there!

 

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Exploring the Asbestos Network guidance on personal sampling and exposure

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday September 13th 2023

I’ve written several times about the Asbestos Network (AN)’s personal sampling and exposure guidance, and I’m pleased to report that it’s finally been published. 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.

Like most guidance, this has been a long time coming, predominantly because the AN is mostly made up of members of the technical working group – who are by definition volunteers. This guidance covers a very important topic that as an industry we have struggled with, and it’s been worth the wait. It’s a fairly weighty 21-page document, but the meat of the guidance is contained within seven pages. Overall it’s very much aimed at the licensed contractor – i.e. the sharp end – but it’ll be useful to analysts and end clients too.

So what does it say? Here’s my summary of the main body of the guidance, with the key elements to look out for. Helping companies with exposure monitoring is very much our thing at Assure360, so I’ll also weave in a few tips as to where we can help implement the guidance effortlessly.

Strategy and Policy

This is a great start to the document, examining why we do personal sampling, and exploring tips on how to be as efficient as possible. The main reasons for doing personals are:

  • To minimise exposure and check it’s below the Control Limit
  • To confirm controls (including respiratory protective equipment (RPE)) are adequate
  • To support current and future risk assessments
  • To maintain employee exposure records

The AN’s guidance confirms what Assure360 has been advocating for some years: that with a properly designed strategy and system to analyse, a single air test could address all of these requirements.

The starting point of any strategy is clearly the question of what type of job you’re dealing with:

  • The asbestos-containing material (ACM) – for example, asbestos insulating board (AIB), sprayed coating or pipe insulation
  • Quantity – debris is very different to multiple panels
  • The environment – e.g. tight spaces or above head height
  • Whether the situation perfectly matches your controls – can you spray, will there be breakage etc?

It might be useful to think about personal monitoring as an audit of a particular removal activity. You don’t audit every site: you select a wide range so it’s representative, and you weigh it in favour of higher risk activities – whether that’s because of the activity itself, or the experience and competence of the staff. Clearly anything new (new technique or new staff) should be in the high-risk category. Another area you should focus on is obviously ones where you are getting higher than expected results.

So target high-risk activities for monitoring first, then when you have enough data on them, broaden out to other areas like set up, fine cleaning, waste runs and enclosure dismantling. Remembering that anything new always goes to the top of the list. Similarly, make sure you cover all workers, with new starters, short-term workers and agency staff getting a particular focus.

A change in focus

What this means in practice is the old strategic approach to get a personal on 40% of all AIB, 60% of insulation, and 100% of ‘flock’ jobs is very much no longer acceptable. You now have to have a strategy for specific activities. Consider the risk presented by AIB alone. Clearly AIB is more risky to remove when it’s nailed than when it’s screwed, or lying around as debris. But now consider the same activities, but with a team of short-term workers you have no experience with.

For years now, Assure360 has followed this approach, with individual targets for all activities. We also have a new feature that focuses this down to individuals – with some staff tagged as needing additional supervision. The combination will allow enhanced rates of auditing and personals where they’re needed. Data is provided by the supervisor’s Paperless App faster than they could have recorded it on paper – and the database analyses it for you instantly.

We rarely get numbers in guidance, but this one is an exception. If you have a small stable workforce, repetitive work and low previous results, a single monthly personal to keep on top of monitoring is considered sufficient. It goes further – if you don’t do any licensed or Notifiable Non-Licensed Work (NNLW) work in a month – no monitoring would be required. The long-term aim of your strategy shouldn’t be to test every employee on every job, but to eventually cover all employees on all activities.

At this point the guidance adds two important notes. When faced with a certificate giving you the results, there will be lots of numbers. Confusingly you’ll be told what the Calculated and Reported results are. For your purposes always use the Reported result.

The second note is when and how to use the protection factor of the mask being worn. You only use these when comparing it to the Control Limit – i.e. the four-hour time-weighted average (4hr TWA).

Personal Sampling

There are two types of personal monitoring that we all undertake. The main workhorse is the Specific Short-Duration Activity (SSDA). The second is the Four-hour Control Limit compliance check, more commonly known as the Four-hour Time Weighted Average (4hr TWA). The guidance explains both in some detail.

I’ll start with the dreaded 4hr TWA. As I’ve written a few times, this test is less about fibre levels for a particular activity, and more to do with the operative’s exposure over the course of a shift.

If a normal day for your team is:

  • build the enclosure (two hours),
  • remove asbestos (30 mins),
  • fine clean (one hour)
  • and assumed nil exposure for the rest of the day

then a single air test that covers all of that would be the perfect 4-hr TWA test. However, it wouldn’t be very good at determining the peak in the middle (removal).

The reason why I call the SSDA the workhorse is that, while it’s principally used to measure a specific activity, the results can be used for all of the purposes laid out in the strategy section above. It can even tackle the 4hr-TWA provided the test matches the World Health Organisation (WHO) criteria: a flow rate of 1-2 litres per minute, and a minimum volume of 240 litres – which may be pooled from more than one sample. For maximum flexibility – if you can move your standard test to two litres per minute (2l/m) for two hours – it will cover most areas and will result in a good limit of quantification. As an extra bonus, Assure360 has long had this parameter built in, so we automatically do the calculation for you.

The guidance calls for close supervision, so that when the activity stops, the test should stop. Going back to the example above, the SSDA test should only be run for that middle 30 minutes of AIB removal. You would need to ramp up the flow rate to close to 4l/m to get a good limit of quantification. The analyst should watch the operative throughout the test, summarising what they did on the certificate – especially if they diverged from the planned method.

 

Advice for Clients and Analysts

Refreshingly, the guidance now speaks directly to the client, prompting them to consider the role of personal monitoring data in helping them discharge their duties under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM).

It also helps us rethink the relationship between the licensed asbestos removal contractor (LARC) and the analyst. Irrespective of who is paying for the consultancy, it’s the LARC that should specify the requirements of the personal monitoring, for example specifying a two-hour SSDA at 2l/min, on James Smith, while removing nailed AIB.

Analytical companies are directed to ensure analysts have the right equipment, and that they’re competent to undertake the test. This seems obvious, but it is definitely not just LARCs who have historically struggled with personal monitoring. The Faculty of Asbestos Assessment and Management (FAAM) recognises a poor level of competence in this area, and is looking at how it can improve the skill set across the board.

The guidance also states (in bold!) that 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. It also states: “Failure to supply this information might be a breach of the analyst organisation’s duty under Section three of the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.” So, LARCs should no longer have to hear ‘This is the client’s data, I can’t give it to you’.

 

Analysis and Review

A LARC is expected to review all personal monitoring reports on site and extract management information from the data. 

There are two PM thresholds above which we need to do something. The first is when the result is above what the mask can deal with. This is a combination of the assumed protection factor (APF) of the mask and the control limit (which is 0.1 fibres per millilitre of air sampled (f/ml)). The APF is 20 for a half-face mask, 40 for a full face, and 2000 for a respiratory airline supply (RAS) mask. Therefore:

  • Half mask – 20 x 0.1 = 2f/ml
  • Full Face – 40 x 0.1 = 4f/ml

These are clearly shockingly high results. If you got them, your instinct to stop work immediately and investigate would obviously be the correct course of action.

It’s worth noting that in Europe they are going to reduce the occupational exposure limit (equivalent to our Control Limit) to 0.01f/ml, so the above numbers would become 0.2f/ml and 0.4f/ml. I think the goal here was always to reduce the exposure faced by normal (non-asbestos) workers. However, when these same numbers are applied to removal activities, we’ll have to reassess whether our methods and RPE are capable of meeting them. It’s also worth noting that, while European law no longer automatically applies to the UK since Brexit, on this, we’ll most likely be forced to follow suit. Watch this space.

The second threshold is when PM results are significantly (the guidance says 25%) above your anticipated level. In this case you need to investigate and review the method if necessary.

Prompt investigation underpins everything – identifying (ideally immediately) if a test is elevated, and then establishing why. This then allows you to do the next steps that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) requires:

  • Improve methods
  • Drill down and compare operatives conducting the same activity. 
  • Trend analysis

Assure360 does indeed make all of this simple. We alert the supervisor when the reading is above the mask capacity, and management are informed instantly if either threshold is exceeded. We also have reports that compare and contrast data for individual operatives, and trend analysis is on all of our dashboards.

Required uses for personal monitoring

The guide details specific, required, practical uses for personal monitoring:

Estimation of exposure This is a section that has been long included in competent method statements, but the guidance looks for a little more detail than is perhaps in some documents: a breakdown into activities. Therefore include pre-clean, enclosure construction and fine cleaning in monitoring strategies, as well as the removal phases. You of course get this data from analysing the personal monitoring that you have previously conducted.

The guidance says that industry figures can be used as a starting point for new activities. Assure360 gives you benchmarked access to over 28,000 personals that have been recorded on the system.

Exposure Records This is the written (or digital) record of the personal sampling/air monitoring required in the regulations. The actual detail is in para 482 of the Approved Code of Practice (ACOP), and it’s reproduced in the guidance.

It should be noted that this does not need to be one document, and it can be stored in more than one system.

Record of each test The ACOP also requires you to keep a suitable summary of test results for each individual, so that average exposure for individuals and different activities can can be accurately estimated. It suggests a spreadsheet document(s) or a database.
Health Records You must maintain health records for all employees, whether directly employed, short-term or agency. 

Other than names, medicals and other information as detailed in the guidance and the ACOP, you must record the work carried out, location, dates, duration (hours per week), and the RPE used. Records must be kept for 40 years or until the employee is 80, whichever is longer. Therefore, the records of a 20-year-old short-term worker employed for one day must be kept for 60 years, not 40.

Recording, calculating and displaying all of this data is complex. While it’s possible to create spreadsheets for the job, we’re really at the stage where a database is needed. There are many database programs out there that will allow you to create the analytical systems that the new guidance demands. But there is only one in which the systems are already built for you, and where they’re linked directly to the supervisor and to management teams.

Assure360 Paperless is designed specifically for the average supervisor, shaving hours off their daily admin duties. They’re able to record all of the data needed for this analysis faster than they could have written it down in the first place, and it’s transmitted directly to a database that has the power to analyse it as the HSE wants.

Not only does the system capture and securely store all the required safety and monitoring data, it uses it to give you far greater insight into the way your asbestos removal projects are running. At a glance, you can see how each job is progressing, and use reports to identify training needs. It’s not just a way to stay in compliance with the guidance: Assure360 gives you huge practical benefits that improve safety and quality, and save you money.

We’re always happy to show people how our system works, and how it can benefit every aspect of their business. If you’re interested in a free demo, and a free pilot, please do get in touch.

It’s asbestos, not just RAAC that schools need to be concerned about

Written by Nick Garland on Friday September 1st 2023

The announcement from the government that multiple schools will have to close or partially close due to the long known presence of RAAC has further ramifications. Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete or RAAC was used extensively in public buildings between the 1950s and the 1990s, for those of you that know your asbestos prohibition dates – this is the ‘heyday’ of asbestos use.

Asbestos is frequently hidden in the structure of the building, and can take weeks of planning and careful removal to find and address. In buildings of this vintage, such an issue will be highly likely. This additional delay could extend the school closures, potentially to months. But that is not even the main issue – the urgency of the RAAC question, might lead schools to overlook the asbestos question entirely.

The recent Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee report (April 22) highlighted the specific risk of asbestos in schools. ResPublica have recently stated that 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.

Following the select committee report, the HSE visited 421 schools to inspect their compliance with the regulations. 140 were considered to be falling short and received letters from the HSE instructing them on improvements that were needed in their management of asbestos. Of these, 27 received improvement notices (legal instruction for mandatory specific improvements), and one a prohibition notice (not to enter their boiler room until asbestos was removed). Whilst 33% non-compliance will not be a surprise to the industry, it should be seen as a worryingly high figure.

The Cliff Edge

I recently wrote about the cliff edge the country is heading towards in the race to net zero and the lifespan of system built buildings – deadlines a few years off. Now there is another ultra urgent deadline – repair or replacement of these RAAC structures so the schools can re-open. That is an awful lot of construction work that needs to be done immediately on buildings with clear potential to contain asbestos. The pressing and very public urgency to fix the RAAC problem might overwhelm other considerations – and in particular the asbestos risk.

HSE’s recent findings confirm what has been long suspected, that the model of manage-in-situ is not working well in schools. If the asbestos risk is overlooked now and not factored into the emergency, this latest crisis could be made even worse.

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.

Overhauling the four-stage clearance

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday July 12th 2023

You may have read about my recent experience in organising the Faculty of Asbestos Assessment and Management (FAAM)’s first four-stage clearance (4SC) workshop. The event produced a trove of information that we can feed back into the faculty conference, and ultimately into better, joint training for analysts and asbestos supervisors. But since the event, I’ve also been keen to use the insight we gained to make sure Assure360 is making the 4SC as straightforward as possible for everyone involved.

That’s why we’re embarking on a complete overhaul of the enclosure 4SC process on the industry-leading Assure360 Paperless app. The aim is to make it a lot clearer to supervisors and analysts, streamline the whole process, and use our learnings from the FAAM joint workshop to make it less confrontational and encourage team effort.

At the same time, we’re also starting an industry-first research project. By harnessing the power of the data management that comes as standard with Assure360, we’re trying to identify the underlying reasons behind whether an enclosure passes or fails the 4SC.

Our new-look process will record not just passes or fails, but the stage at which the enclosure failed:

  • Stage 1 – this is the normal enclosure and assessment of scope completion
  • Stage 2 (Initial Assessment) – this is a little-understood stage where the analyst enters the enclosure for their preliminary review. The analyst only looks at main / obvious areas, which might result in an early failure
  • Stage 2 (Full Inspection) – this is the normal analyst’s visual that we all know
  • Stage 3 – the air test
  • Stage 4 – the post-completion test, decontamination unit and transit / waste routes

Assure will also include a statement from the analyst as to whether they were familiar with the scope and project in advance. This should help with understanding the impact of involving or not involving them in the planning stage.

Crunching the numbers

These are all fairly routine data points to collect, but where Assure360 can go further than any other is by cross-referencing them with other data. Examples of where we can do this include:

  • People – the system knows which individuals are working on a project, and whether they’re full-time employed or short-term workers (STW). It also knows the year they started with you, and the year that they started in their role (supervisor or operative). We can therefore investigate such factors as the percentage of STWs on the project team, and the team’s overall experience, tenure with your organisation and so on.  
  • Distance – again the system knows where the project is, so analysis could reveal whether distance from home base has an impact.
  • Anticipated duration of work in the enclosure – this will let us examine large projects down to micro ones, and compare the plan with how long it really took.
  • What were you removing? – the type of ACM, fixing and the task could all have an impact.
  • Management influence – everything can obviously be cross-referenced against the supervisor and the contracts manager.

Like everything we do at Assure360, the number crunching will all be done in the background, and the insight presented to you in handy and easy to use reports. There’ll be absolutely no additional effort needed on your part.

We’re particularly keen to harness the vast expertise of our community of users, so please let us know what other factors might have an impact on the success of a project. We’d really appreciate it if you email your input to us on enquiries@assure360.co.uk

Assure360 is the industry standard – if you are yet to experience the only productivity tool designed specifically for the asbestos removal industry, please contact us here, or email us on enquiries@assure360.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.

Something new: FAAM’s first four-stage clearance workshop

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday March 9th 2023

Friday the 24th February was a big day for me, albeit one that probably wasn’t on your radar. For some time I’ve been planning a workshop on the infamous four-stage clearance (4SC), and I was delighted to take the lead on delivering this inaugural event for FAAM.

This wasn’t just another P404 – BOHS’ official training course on 4SCs – but a unique attempt to bridge the gap between two sides of our industry: analysts, and licensed asbestos removal contractors (LARCs).

The very fact that we all understand what I mean by ‘two sides’ hints at the suspicion and conflict that exists between removalists and analysts. It’s been getting worse over the last 20 years, as the pressure increases on the 4SC – and in particular the visual inspection – as the key check on licensed removal work. Today, the 4SC is the cauldron where the pressures of business come up against the mandatory checks of heavy regulation. Improving the process, and adding to everyone’s understanding, is one of the biggest challenges we have.

With fellow FAAM committee members Louis Slattery of Air Surveys, and Cat Holmes of ION, we tried something new – a practical session to bring together experienced supervisors and analysts so that they could learn from each other. While we didn’t know quite what to expect, we hoped they’d each benefit from the strengths of the other, and also that they’d get an insight into each other’s point of view. The ideal outcome would be better communication and ultimately a stronger team attitude.

We used the fabulous facilities at Airborne Environmental Consultants (AEC) in Manchester, where they have full-scale mock enclosures set up. We focused on the first two key stages of the process.

With the attendees placed into analyst / supervisor pairs, they were thrown in to do the preliminary stage one inspection, where we saw the strengths of the supervisors coming to the fore. And while the supervisors obviously felt in their element, it was also great to hear a different viewpoint from the analysts, and see an instant rapport building between the two. The following debrief was also refreshing, with everyone being open in revealing gaps in their knowledge or things that they might have missed.

After lunch were two realistically mocked up enclosures with a host of issues hidden in each. Now the analysts showed their experience – not particularly with the significant failings, as both members of the team easily found those – but more in their ability to find the small things. We had the pleasure of witnessing analysts’ ‘dark arts’: the carefully angled use of a torch to reveal settled dust, or mirrors to inspect behind and under obstacles. It’s an amazing skill set, so crucial in preventing an unsafe enclosure being handed back.

The final debrief was as good as the first. For me personally there were two significant moments in the end-of-the-day chat. While everyone knew that it is the LARC’s duty to ensure that the enclosure is 100% clean, changes to the handover certificate were also brought up – for the first time the supervisor’s name is being attached to this liability, making them more directly responsible.

For me, the logical conclusion of this personal liability is that it should reposition analysts as the supervisor’s best friend. After all, they’re the final backstop before the supervisor’s enclosure is handed back.

This discussion produced another eye-opener for us all. Although it’s always been the LARC’s responsibility to ensure that an enclosure is free from asbestos when handed back, supervisors have never been given formal training in this as part of their initial or refresher training. This is something I’d personally always assumed was included. And if that incorrect assumption runs all the way up to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), it would lead to this critical competence issue being overlooked at licence assessment.

I and the other organisers hope that this will be the first of many workshops, with feedback provided to the FAAM conference, and ultimately that our findings will also inform future analyst and supervisor training. The ideal outcome is that joint training in this key competency becomes a routine reality.

I’d like to extend my special thanks to Kellie Naughton of AEC, Ian Halpin of RSK, Liam Bodger of Emchia, Nick Butters of ABP, Aidie O’Neil of East Coast Insulation, Nicola Ratcliffe of TRAC-Associates, John Malloy of RS Asbestos, Neil Hardy of IATP and Phil Roberts of the HSE, who all very generously gave up their time to make this workshop possible.

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.

Revisiting the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday February 9th 2023

Last December the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) completed its second post-implementation review (PIR) of the Control of Asbestos Regulations, 2012. A PIR is essentially a state-of-the-nation report to look at whether a set of regulations are working, whether they’re achieving the intended aims, and whether there were any unintended consequences. PIRs are enshrined in the regulations themselves – i.e. as part of the regs, the HSE has to mark itself every five years to make sure it’s achieving what it set out to do.

PIRs are typically huge documents, containing a great deal of evidence. This one is no exception. It includes minute detail on who responded to the associated questionnaire. This time, 1,850 people did, which is clear evidence of the importance our small industry attaches to this legislation.

The people who responded were broken down as follows:

  • 6% of responders conducted licensable work
  • 0% conducted non-notifiable work
  • 1% conducted notifiable non-licensed work
  • 0% conducted ‘other’ types of asbestos-related work
  • 4% who manage asbestos via ‘Duty to Manage’ requirements

PIR-Asbestos-Graph

Those figures make it clear that the industry as a whole was engaged in the process.

One unusual thing is that this PIR was delayed by six months. This was for good reasons – the HSE wanted to incorporate the findings and feedback from the Work and Pensions Committee report. Mostly, though, how this featured was where the HSE referred back to its written response to the committee, or even that it fell outside of the scope of the questions they asked the responders – so not much extra light shone on the recommendations.

After the delay, the PIR is now published, and is a vast 160 pages long. If you’re interested in more detail, fortunately the good people at NORAC have boiled it down to something more digestible. In a nutshell, it’s all good, and there are no plans to change the legislation at this time – which hopefully will save it from the bonfire of the European legislation that is coming our way.

How well are duty holders managing asbestos?

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday December 7th 2022

The recent Work and Pensions Committee report on asbestos management has started to move the conversation in some very positive directions. I wrote recently of how 13 of the committee’s 16 recommendations had been taken up by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which was actively investigating how to implement them. As I understand it, such a positive hit rate from a select committee report is near unheard of.

One recommendation that isn’t being adopted is that there should be a national database of asbestos. Like many in the industry, I’ve written about the shortsightedness of this decision, but it has had a very interesting result – the industry is attempting to fill the void itself.

This is principally happening through two initiatives. In the first, UKNAR, Asbestos Smart and Open Asbestos are working to bring all of the asbestos software companies together. The goal is to make it easier to communicate asbestos registers to the people at risk, i.e. those that need to know.

The second initiative owes its existence mostly to the HSE’s assertion that we don’t know what we don’t know. In other words, that there isn’t much data available to measure the effectiveness of duty holders’ management of asbestos in the real world. And what evidence the HSE does have (through visits to properties) is broadly very positive.

Now, the asbestos consultants reading this would have mostly spat their tea out, as it didn’t match what we were seeing. Happily, ATaC and NORAC stepped up to investigate and create a report on what we really do know. Their exercise is intended to be repeated annually, so that we will effectively get a grade card of how well we are doing and how things are changing over time.

The result is a very impressive example of joint research and collaboration. The data set is vast, taking in more than a million lines of information. The data covered 128,761 individual sites, and of these, 100,660 contained asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). The analysis was complicated by the range of terminology used, and some significant reconciliation was needed. Despite this, the study was able to produce some really impressive headline stats.

Damage in the details

A total of 710,433 ACMs were identified. These were mostly non-licensed materials, but some 157,940 (spread over 32,814 buildings) were the higher risk ACMs such as asbestos insulation board (AIB) and pipe insulation. Some 10,054 (6%) of these ‘licensable’ ACMs were deemed to have medium damage, and 19,347 (12%) high damage.

The researchers also segregated between new surveys and reinspection reports (i.e. known asbestos that was being re-checked as part of a management plan). The latter showed:

  • 4,769 medium-damage licensable products
  • 10,452 high-damage licensable products

It’s clearly a very impressive piece of research, and as a point-in-time spot check on asbestos it is an enormously useful data set. But other than “we still have a lot of asbestos” and “there is a long road yet to walk”, what does it tell us?

It’s clear that the report isn’t set up to be a worthy, academic piece. In fact, I think that its messaging was intentionally straightforward. The bulk of the report is given over to ‘Findings’, but it’s actually a blend of the findings and the authors’ take on what this data means.

To my eyes there’s a lack of nuance. For example, in one of the sections it suggests that the very fact that reinspection surveys identified 10,452 ACMs with high damage indicates that either:

  • the material has been like that since the survey and ignored by the duty holder, or
  • It has deteriorated/been damaged in the intervening 12 months

The report suggests that either way it demonstrates poor management of the risk. That might be the case, but it could also be that the number was nearer to 12,000 a year ago, and that the duty holders are prioritising their remediation plan, for example by locking away the rest so it is no risk to anyone. The same information could now be seen as evidence of excellent management. We just don’t know.

Perhaps I’m looking at it too deeply, and the point of this first report is just to get the attention of the layperson. I certainly hope it achieves that, but its real value (and it should be huge) will come when it’s repeated year on year. Do we see the percentage of asbestos in poor condition reducing? Are we eliminating ACMs? Are we moving fast enough?

Or, as the report seemingly indicates now, are we actually seeing inactivity, and an attitude more akin to box-ticking than active management of risk? I look forward to finding out, and for us all to be able to act on the answer.

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.

Asbestos Network guidance on personal monitoring, health, and exposure records

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday June 16th 2022

It feels like we’ve been talking about personal monitoring a lot lately, and rightly so. It’s a critically important part of ensuring the safety of people working in asbestos management, and yet to date there has been a lack of official guidance on it.

However, since 2019 the Asbestos Network (formerly Asbestos Leadership Council) has been working on creating some. It’s my understanding that this summer is the targeted release date. It can’t come too soon, particularly given that some recent licence applicants have been hauled over the coals for supposed failings – which seems unfair when there’s no definitive guidance to go by.

I want to examine the new guidance based on the latest draft. I’ll lay out the main points of it, but I strongly suggest you also give the original a read, and provide your feedback through your trade organisation. You can find the ACAD draft guidance page here (you’ll need to be logged in). ARCA doesn’t seem to publish draft versions of AN minutes on its guidance page, but you will be able to provide feedback through comments.

Overview

The first very welcome news is that the guidance is broad. By this I mean it recognises that personal monitoring is a means to several ends. Rather than focusing just on the initial testing, the guidance examines why you are doing the testing, and how you use the results for the practical ‘ends’.

As it stands, the guidance starts with those ends, and what it says is pretty much straight out of existing documentation:

  1. Establish that the four-hour control limit is not liable to be exceeded (after all controls including respiratory protective equipment)
  2. Check the effectiveness of control measures to ensure worker exposure is reduced as low as is reasonably practicable
  3. Select or confirm that the RPE in use is capable of providing the appropriate degree of protection
  4. Ascertain whether the exposure is sporadic and low intensity, and that the short term (10-minute) limit has not been exceeded
  5. Support current and future risk assessments. This is an extension of the second bullet, i.e. if the controls were not as effective as you anticipated, re-check any improvements you make.
  6. Provide medical surveillance records

My understanding is that this part of the guidance might be trimmed further, with more emphasis placed on health records (largely the four-hour time-weighted average) and the effectiveness of controls. This interpretation is reinforced by the choice of tests currently selected from the Analysts’ Guide for further detail:

Specific short-duration activity (SSDA) Monitoring 

This is the workhorse test that you will use most of the time. It is used to test a specific activity (i.e. to satisfy goals two and five above). The guidance talks about the importance of really focusing on the individual task. To this end it stresses that it is 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.

The guidance doesn’t yet state what parameters you should follow for this type of test (but it will in later drafts). 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 (see below).

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

The second test that the guidance highlights is the dreaded 4Hr TWA – although hopefully these will be far less opaque if you’ve read my previous articles on the subject.

Not in the guidance yet is an explanation as to why on earth we should be doing these tests, beyond ‘it’s for the health records’ or ‘the HSE says so’. 

Here’s my understanding. 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. If we all pick different rules for these tests, it will be a mass of confusing numbers that could be interpreted in a whole host of ways. If however, we all follow an official internationally recognised method, proven to give good results, we have more of a chance at telling the real story.

Back to the guidance. The first thing it makes clear is that these tests are less about the activity, and more about the person exposed. If an operative is building an enclosure in the morning and then removing asbestos in the afternoon – it is the afternoon’s work that you would want to test. If the operative is removing nailed AIB for two hours, and then fine cleaning for one hour before exiting the enclosure, we don’t need to worry too much about splitting the testing down to capture the different activities – but you definitely need to catch that initial peak exposure.

Compared to other parts of the document, this section seems to be in need of a lot more work. Hopefully it will use plain English to detail that we are looking at four hours of activity, but that you are allowed to make some assumptions. Crucially, the guidance needs to underline that it’s NOT a four-hour test – it’s a four-hour calculation.

To understand this, look again at the example above. The operative is exposed for a total of three hours, so you could therefore assume nil exposure for the rest to make it up to four hours. It’s also worth remembering that if you test for two hours, but the activity runs for four, you are allowed to extrapolate the result to give you figures for the full four hours.

Again, the test parameters are not detailed yet, but these would be a flow rate of one to two litres per minute, and a minimum volume of 240 litres. Meeting this volume is crucial, given that there’s some flexibility in the testing parameters.

Keen observers will note that there is some overlap here. If the standard test you commission is two litres per minute for two hours, this will give you the minimum volume you need to qualify for the 4Hr TWA and also the SSDA. It’s therefore an opportunity to greatly increase how many of these ‘tests’ you complete. Whether the guidance will explicitly spell this out is yet to be seen.

Confused? Read my deeper dive into the 4Hr TWA

Unpicking the language

The personal monitoring guidance will also unpick some of the arcane language used by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and analysts. In particular, it tries to explain the following:

Limit of quantification, calculated results and reported results

The limit of quantification (LoQ) is a calculated level of asbestos found, above which the analyst can be confident of the result. Below the LoQ, the counted fibres are so few and far between that some could have been missed. The guidance explains this, then goes on to tell you how to calculate the LoQ, which is probably too much detail for the purpose of the document.

Calculated result. This is effectively the analyst’s ‘workings out’. It is never the final answer, and should be taken with a grain of salt. The reason? It’s often below the LoQ, which we already know is the lower limit of confidence. You, as the user of the data, should always refer to the reported result.

Reported result. This is the analyst’s answer to the question – ‘what was the exposure?’ It will either be equal to or above the LoQ (i.e. the analyst has confidence in reporting it).

It might help to look at a couple of simple examples:

LoQ stated as 0.05

Calculated result 0.01

Reported result <0.05

As the analyst I can only be confident if the result is above 0.05. This is below that, so all I can be sure about is that it is less than my LoQ.

LoQ stated as 0.05

Calculated result 0.06

Reported result 0.06

I can only be confident if the result is above 0.05, and this is above that, so I am comfortable reporting 0.06.

Next, the guidance looks at what level of detail you need to record. The short answer is: ‘more’. The guidance recognises that historically, licensed asbestos-removal contractors made fairly simple records such as ‘AIB removal’, ‘pipe insulation removal’ etcetera. This is now considered insufficient for the obvious reason that removing nailed-on AIB is a very different job to screwed AIB, never mind glued AIB. The minimum parameters you should be detailing are now: activity, the nature of the asbestos-containing material (ACM), and the fixing used to install it.

Health Records

The final point I listed right at the beginning of this review was health surveillance records, and it does look like the guidance will give a very good steer on what this entails.

Outside of the asbestos industry, employers need to keep employee records for up to six years after the employee leaves the business. In our industry, however, employee health records have to be kept for a very long time – specifically, 40 years after the last entry, or until the employee would be (or would have been) aged 80: whichever is longest. For example, if you employ a 22-year-old for three months, you should keep their health records until they turn 80. If an employee retires at 55, you must keep their health records until they turn 95.

Health records are formed from the exposure records that we have been discussing up to this point, and in particular the 4Hr TWA data. In addition they include:

  1. Employee personal details
  2. The average duration of exposure in hours per week 
  3. A record of any asbestos work an employee did before their employment started
  4. Dates of medical examinations
  5. The system you used for ensuring medicals are planned and undertaken

These can all be from separate records or systems. Records one and three will come from your HR data. Four and five are more related to your personnel certificate management system.

The second one is a little more tricky. The approved code of practice (L143) requires the recording of exposure duration and fibre levels, but it doesn’t require these to be multiplied together to provide a measure of dose in fibre hours; that requirement was retired in 2006. What your system does need to do is give the individual worker a breakdown of their actual exposure against your company’s anticipated levels.

Summing up

It’s important to remember this remains draft guidance – and it could be some months off being issued formally. What’s more, the HSE is not in the market of giving you a specific solution. Instead, its guidance makes clear your duties and – if written well – should give you a steer as to what they mean in practice. The actual solution is up to you.

Say you implement an extensive system of Excel spreadsheets that you religiously maintain, and data-mine for the answer to different questions. As long as you already record all of the information that the new guidance demands – and your Excel skills for reports, charts and queries are up to the task – there will be little extra work here. 

For the rest of us, the presence of guidance brings a very real problem: when it is out, your performance can be measured against it.

Fortunately, I’m able to offer some reassuring news to the Assure360 community. All of our users are already covered, as the ‘new’ three-tiered approach (activity-ACM-fixing) has been in place since I created the system. Also, our comprehensive suite of reports provides all the required detail you’ll need for employee health records, 4Hr TWA calculations and much, much more.

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.

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.”

The HSE’s new risk assessment guidance, and where it misses the point

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday April 20th 2022

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – or rather its Asbestos Network – is about to release some new guidance on non-asbestos risk assessments. Regular readers will know that this is an area very close to my heart. However, as the guidance stands I’m concerned that it will actually set back the industry’s understanding of the process.

The Asbestos Network starts well, explaining that risk management is about taking practical steps to protect people from real harm and suffering, rather than just bureaucratic back covering. It also states that risk assessment should focus on reducing significant risks, and not creating a totally risk-free situation.

The guidance goes on to identify the difference between everyday risks, standard risks and site-specific risks.

Everyday risks

These are those areas that we all experience all of the time. Examples would be getting in or out of the van, driving to the site, preparing lunch and so on. If the task at hand will not change the risk associated with the hazard, then we can ignore these for the purposes of a risk assessment.

Standard risks

These are incredibly routine, every-job situations that can be dealt with using a standard company approach. Examples might include:

  • Manual handling – waste transportation to the skip via a wheelie bin
  • Working at height – building a two-metre tall enclosure, requiring short step ladders
  • Biological hazard (e.g. leptospira bacteria) – wearing of gloves, no smoking on site, hygiene and welfare

These standard approaches can all be detailed in the standard operating procedures (SOPs), and need not be re-assessed with every project.

Take as an example the removal of a one-metre squared asbestos insulating board (AIB) panel, from eye level in a social housing bike store, 10 miles from your HQ. This incorporates some standard everyday risks – a manual handling hazard, working at height (building the enclosure), and Leptospirosis – but we don’t need to spend much time thinking about it as they’re all entirely routine.

Site-specific risks

This is the area that we should be focusing on. Site-specific risks fall into two categories: everyday and standard risks that have somehow been increased or changed because of the job, and new hazards introduced because of the task or location.

By just revising a couple of aspects in the above example, we can see how site-specific risks might completely alter the nature of the job. Imagine we’re removing the same AIB panel, but now at four metres above ground, and 300 miles from the office. Several things change. Driving that kind of distance towing a decontamination unit (DCU) is no longer round the corner, obviously. You’ll also need different methods to physically get to the panel, which may well affect the physical handling.

These changes must be assessed and new control measures designed. Breaks for the driving? A two day job with digs? What’s certain is that working at height now means you need a scaffold tower, and operatives with PASMA training. The manual handling (lifting equipment up to height, and the AIB down to the ground) will also be much more complex, and require appropriate controls.

Anything New?

This guidance confirms the relatively common aspirational goal of returning to the site just ahead of the official start date as best practice. Wherever reasonably practicable you should re-assess the hazards – has anything changed? Is the location of the DCU still appropriate? Are there any new hazards?

To underline the importance of recognising that things change, the guidance also stresses that the supervisor should be conducting their own daily risk assessments. Essentially, a competent experienced supervisor should not blindly follow an out of date method, just because that’s what was written. You may know this practice as point of work risk assessment – in their wisdom, the Asbestos Network terms it ‘dynamic risk assessment’.

To be clear, I fundamentally agree with all of this approach, but I have some relatively minor objections to a couple of specific examples:

Working at height Mobile tower required to access asbestos-containing material (ACM) for removal. PASMA trained operatives (named) to erect, with hold point in plan of work (PoW) and checked by supervisor to ensure this is correctly built prior to removal activity
Confined space Purging air to be introduced to facilitate works with trained site team, escape set provision and continuous gas monitoring in place throughout confined space (CS) working

My problem with the first example is on a practical point – the chances of knowing that Steve the PASMA-trained operative will be assigned to a particular job in a number of weeks’ time is remote to say the least. Naming the specific operative shouldn’t be necessary.

The second is a lazy example that encourages a very poor attitude to confined space. It falls into the trap of taking a standardised approach that fails to recognise the specifics of why a space is confined, and what the exact risks are. In some cases, rolling out these standard controls would make matters worse, as I’ve previously explained in my analysis of the Confined Spaces Guidance.

This is the example they should have given:

Confined space (due to risk of reduced oxygen levels)  Purging air to be introduced to facilitate works with trained site team, escape set provision and continuous gas monitoring in place throughout CS working

There is also a final paragraph on quantitative risk assessments (i.e. risk assessments (RAs) with numbers), which states that they are not needed. The logic is that they are ‘only required to prioritise the controls’, and that because it’s a licensed activity you will be doing all of the controls. It is difficult to argue against this, but there may be a practical issue, as many PC clients will not recognise a RA without the quantification element.

What is the purpose of a risk assessment?

Other than these ‘minor’ points, the guidance contains sound advice. But I have a more fundamental issue with this as a standalone separate piece of guidance.

A simple way to think about risk assessment is that it’s like an exam. There is the question, and an answer – but you will also have your workings out. In the world of construction and asbestos – the method statement (how you’re going to do the job) is the ‘answer’, and the risk assessments are your workings out.

The answer is crucial, but the only way you can be sure to get the ‘right’ answer is after you’ve done the workings out. Far too many people make the mistake of seeing risk assessments and method statements as two separate exercises – or even worse two separate documents – and that’s exactly the trap that the current guidance as written is ushering us into.

Instead, the biggest section of the guidance should be focusing on how to translate the identified controls into the method itself. This ‘lost chapter’ in your method statement should have a work area set up section talking about using the hoist to lift the negative pressure unit (NPU) into position. It should be detailing the bagging of the AIB on the scaffold, and then the lowering of it to an operative on the ground. If indeed there is a confined space due to oxygen depletion, it should detail exactly how and when you will be introducing purging air (before you even start building the enclosure, I would presume).

What the current document tells us to do is complete a site-specific risk assessment (good), streamline it so that readers can focus on what is important without the fog of the mundane (great), and check regularly that it’s still valid (brilliant). But not once does it mention the reason we are doing this in the first place – writing a method that the employees can follow that will get them home safely (fail).

Nominations open for the FAAM Committee

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday March 10th 2022

Earlier this year the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) announced multiple vacancies on its board, along with its two faculty committees. Of these important bodies, regular readers will know well the Faculty of Asbestos Assessment and Management (FAAM) Committee, which is expanding with the addition of five new members.

I’m excited to have been invited to run for election to one of these new positions on the FAAM Committee. I’m especially honoured given the calibre of the others in the list of nominees – I’m standing alongside many highly respected names, and very grateful to Sam Collins and Yvonne Waterman for putting me forward.

I wanted to serve up a brief reminder of the role of FAAM, and how the Committee and its members shape its direction and decision making. The faculty exists as the professional home for all of us who deal with asbestos as part of their work in the UK. Its key focus is on supporting and ensuring the competency and expertise of its members, with the goal of reducing the ongoing issues – such as mesothelioma and other cancers – that relate to historic asbestos use in the UK.

The FAAM Committee exists to steer this work. In FAAM’s own words, it’s there to “act as the guardian of professional standards and ethics in the profession of asbestos assessment and management.”

In practice, this means regular meetings at which the FAAM Committee works towards developing and maintaining standards for the profession. Committee members take part in discussions around qualifications and faculty membership, participating in disciplinary matters, and generally helping to ensure that the Committee continues to deliver against its objectives and satisfy its overall purpose.

It’s an exciting and important role, for a vitally important faculty, focusing on one of the biggest ongoing health and infrastructure challenges faced by this country. As I say, I’m honoured to even be in the running, and I wish all the nominees the very best of luck in the forthcoming election.

__________

If you’re a FAAM member, you should already have received an email inviting you to vote, sent on behalf of Alex Wilson, BOHS Honorary Secretary. If you haven’t seen it, please do check your junk mail folder, as my own invitation landed there.

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.

 

“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!

Probing the subtleties of the new Analysts’ Guide

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday July 15th 2021

As you’ll almost definitely know by now, in April the Health and Safety Executive finally released its new Analysts’ Guide. I say finally, because as you’ll also know, the update was previously in the works for more than five years.

It’s been a very long road. The original consultation document was optimistically called ‘Asbestos: The Analysts’ Guide 2016 HSG248’. Like many others, I originally sent in my return to the consultation in November 2015. In 2017 I drafted my white paper, which summarised, analysed and commented on it. At the time, I anticipated that I’d be updating that promptly, but the real thing didn’t appear for more than another three years.

Despite this long gestation, the guide still has a few niggles – not least of which are a number of typos, some of which need clarification. I won’t be concentrating on these here, but I do think it’s likely the HSE will be targeting them in a minor revision before too long.

The big changes – and a typo

I’m not intending to focus on the big changes, in part because the majority of them were telegraphed in the original draft doc and then subsequently ‘leaked’ – we’ve had a long time to talk about them. The biggest example of this is the Supervisor Handover Form, which has been in wide but not universal circulation for a while.

However, now that it is in the guidance, for all practical purposes it becomes mandatory for the supervisor to hand one of these, fully completed, to the analyst before they can start on the four-stage clearance (4SC). This will also be something that the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) will be checking when they do their visits to the labs. Assure360 was an immediate adopter of this, so if you’re already using the Assure360 Paperless app you don’t need to do anything.

Discover how Assure360 Paperless helps keep you within the guidelines.

If, however, you haven’t started using the now ‘mandatory’ form, be aware that the template on page 202 of the guide contains a typo. The form asks ‘Has the NPU been switched off and new pre-filter inserted?’ Of course, we all know that this is done by the analyst after they are satisfied that stage two has been passed and they are ready to start the air test.

The asbestos enclosure handover form widely shared by ACAD had this typo rectified – you could contact your trade organisation to get their corrected version. If you do use the one from the guide, be sure to brief your teams on the correct way to use it.

Getting into the subtleties

As I say, I don’t want to focus on the typos, but rather I want to pick up some of the less obvious changes that people might have missed.

Throughout, the Analysts’ Guide stresses the client’s responsibilities with regard to protecting the health of people who work in or on their building. The underlying subtext is that this includes the analyst and the asbestos removal operative. Clients also have fairly extensive duties under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM) to ensure that a project can be carried out without risk – so far as is reasonably practical. The combination of these factors could be that the client’s duties extend to cover previously grey areas.

It seems curious that the HSE is effectively extending the well known position that the client and not the licensed asbestos removal contractor (LARC) should appoint the analyst. The reason for this is that the analyst’s four-stage clearance is the final quality control audit prior to handing back for normal occupation, and any conflict of interest at this point is bad.

So far so normal, but the change comes with the highlighting of less formal conflicts in paragraphs 1.23 and 1.24:

“…where the contractor is a major source of work…” and;

“The analyst should not perform site clearance certification where such shared links exist. However, if shared links are unavoidable, the building client should be made fully aware of them. This should be in writing.”  

Any such links would therefore generate a UKAS-verifiable paper trail. It will be interesting to see what kind of an impact this will have on the industry.

Regardless, the inevitable conclusion that strikes me is that if personal monitoring is mandatory (it is), and the HSE is giving out a very strong steer that the client should appoint the analyst directly, then the client-appointed analyst should be conducting the LARC’s personal monitoring. It would then be inevitable that if they do, it will form part of the health records of that individual, and must be shared immediately with their employer (the LARC).

This might not seem controversial to those of you removed from the coal face, but the reality is that in many cases client-appointed analysts are refusing to share this crucial data with the LARC on the grounds that ‘the client has paid for it – so we can’t hand it over.’ It is my understanding that the HSE’s position on this will be made crystal clear in upcoming guidance on personal monitoring.

Personal monitoring, again

The most significant of the subtle changes in the new analysts’ guide centres around personal monitoring. I first wrote about these based on the final draft version of the guide. In short, a new type of personal sample has been added: the Specific Short Duration Activity (SSDA) test.

It’s this test that most contractors have tried to use in recent years as it has the most immediate, practical effect – i.e. they use it to test the effectiveness of their methods and make changes as appropriate. The problem has been that as it wasn’t listed in the guidance, analysts were tending to only do the 10-minute version, which is useless in all but a few cases.

Now the HSE has given the optimal test a name, LARCs should immediately adopt the terminology, and request ‘SSDA Personals’ whenever they book personal monitoring tests.

There are dark arts involved in the calculation of four-hour time-weighted average (4hr TWA), and LARCs can take another step that will increase the utility of any personal monitoring air testing. Where possible the go-to or standard test should be at least two hours long, and run at a sample rate of two litres per minute. The full 200 fields/graticules should be counted, too. This single test will then qualify for calculating a SSDA, RPE suitability, and the 4hr TWA. Of course, there may be more complex situations, as I explained in my recent deeper dive on the 4hr TWA.

Finally, those of you who have read my earlier posts may remember I pointed out a typo in the late draft of the guide. It specified a four-litre per minute minimum flow rate for the SSDA tests, but this has been corrected in the final version to specify up to four litres.

Want to simplify exposure monitoring? Book a demo today, and see how Assure360 automates the 4hr TWA.

The four-hour time-weighted average – a deeper dive

Written by Nick Garland on Tuesday June 15th 2021

I’ve had a lot of very positive comments on April’s article about personal monitoring and the four-hour time-weighted average. I thought it might be a good idea to take another look – but this time take a deeper dive into the exposure geek pool. In this post I’m going to really focus on the challenges of the four-hour time-weighted average (4Hr TWA), and give a few more examples of how to do it.

What’s the point of the 4hr TWA?

It’s important to start with a quick refresher on the point of the 4hr TWA. Sam Lord of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently summed it up neatly: the point of 4Hr TWA control limit testing is to really look at compliance, not just nod to it.

I discussed the wider context of the testing and explained the terminology in my previous post. The key point is that the four-hour control limit test is a duty-of-care test, intended to really examine whether we have complied with our duties as an employer.

To recap, the test specifications are:

Test Sample Rate (litres/min) Minimum Volume Minimum Graticules Resulting LoQ
4-hour Control Limit 1-2 240 100 0.04 f/ml

 

The control limit is 0.1 fibres per millilitre of air (f/ml) over four hours – measured inside the mask.

The newly (finally) published Analysts’ Guide specifies a simplified version of the World Health Organisation method – an attempt to increase the frequency at which these tests are being completed.

Despite referring to it as a ‘test’, it is better to think of the four-hour TWA as a calculation. It is intended to represent what happened to that person over a continuous four-hour period – it tells a story, if you like. The simplified rules are:

  • Sample rate must be 1-2 litres per minute
  • The total volume of air sampled must be 240 litres or more

There’s a very important point to make here: you don’t have to do a single four-hour air test to calculate a valid 4hr TWA. What you do need is a record of what happened over those four hours, with test results that support the ‘story’.

The HSE’s simplified approach to this is to require a minimum total air volume of 240 litres. If you do the maths, that means you need at least a two-hour (120-minute) test at two litres per minute.

However, now the analysts’ guide is out, it’s clear that how you get to those numbers is a bit more flexible. You could conduct three individual tests one after the other. Importantly, certain assumptions can also be drawn.

The calculation

Let’s go through some examples of how you do these calculations by hand. The calculations for all of these examples are taken directly from the new analysts’ guide. Please note that the HSE works in hours and fractions of hours, rather than minutes.

Also, before I start, I should point out that while the sums are straightforward, the calculations are yet another burden for asbestos professionals. Later on I’ll explain how Assure360 can do it all for you.

Example 1 – a series of tests to paint a picture

Consider this shift inside the enclosure:

  1. Removal of asbestos insulating board (AIB) tiles for 30 minutes (0.5hrs), with a result of 0.15f/ml
  2. Boring out of fixing holes for 45 minutes (0.75hrs), with a result of 0.1f/ml
  3. Fine cleaning of the enclosure for two hours and 45 minutes (2.75hrs), with a result of 0.06f/ml

Because we know the sample rate was at least one litre per minute, and the total test duration is four hours, we know that the total air volume exceeds the magic number of 240 litres. In this case we can tell the story of the whole four hours.

This is where the ‘time-weighted’ bit comes in – we multiply each of the measurements by the duration of that specific activity to calculate total exposure. Then we divide by the total duration to produce an effective average exposure rate for the entire duration of the tests:

Picture 1

Example 2 – what if the work lasts more than four hours?

An activity will often carry on beyond the tested period. In this case, the guidance says you can assume that the exposure continued at the same rate, provided the minimum flow rate and sample volume are met. Consider this activity:

  1. Removal of nailed-on AIB for six hours.
  2. Tested at two litres per minute, for three hours and 20 minutes, with a result of 1.2f/ml.

Here, the test duration and flow rate ensure the total sample volume is well over the minimum 240 litres. Accordingly, you can assume that the last 40 minutes of the four-hour window would be same as the result of the actual testing:

Picture 1

Example 3 – what if the work lasts less than four hours?

Similarly, where the work (and the air test) last for less than four hours, we can extrapolate. Consider this morning’s work:

  1. Removal of asbestos pipe lagging for two and a half hours.
  2. Tested at 1.6 litres per minute, for two and a half hours, with a result of 2.5f/ml.
  3. Operative exits the enclosure and no more exposure happens (e.g. lunch)

Again, as the sampling rate was 1.6 litres per minute for 150 minutes, this means that the total sample volume meets the 240-litre minimum. Accordingly, we can calculate a four-hour TWA:

Picture 3

Of course, if you’ve got the computing skills, you can create a spreadsheet that will do all of that for you. Alternatively it can be done by hand every time. But while the former is bad enough, the latter is quite soul destroying – and either could be prone to mistakes.

Making it simple

Happily we’re able to offer Assure360 customers an alternative. I’ve long sought to simplify personal monitoring for licenced asbestos removal contractors (LARCs), and I want to support the HSE’s renewed push to improve it. We’ve added a new TWA tool to the Assure360 platform, allowing the system to do the heavy lifting for you – and saving hours.

Last month our Paperless app was enhanced so that, along with the test result, it will collect three more data points:

  • Flow rate
  • Duration of the air test
  • RPE worn

Now that this data is being collected, the Assure360 database reports will, over the coming weeks, give you more and more power to do TWA calculations.

We’re already providing the original simple time-weighted result for every compliant test. We also calculate it for every situation where it is known that exposure continued for the full four hours. Next month we will be adding a system to pool multiple results together, to complete the suite of tools.

By automating calculation of the four-hour TWA, I hope that we can help ensure that more four-hour tests are carried out, and fewer mistakes and misunderstandings made. More than anything, we want to help the HSE improve the depth and quality of personal monitoring, and improve the safety of everyone who works in our industry.

Want to see first-hand how Assure360 Paperless simplifies the four-hour TWA? Why not get in touch to book a free demonstration?

Personal monitoring and the four-hour TWA

Written by Nick Garland on Monday April 19th 2021

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is getting ever closer to the release of its new analysts’ guide – intended to help analysts and their clients comply with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and its Approved Code of Practice (ACoP). I’m reliably informed it will be coming in the next month or two. I know we have all heard this before, but it really does seem to be imminent now.

UPDATE – May 2021: The guide is now published. Click here to download the Analysts’ Guide from the HSE website.

As I highlighted in my review of last November’s FAAM conference, there are some important changes to the guide’s personal monitoring section. These add to an impression that the HSE is taking personal monitoring increasingly seriously, and trying to get to the bottom of why it is generally done so poorly.

If you are struggling to wrap your head around personal monitoring, be reassured that it is a complex subject that often feels academic, with no practical benefit. And if it makes you feel any better, be aware that not everyone at the HSE understands it fully either.

Be careful what you ask for

In regard to personal monitoring, the HSE seems to be asking ‘why do we never get what we ask for?’. In my view, the reason is that the whole subject has never really been communicated with people on the ground (the actual doers) in mind. Here’s an extract from the draft new analysts’ guide:

 

Test Sample Rate (l/min) Minimum Volume Minimum Graticules Resulting LoQ
4-hour Control Limit 1-2 240 100 0.04 f/ml
10-minute short term exposure limit 4 40 100 0.24 f/ml
Specific short duration activity 4 120 100 0.08 f/ml
Assessment of suitability of RPE >0.2-4 40 100 0.24 f/ml

First, a quick explanation for those of you not familiar with the terminology:

Graticules – if you have ever looked down an analyst’s microscope, a graticule is the little target. Stating how many graticules is effectively a statement as to how long / hard an analyst should read the slide. The longer they look, the more accurate the test.

LoQ – a favourite acronym of us exposure geeks. It stands for Limit of Quantification, but what does that mean? It’s a threshold describing the sensitivity of the test: in effect, the analysts are saying ‘We don’t know exactly how much asbestos is there, but if it were above this number we would have found it all.’

All air tests have a  LoQ which varies depending on the specifics of the test: how hard the pump was working (the sample rate), how long the test continued, and how many graticules were inspected. The more air you sample and the harder you examine it, the more sensitive the test is. If you find less asbestos than the LoQ (including none at all), you can’t be sure of this – so you say it was below the limit.

Back to the table. In a change from the existing analysts’ guide, you’ll see there are now four personal monitoring tests. Here’s what they’re for:

Four-hour Control Limit – this is a duty-of-care report: the employer is legally required to do these to demonstrate that individual workers are not exposed to asbestos above a certain limit, over a long period of time. That limit is 0.1 fibres per millilitre of air (f/ml) over four hours.

What you might not realise is that this is inside the RPE that you have provided. The other thing to remember is that these are tests associated with the individual being exposed – not the activity. So when analysing the data, make sure it is person-focused. I’ll go into more detail on these dreaded four-hour time-weighted average (TWA) tests later.

Ten-minute short-term exposure limit – this is the second legally mandated duty of care report. This test is intended to measure short-duration, high-intensity activity, and the limit is 0.6 fibres / ml inside the mask. Essentially this test is to detect brief ‘spikes’ in asbestos concentration, even when the average over four hours was acceptably low.

It’s very hard to achieve meaningful results in these tests. It’s obviously easy for the operative to be ‘painfully careful’ for 10 minutes, avoiding the kind of activity that might have otherwise produced a spike.

Assessment of suitability of RPE – this aims to gauge whether the mask was good enough for the task. This is related to the protection factor (PF) of the masks. To calculate it, you divide the exposure by the PF to identify the likely level inside the mask. Well-fitted, powered full-face masks give a protection factor of 40. Orinasal masks are rated at 20. Simple.

Specific short-duration activity (SSDA) – this is the ‘new’ kid on the block. I say ‘new’ as despite it not being on the list before, it is also the test standard that most licensed asbestos removal contractors (LARCs) try to achieve. It is essentially a test of how effective the method was.

The good news is that it is now on the list. The bad news is that the HSE has stated a sample rate of four litres per minute. Having spoken to the authors I can assure you that they mean up to four. Hopefully this typo will be amended before publication.

It’s my understanding that the HSE views the two most important tests from this list to be the four-hour control limit, and the SSDA. Indeed, now that SSDAs are on the list we will be able to remove one of the biggest problems to completing personal monitoring: analysts. More specifically, that many analysts do what the guidance tells them without exercising a deeper understanding.

Often, when a personal monitoring test is booked, an analyst concludes that they can’t do the four-hour test because the operative isn’t in the enclosure that long. Instead, they do the 10-minute test, the LoQ for which is so high as to be next to useless. This has been driving the HSE quietly mad for years, but now, when you are booking a personal, you can request a ‘SSDA Personal’.

I hope this will solve the problem, but it doesn’t get away from the lack of understanding surrounding the four-hour test, how to apply it, and how to calculate the results. As promised, we need to dive into them.

The dreaded four-hour time-weighted average tests

As I mentioned, the four-hour TWA tests are the main duty-of-care tests that we are legally mandated to do. They follow a World Health Organisation method which assures a level of accuracy that we would all agree is important when we are talking about people’s long-term health.

We do them because it’s the law, but more importantly because high-accuracy testing is the right thing to do. This is unfortunately easier to say than do. The rules are not widely understood, and the maths underpinning the test is fiendish. So here’s my attempt to simplify the whole topic.

Firstly it is better to think of the four-hour TWA as a calculation, not a test. The rules are that the test underpinning the calculation must look like this:

  • Sample rate must be 1-2 litres per minute
  • The total volume of air samples must be 240 litres or more

That brings us to the second and most important point: you don’t need to do a single four hour air test to calculate a valid four-hour TWA. Obviously running the air test for four hours will make the maths easier – but it is not essential. As long as the initial test is for two litres per minute and is run for at least two hours, we’re in business. What makes up the rest of the four hours can therefore come down to estimates and assumptions.

Squaring the circle

To explain this further, let’s look at a chart that the HSE presented at last year’s FAAM conference:

4Hr_TWA_Chart

The aim is to capture the highest exposure (the initial removal phase) within the four-hour test. But it’s often the case that this doesn’t last for four hours. A second HSE chart helps show how you square the circle:

4Hr_TWA_Chart

Charts by kind permission of Sam Lord HSE.

The activity is split into three distinct phases:

  • Run an air test during the removal of asbestos insulating board (AIB). Note that the HSE example says 2hrs 45mins, but I am going to round down to make it easier
  • Next comes an hour’s break – which we can assume is nil exposure
  • The balance is fine cleaning which would be a second personal monitoring test. In my example below I’ll round this up to one hour to simplify the maths.

On this last bullet – there is a tantalising opportunity. Due to the very low impact of such a short low exposure event, it may be possible to build up a library of test results to populate the last bit of the calculation. But as only tests that comply with the basic WHO rules count, you may have to wait a while to build up the evidence. I have long advocated that the standard test should be one-hour long with a flow rate of two litres per minute. This gives us a decent level of accuracy for short-duration activity tests. If we increase this to two hours as standard, every test we do can be used for any of the HSE’s test categories.

The calculation (and why you don’t have to do it)

I’m going to take you through the steps to do the calculation by hand. But at this stage I should give you a spoiler alert: later in this post I’ll explain that Assure360 can do it all for you!

In the HSE’s example above, the equation is formed from three different work/rest sessions, and what proportion of the four-hour period they take up. As I mentioned – I have rounded the numbers to make it easier:

  1. AIB removal – a result of 0.53f/ml (for two hours)
  2. Assumed nil exposure (for one hour)
  3. Low level exposure at 0.04f/ml (for one hour)

This gives us:

Assure360 4Hr_TWA_Simple_Calc

The trick is to do each of these as separate little sums and add them together (remember zero multiplied or divided by anything is zero):

Assure360 4Hr_TWA_Simple_Calc

This gives you an answer of 0.275f/ml for the four-hour TWA.

If you’ve got the computing skills, you can create a spreadsheet that will do all of that for you. Alternatively it can be done by hand every time. But while the former is bad enough, the latter is quite soul destroying.

Making it simple

Those of you who’ve read my articles before will know that trying to simplify personal monitoring for LARCs could be considered ‘my thing’. I wanted to add my support to the HSE’s renewed push on personal monitoring, so we’ve added a new TWA tool to the Assure360 solution. Just as with everything else we do, a small tweak to the front end allows the system to do the heavy lifting for you – saving hours.

Our Paperless app has now been enhanced so that, along with the test result, it will collect three more data points:

  • Flow rate
  • Duration of the air test
  • RPE worn

The Assure360 database will do everything else for you. It will check the rules to make sure the test qualifies, and it will automatically do the calculation. Every test will be given its four-hour TWA value, and every duty-of-care report will provide the information.

If you are able to specify that all personal monitoring tests are at least two hours long with a flow rate of two litres per minute, it will also automatically start to build up a library of results that could be used to estimate the balance of any exposure

By automating calculation of the four-hour TWA, I hope that we can help ensure that more four-hour tests are carried out, and fewer mistakes and misunderstandings made. Improving the depth and quality of personal monitoring will, I hope, help the HSE reduce exposure in our industry, and improve working conditions for us all.

Want to see first-hand how Assure360 Paperless simplifies the four-hour TWA? Why not get in touch to book a free demonstration?

The Analysts’ Guide was finally published in May 2021. Click here to download it from the HSE website.

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.

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.

Personal monitoring – tackling the elephant in the room

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday September 10th 2020

In its 2018 report on the asbestos analysts inspection programme, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the practice of personal sampling was very poor. Tests were predominantly run for only 10-30 minutes and included very limited information on what the operative was doing at the time. Together this leads to such small sample sizes that the reported results are alarmingly high, yet it provides no information to understand what led to ‘hugh’ reading. In short, it’s near useless.

In contrast, the HSE judged background monitoring to be good. It found accurate counting of fibres, plus floor plans and contextual information that illustrated clearly what was going on.

But here’s the issue: the skill set for both of these areas is fundamentally identical, and yet one was found to be very poor and the other excellent It seems to me that the problem is one of ignorance about what the tests are for. Background tests are broadly understood, but personal monitoring much less so.

Getting more useful results

To get more useful results, we need licensed asbestos removal contractors (LARCs) to focus on why they need to do the test. Despite what many will tell you, they’re not doing it to check that the exposure is below the control limit. In fact they’re attempting to measure how successful their own control measures have been, and use this to drive improvements.

For this to be effective we need as low a limit of quantification (LoQ) as possible. And to achieve this we must have high flow rates, longer durations, and the full 200 graticules read.

Assure360 and its member companies are taking this principle to heart, but we’re also using data to add to a collective, community-based approach. By analysing data shared among the group, we help each other drive improvements. Assure360 members have been recording, analysing and sharing personal monitoring data since 2014. And at the time of writing, 17,818 tests have been processed through the system.

HSE Asbestos Exposure Project

The HSE Science Division (previously HSL) has been conducting further research into improving the quality of sampling results in its Asbestos Exposure Project. The study is examining the life-cycle of asbestos removal projects. It includes working methods, types of masks and air monitoring during the work – and clearance testing at the end.

The research not only shadows the air test results of on-site analysts with electron microscopy, but uses biological monitoring of the removal operatives. The latter involves sputum and breath condensate. In-mask samplers have also been used to determine levels inside the RPE – i.e. asbestos that has bypassed the filter completely. The aim of the study was to establish how effective protective methods are, and whether any changes are required to the guidance.

In the course of the work, the HSE became aware of our vast library of personal monitoring data. Following a request by lead researcher Daniel Barrowcliffe, our member companies asked for it to be shared not just with the research project, but with the wider community. Accordingly I’m delighted to attach two appendices providing the anonymised data from our community.

Appendix 1 – Benchmark Report

Appendix 2 – All Personal Monitoring Data

I’m proud that we’re in a position to help with such an important, and potentially lifesaving bit of research, and I’m particularly grateful to our customers for their willingness to share this data. In particular I’d like to thank Asbestech, Asbestos Essentials, Gwella, Hendersons, Horizon and Sperion for their help with the project.

By sharing our data, I hope we can help drive a greater understanding of the risks faced by asbestos-removal contractors. And, returning to my initial point, I hope we can help push more LARCs to focus on more thorough personal tests. Ideally, we’ll contribute to a change of focus that sees personals not as a box-ticking exercise, but as an opportunity to reduce exposure and risk for those on the front line of dealing with asbestos.

Asbestos blasting gets a lifeline, but is there a better technique?

Written by Nick Garland on Thursday September 10th 2020

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on blasting techniques was released a few years ago by the Asbestos Liaison Group (now the Asbestos Leadership Council) as appendices to meeting minutes. This approach was a handy way of releasing the guidance without all of the pesky red tape that normally plagues official documents. Alas, even this route has now closed – evidenced by the fact that the last one was well over a year ago.

I wrote about the guidance at the time. Technology has changed over the last few years, but the original document started with the recognition that blasting may be required in a few rare circumstances. It also emphasised that the process should only be considered as a last resort, and that it shouldn’t be regarded as a go-to solution.

The guidance also insisted that the use of processes like Quill, Torbo or ice (above other more traditional approaches) must be fully justified by the licensed contractor, with evidence in support. What this translates to is that the method must not merely address and mitigate the significant additional hazards, but that the reasons for introducing them in the first place must be declared and justified.

It’s important to consider those additional hazards, which typically include:

  • High fibre release (HSE results suggest typically 4-10f/ml, but it can be up to 20f/ml)
  • Difficulty conducting mandatory personal monitoring because of the dust and water vapour released during the procedure
  • Noise (>85dB(A))
  • Heavily reduced visibility from dust and water vapour condensation. This reduces the supervisor’s ability to supervise the works
  • Increased manual handling (holding the lance, but also moving the ‘garnet’ around)
  • Risk of enclosure breach
  • Increased risk of blocked negative pressure unit (NPU) filters due to dust and moisture (leading to inadequate ventilation)
  • With dry ice, high levels of carbon dioxide – an asphyxiant and source of positive pressure

At the time there was also a concern about potential high vibration at the lance end. This concern however seems to have been unfounded, or at least it has been mitigated by newer devices. A recent HSE case study has found no significant vibration exposure from the technique.

Why blast?

Regardless, other concerns remain: in particular the potential for very high exposure, and the inability to effectively conduct personal monitoring or supervise the works. So why would anyone still consider blasting?

Clients and analytical consultants are normally the main driver when it comes to blasting, often due to an eagerness for ‘an asbestos-free building’. It would therefore be wise to involve them more fully in the decision making process, and explore whether their reasons for wanting to be asbestos-free outweigh the added hazards from blasting.

Ultimately, the guidance says that blasting should be justified, and that robust processes should be in place to ‘prevent misuse’. Or to put it another way, there should be a review of the justification, and it should be signed off by senior management. The technique must also be declared on the ASB5.

On a more practical level, the amount of waste the technique generates is quite astounding. The contaminated grit is heavy and requires frequent clean up. In addition, the grit itself can impact into the surface you have cleaned – requiring extensive fine cleaning. If you are not very careful, the grit can be blasted beyond the boundaries of the enclosure – spreading the problem by contaminating hard-to-access voids.

New technology making a difference

Blasting clearly presents contractors with additional challenges that make it anything but a silver bullet, and the tightening guidance has generally made it less suitable, more of the time. However, since I last wrote on the subject, new equipment that has become available that could offer a potential lifeline.

For example, Beacon’s smart recirculating NPU is an astonishing piece of kit that allows for prodigious number of air changes – vastly more than the traditional approach. Graham Warren of ACAD wrote a very good summary of how the system works, and how it can improve working conditions in the enclosure.

From the perspective of blasting in particular, the really clever bit is that the Beacon’s NPU combines recirculation and an inline heater. This means that the air inside the enclosure can be kept above the dew point – preventing condensation and drastically reducing the visibility issues and the barrier to personal monitoring.

But while the vibration issues of blasting are less of a concern, and visibility and air testing are much improved, there still remain many issues. If you’re still considering the technique for a project, you should refer to the list of additional controls suggested in the original guidance – I discussed these in my earlier article.

Gunning for blasting

Still, as any H&S professional will tell you, the first thing you should consider is elimination. And in this case, technology improvements among needle guns may make it easier to eliminate blasting as an option.

While blasting requires a huge trailer, needle guns – such as the Trelawny VL303 Needle Scaler, with an electric compressor and dust cowl – are much more portable and convenient. Trelawney’s solution is low vibration, allowing for more than eight hours’ trigger time, and the H-type vacuum attachment ensures that the dust and waste generation is minimal.

So could improved needle guns finally end the need for blasting? Both techniques are slow going, but I’ve spent time talking to supervisors proficient in both, and needle gunning seems to win. I’m sure there may still be times when blasting is the only workable approach, but as the alternatives improve, the justifications for blasting will have to be stronger and stronger to pass muster.

Asbestos licence renewal – the new regime turns one

Written by Nick Garland on Friday April 3rd 2020

The end of March marked an important milestone for anyone working in the asbestos-removal industry: a full year of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s new licensing regime. It’s been a turbulent 12 months, with initial head-scratching giving way to very real challenges for licensed asbestos-removal contractors (LARCs) and the HSE alike.

So what changed, what was it like for people on the front line, and what’s the situation now? In addition to our work helping customers successfully renew their licenses, we’ve been speaking to contacts within industry bodies and the regulator to get the clearest picture. Here’s our take on where we’ve been, where we are, and what’s coming next.

What changed?

For those who haven’t been following the saga, from the start of April 2019 the HSE began piloting a new asbestos-removal licence regime. Its intended goal was to shift some of the onus and therefore workload from the HSE to the licence holder.

Under the previous system, LARCs would submit a comparatively small amount of documentation outlining their competence, and the HSE’s inspectors would come along to assess it for themselves. It was perceived that in some cases, part of that process would involve the HSE assessor rephrasing their questions until the ‘right answer’ was given – a helping hand over the line if you like. All being well, the HSE would renew the licence, applying any conditions it found necessary.

With the new system, the HSE shifted the focus away from its own inspections, placing the onus on LARCs to provide extensive evidence backing up their competence. Key to this is a new, multi-section online form, through which the applicant provides clear evidence to show how they plan, execute and audit jobs to an exemplary standard.

The HSE’s shakeup was long overdue. Like many in the industry, I’d been calling for the abolition of the different length licences seen under the previous system. These were often – mistakenly – seen as an indicator of a contractor’s competence. Asbestos-removal licensing needed to be simplified, and the HSE needed to concentrate on improving industry standards.

On the surface of it, the overhaul was almost exactly what we’d been asking for. Out went variable length approvals in favour of fixed three-year licences without publicly visible conditions attached. And the move away from inspections promised to reduce the workload on already overstretched assessors.

Did it go wrong?

It’s hard to avoid the impression that the changes caught everyone out – including the HSE itself. Launched as a trial with little publicity, early applicants found themselves reapplying through a radically changed system, with precious little guidance on what the new requirements were. LARCs were unsure of the format and content of the evidence that the HSE was after, so the latter soon found itself struggling with the overheads of dealing with inconsistent applications, using wildly different methods of evidencing.

There were other teething problems. Rather than present LARCs with a slick online interface, the new online form actually required evidence to be submitted via emails. Many of the first applicants reported that the incoming size limit was set too low, resulting in submissions not getting through. Before long, applicants faced significant delays to their renewals.

It’s here – around the summer of 2019 – that things started getting dicey. As we continued working to ensure our customers could quickly extract the evidence they needed straight from the Assure360 system, we began hearing horror stories. Many renewals were dragging on for weeks longer than expected, with some LARCs even coming perilously close to having their licence lapse – with the potential risk of losing their business as a result.

Figures compiled by ACAD backup what we were hearing at the time. Over 2018-19 the HSE refused just two licence renewals. During 2019-20 this shot up to 14. Perhaps more significantly, there’s been an acceleration in the falling number of licensed contractors. In the three years from April 2016 to April 2019, the number of LARCs dipped by 6%. There’s been a further 6% fall in just the last 12 months.

While it’s hard to attribute these figures entirely to changes in the licensing system – especially considering the backdrop of Brexit uncertainty and an underperforming economy – anecdotal evidence suggests they were the major component.

The LARCs’ view

Among LARCs we’ve spoken to, Luke Gumbley, director of Emchia, had a fairly typical experience.

“I completed the online form from start to finish. It took me about four weeks, and I think I’d still be there now if it wasn’t for Assure360,” he says. “There were a few teething issues at the start of the new HSE process because their communication wasn’t the best, and I think over the first few months it was hard for applicants to know what evidence to present, and how to present it.”

Discover how we help Luke achieve the high standards he wants to be known for – read the Emchia case study.

Luke’s experience is typical of the kind of feedback we were getting, as customers tried to get their head around the new system in its early days. As another customer drily observed: “Change management is an art in itself.”

“What they’re trying to do is replace one or two days’ interviews with government inspectors with the information that LARCs now have to provide. And because the system’s still in its infancy, it’s not brilliant. For example: it’s not a portal you’re uploading to – you’re just emailing them.”

Many of the LARCs we’ve spoken to are in favour of the online renewals, but figures from ACAD show that they’re in the minority. While 19% prefer the new system, an overwhelming 44% say that it’s worse. There’s broader support for specific changes, however, with 37% agreeing that the new fixed three-year term is an improvement over the previous one, two or three years.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of those who experienced the new system at its most challenging are among its supporters. “While I was doing it I thought it was the worst thing in the world,” says Luke Gumbley. “Now I’m done I’ve come around on the new system. It’s helped me understand my business more and given me confidence that we’re doing exactly what’s required.”

The HSE’s view

While we speak with LARCs daily, we’re also fortunate enough to enjoy good relations with key figures within the regulator. Informal conversations revealed the HSE’s view on how the trial had gone, what could be learned, and what comes next.

A specific challenge that the HSE has experienced is the difficulty LARCs had with organising the email responses in a logical manner. This was compounded by the huge variation in the documents they used for evidence. 

Obviously, the HSE can’t commercially endorse anyone, but our clients have found that we can help with this. With nearly 20% of the industry using our solution, one in five applications will be submitted on a very familiar form.

However, the ALU team recognise that LARCs are businesses, and as such they can’t give 100% of their focus to the renewal. It’s accepted that poor communication and a lack of empathy have been issues. Greater efforts are being made by the HSE to address this, but LARCs also need to improve. Our conversations revealed that many of the ALU’s emails and telephone calls go unanswered as the HSE follow up applications. Their message is to make sure that you provide the best methods of contacting you. My message is to check your spam folder!

Questions of competence

One specific area of concern for the HSE during the trial was LARCs’ wider understanding of hazards beyond asbestos. The specific example given was an apparent misunderstanding of the confined space guidance that came across during one review.

This echoes one of my concerns: that we as an industry can be too focused on the risk posed by the deadly substance we manage, sometimes to the extent that we ignore greater or more immediate dangers. I recently discussed how we, as asbestos professionals, can be blinkered when we think about risk – you can read that article here.

What’s the situation now?

The current COVID-19 crisis notwithstanding, we’ve now entered a period of more stability. The ALU sees the trial as a success, though it recognises that there has been a very steep learning curve for everyone. The trial has now ended, and the new system is the reality for all applicants.

Since autumn 2019, things have generally begun to look up. The HSE’s communication has improved, and guidance on what the HSE expects is much clearer. Today there’s far more support for LARCs as they enter the process, and we’re hearing that for most customers, renewal times are far more reasonable.

We’ve a history of supporting customers through HSE licence renewals, so we’re proud that we were able to help from day one of the new system. We worked hard to introduce and perfect a new, dedicated licensing module, so it’s rewarding that so many of the people we’ve spoken to have cited Assure360 as a major help during the turbulence of the last 12 months.

“Assure quickly enables you to extract the information which will help prove that you are complying with the HSE’s licensing criteria,” explains Clinton Moore, director of Sperion.

“When the HSE asks, for example, ‘Can you demonstrate how you carried out an audit and found something wrong, and what you did about that error and how you applied the training?’, Assure lets you record those processes and do a very simple print out to prove what those processes were and how they were completed.”

Discover how we help Sperion streamline its paperwork and extract more meaning from its site safety data. Read the Sperion case study

Phil Neville, operations director at Asbestech, agrees: “Assure360 makes it very simple to demonstrate to the HSE that we are collecting personal exposure information… and that management see and review it regularly. We can show that we use the information from it to identify trends, but also to identify our anticipated exposure levels – which we need to draw up our method statements.”

“The HSE has stated that they expect licensed asbestos-removal contractors to be ‘exemplary’. Assure360 helps us demonstrate that we are.” Read the Asbestech case study

For Emchia’s Luke Gumbley, the benefits of Assure360 extend beyond the software system itself. “With Assure360 the information I needed was at the tip of my fingers. I leaned on the Assure360 team, asking where the information was and how to present it, and they were great – even sending me links to the actual information for my business, which I could then share with the HSE.”

What’s next?

From our discussions with the HSE, customers and our professional bodies, it’s clear that there’s widespread support for the new system. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still without its flaws.

As I discussed during my recent appearance on the Asbestos Knowledge Empire podcast, there’s a sense that LARCs may previously have benefited from the ‘whites of their eyes’ experience of being grilled in person by HSE inspectors. Anyone who’s been through it will know it can be a daunting process, likely to expose businesses who aren’t completely on top of their processes and record-keeping.

There’s work to be done on the submission process, which still relies on email. The regulator’s ultimate goal is for a portal through which LARCs can upload all their evidence, but developing it is very much a resource-led decision and it could be some way off. In the meantime, careful use of Dropbox should help the process.

Other elements of the experience are already better. The guidance has evolved with a narrowing of the required evidence – the HSE has now been much more specific as to what it wants to see. There is also now a clear timetable to follow. You will get the invitation to reapply for your licence four months ahead of its expiry date.

COVID-19 permitting, the HSE has a 10-week deadline from start to finish, with a commitment to get the decision to you at least 2 weeks before the end. This process includes an admin check, the review itself and a buffer in the middle. So the message for LARCs is to count back from your licence expiry date:

  • Two week minimum notification for asbestos projects
  • 10-week HSE review process

This totals 12 weeks, leaving you only three – four weeks to reply to the invitation, pay the invoice, assemble all the evidence and submit the application. But there is no reason why you can’t be ready ahead of time – you’ll be only too aware of your licence renewal date, so assemble much of the evidence before you get the letter.

Overall, there’s a sense that while the industry has taken a step forward, not everything has improved under the new system. And for those LARCs who found themselves at the forefront of the trial, there was little in the way of support through what for some was a bruising and costly experience. But if the pain of change management was disproportionately borne by one half of the participants, it does at least seem that many lessons have been learned. The next phase of licence assessments will be much easier.

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!

The new asbestos licence regime – and how Assure360 can help

Written by Nick Garland on Monday June 24th 2019

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is in the middle of one of the biggest shakeups of asbestos licensing since the permissioning regime was introduced. I’ve already written about what’s changing, but I want to expand more on how Assure360 is better placed than ever to help customers through the whole licence application process.

The new electronic system of asbestos licence assessments is well into its trial, with multiple organisations already having experienced it. The whole process is radically different for applicants, with much more emphasis being placed on a review of the application and its supporting evidence than on the meeting itself.

When I first heard of the change I was very sceptical – and I know some HSE inspectors have had their doubts. There are obvious advantages to testing the mettle of a potential licensee whilst the asbestos licensing principle inspector (ALPI) looks them in the eye. But there have long been concerns over consistency in the current system, with some areas reputed to be much more rigorous than others. In the new regime, assessments are triaged by a central team, which should help in this regard.

The focus is now on providing evidence to support a licence application and, as at least one HSE inspector has observed, Assure360’s entire premise is to provide information to support sensible decisions. Its power is made even clearer with the new regime. The ability of Assure360 to support the bid – whether at the basic Silver or the fuller Gold and Platinum levels – is clear.

So what can you expect from the new application form? Here’s a brief overview of each section, with an explanation of how Assure360 can help both with your approach, and with providing the evidence that the HSE expects to see. It’s worth noting that the form comes with dire warnings to anyone tempted to use a consultant to complete it: there are grave consequences, potentially including licence revocation.

Dissecting the application form

The first few sections of the application form are fairly broad, asking for details on who will be in the meeting and other key individuals who aren’t going to be present. It also asks what sources of information, legislation and literature you rely on. There are no ‘correct’ answers for any of these – they establish who the controlling minds are in your business, and how you stay abreast of changes and improvements in the industry.

So what helps here? Being a member of a trade organisation helps demonstrate a commitment to higher standards, while attending regional meetings can be an excellent opportunity to share experiences with like-minded professionals. I give out updates via my monthly newsletter (if you haven’t signed up – add your email at the bottom of this page). I also publish safety alerts.

By section four, the application form really starts to test your competence as an organisation by looking at plans of work. The HSE specifically asks for two different examples, and states that they should relate to jobs that you do.

What the form doesn’t say explicitly is that despite it being only two, they should cover all of the different types of job that you do. For example, if you have completed 100 asbestos insulating board (AIB) jobs and one pipe insulation removal, don’t submit two AIB jobs. What you do if your work extends beyond two types of job isn’t entirely clear.

Assure360 comes into its own

After Section four, Assure360 becomes invaluable in your efforts to demonstrate and evidence your competence as a licensed contractor. Without it you’ll be scrabbling around for paper evidence, but with it, everything is at your fingertips. It’s up to you how you submit evidence, either printing it off or giving the HSE a read-only link to the correct page of the system. There is even a page dedicated to the licence application, in which we’ve mapped out the correct reports against each section in the application form.

Sections five and six

These sections are all about site and equipment checks. Ordinarily you’d provide the site files – coffee stains, spelling mistakes and all, and you’d need to scan every page and save them as PDFs. A potential pitfall is the size limit on emails you can send to the HSE. The form states a maximum 25MB, but the real limit seems to vary – with some people reporting less than 12MB.

However, with Assure360 Paperless all of the plant, equipment and site checks are at your fingertips, and you can show them to the HSE. A few clicks will allow inspectors to see absolutely all the relevant checks completed on a site. The feature isn’t just restricted to plant and equipment – it covers enclosure checks and smoke tests too. All certificates completed in the Paperless app are uploaded directly to the project file and are time and date stamped. The App even helps with spelling.

Section seven

Section seven deals with respiratory protective equipment (RPE), personal protective equipment (PPE) and air monitoring. Understanding and recording this has always been a problem for the industry, but it was one of the first things that Assure360 cracked.

Within two minutes, Assure360 users can provide detailed evidence of:

  • Exposure to all their operatives
  • Evidence of investigations into elevated personal monitoring tests
  • Number and coverage of personals
  • How they use their personal monitoring data
  • Personal monitoring strategy
  • Underlying root cause analysis and their improvement strategy

Just imagine trying to explain all of that with only an Excel spreadsheet!

Section eight

This section covers health records and medicals. It’s an area that we don’t yet cover, but Assure360 is developing all of the time. Coming soon there will be a full personnel management system, which will be free to all subscribers.

Sections nine and ten

These sections cover leadership and management – often difficult concepts to get your head around, never mind explain in writing. Again, Assure360 is there to provide evidence to backup your words. At the touch of a button you can display exactly what you are observing on site. You can show all of the non-conformances from all of your audits, including what you did to rectify on site and, critically, what you did to ensure they wouldn’t happen again.

With Assure360’s unique benchmark tool you can also spot what the entire army of Assure360 auditors are encountering, across the country. Being forewarned of developing problems allows you to plan to avoid issues and mitigate risk. This constitutes evidence of a proactive approach to health and safety management, and demonstrates your ability to look beyond just your company. Remember that this links in with one of the questions in the form’s early sections, on how you get your health and safety information.

Using Assure360 you can illustrate how many times your contract managers, senior management and even directors attend site. It’s seconds’ work to present the data in a colourful chart showing how many audits the entire team are doing, and providing direct evidence of senior management’s attendance on site and involvement in health and safety.

The final benefit is that you can remap all of the above information to reflect training needs for the individuals across your business. More on that in the next section.

Section 11

Section 11 is all about training and competence. Assure360 is built around effective auditing, and the first thing we made the data do was drive competence. Providing evidence for all your assessments and training needs analysis is extremely straightforward. Within minutes you can present:

  • A top level view of the competence of all your operatives – including agency workers
  • A detailed view of individuals – whether they’re contract managers, supervisors, operatives or agency staff
  • Actions and training needs raised against individuals in the team – exactly what you found on site and what you did to close it out

With Assure360 you can present a competence scheme that encompasses everyone in the organisation – not just supervisors and operatives. It is so comprehensive that it exceeds the HSE’s expectations.

Section 12

The final section focuses on reviewing and measuring performance. As I said, auditing is the emotional home of Assure360. Auditing with the system saves about two hours compared to the traditional paper and Excel route. Add to this the fact that the database automatically interprets and re-interprets all of the observations and it’s the health and safety manager’s dream.

When it comes to the new licence assessment system, this section represents exactly what Assure360 was designed for:
Trend analysis – company as a whole, individuals, specific competencies and non conformances
Setting health and safety targets – you can move beyond the standard ‘no RIDDOR’ and ‘no enforcement action’ to set imaginative targets and evidence trends in performance at the individual level
What’s your strategy and are you hitting it? – evidence your success through simple one-click reports

This section also covers personal monitoring, through direct assessment of the method. Assure360’s personal monitoring module can be harnessed to show how you assess every aspect of each project. Users can generate reports to show only the personals that exceeded what was expected, along with links to reveal what was done about it, the assessed root cause, and any supporting evidence.

Conclusion

The HSE is still testing its new licence regime, with current developments officially regarded as a pilot scheme. Doubtless the system will be revised and refined before going ‘final’, but for LARCs renewing their licence it already requires a new approach.

For companies struggling with old, paper-based systems, the licencing regime’s increased focus on excellent record keeping, analysis and management competence is a challenge. However, Assure360 customers not only have the best tool for managing all aspects of asbestos removal, but the best tool for documenting, analysing and demonstrating their competence at doing so.

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.

Dissecting the HSE’s asbestos analyst inspection report

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday March 13th 2019

What is the point of the four-stage clearance (4SC)? It’s a serious question. If the point of removing asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) is to make an area safe for the people who want to live or work there, then the 4SC isn’t just boxes to tick on a form – it’s the final, critical part of ensuring that the area is actually now safe.

As a legally mandated check, the 4SC is there as an independently executed analysis of the licensed asbestos-removal contractor’s (LARC’s) removal and cleaning processes. If we can’t trust it to work, we can’t have faith in any of our asbestos-removal framework.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) knows this only too well, which is why in 2014/15 it conducted a thorough study into analytical practice in the industry. Finally, the report is out – although the November 2018 publication is still marked as a draft. What does it say, what can we conclude, and what comes next? Here’s my analysis.

The four-stage clearance explained

First, some background. The 4SC is a legal requirement after any licensed asbestos removal work. It must be conducted independently, by a qualified analyst working either for the LARC (contractually, rather than directly), or the client themselves. It’s a test of the enclosed area within which controlled asbestos-removal has taken place and, obviously, it comprises four elements:

  1. Scope – has the job been completed and is the site essentially clean and tidy?
  2. A thorough visual inspection inside the enclosure
  3. An air test using phase-contrast microscopy (PCM)
  4. A final assessment after the enclosure has come down

The second stage is widely accepted as the most important part: if there is no visible asbestos (including dust of any kind) then the air test is likely to pass.

Previous studies and anecdotal evidence indicate that audited 4SCs fail more asbestos-removal work than unchecked ones, strongly suggesting that a watched analyst is more diligent. While that may only be human nature, our primary interest here is in establishing a reliable quality standard. With something this safety critical, training and procedures need to work together to ensure consistent standards across all 4SCs.

What did the HSE investigate?

The HSE’s investigation sought to explore if and where the current systems were failing, and establish how to rectify any problems. Its first step was high-level information gathering in the form of a questionnaire sent to all (as of 2013) asbestos labs. This was followed up by 22 head office visits, and 20 site inspections during 4SCs. The very first thing this tells us is that if not actually volunteers, all of the participants had at least some warning before they got involved.

In all, approximately 70% of analyst organisations gave information, and 15% of organisations received a head office and inspection visit. When in 2017 the HSE’s Dr Martin Gibson revealed some of the early findings, he made it clear that avoiding the questionnaire did not reduce the chance of getting a visit – quite the reverse, I would hope!

The HSE reports some raw stats:

  • There are around 30 large analyst organisations employing over 40 individual analysts
  • Forty five organisations employ 30-40 analysts
  • Thirty one organisations carried out 66% of all 4SCs during 2013
  • Nineteen organisations performed fewer than 100 4SCs between them in the year
  • Two conducted fewer than 10 clearances that year

Four-stage clearance failures

Three-quarters (75%) of the companies reported that less than 20% of all 4SCs were not up to the required standard at the first time of asking. Just to clarify, that’s a LARC’s cleanup work being found inadequate in less than one in five cases. That sounds promising, but the extremes of the scale were astonishing. Two percent of labs stated that they failed over 80% of site enclosures the first time round, whereas about 10% of analysts said that they never failed clearances!

That’s a big spread, suggesting a big variation in standards, and the HSE is keen to address it. The report insists that analysts should provide photographic evidence in clearance certificates to back up their decisions. It’s a move that has long been telegraphed – and is becoming increasingly common practice.

Nearly all laboratories reported that some remedial work was always required to allow enclosures to pass at stage two (the critical visual check). Often, where this extra cleaning was ‘minor’, it was done by the analyst. But what is ‘minor’? One analyst reported cleaning, without the LARC, for over an hour.

THe HSE makes it clear – cleaning an enclosure is licensed work, and if an analyst does it they’re breaking the law.

Let’s not mince words here: the enclosure should be clean before the analyst gets to it. Not only should the operatives have cleaned it thoroughly, but the supervisor should have done their own visual inspection – just as diligently as the analyst is about to do. If it’s not clean, the LARC didn’t clean it properly, and every time this happens it should result in a failure. Only then can work standards, and those of the individual supervisor, be tracked and rectified.

A focus on supervision

The competency, or otherwise, of supervision was questioned by several of the labs, with some questioning whether supervisors had even completed their own pre-analysis visual inspection. Looking at the situation from the other side, I know that top-quality, diligent supervisors are recognised within the industry as the gold they are.

To address these process failures, the HSE is introducing two new measures:

  • A handover form (HF), which must be completed and signed by the supervisor stating how long a visual they have conducted, and without which the analyst should not even start
  • Any re-cleaning during the 4SC must be undertaken by the LARC, and limited to 10 minutes. When exceeded, the analyst should leave the enclosure and formally issue a failure certificate

Together these will constitute valuable management tools for LARCs who seek to monitor and improve their processes. By tracking how many HFs are issued before an area passes the 4SC, the LARC can assess the effectiveness of its own cleaning and supervision. The percentage of enclosures passed first time could even become a target for supervisors. At the same time, analysts need to be able to back up their decisions – hence the call for photographic evidence in clearance certificates.

At Assure360, we’re keen to support these processes. In Assure360 Paperless, all enclosures are formally passed (signed on the tablet) by the supervisor, and this data is emailed to management and the analyst. Once the analyst has completed their 4SC, they also sign for a pass or a fail. Because we deal in data, not ‘smart’ forms, the team can track progress in real-time, and we can report on trends at the touch of a button.

Understanding decontamination

The HSE found that the understanding of personal protective equipment (PPE), primary and full decontamination was approximate. Some analysts wore normal clothing under their coveralls, and decontamination was often found to be poor, with analysts having no written procedures or training on the subject.

The report stresses that detailed written procedures must be in place for all analytical companies. These should insist that domestic clothing must not be worn inside enclosures, and they should include clear decontamination instructions – explaining when full and preliminary decontamination procedures are appropriate. They should also be followed by practical training on decontamination procedures.

 

What does the HSE think is suitable in this area? Read the draft report on the ACAD website, or read my Asbestos Analysts’ Guide white paper.

How’s my quality control?

The HSE didn’t generally find fault with quality control, and found that in some cases QC systems were highly sophisticated. However, there were multiple flaws in the work in practice. The HSE noted incidents including:

  • Ignoring the airlock and the initial areas of the enclosure and starting directly at the far end
  • Forgetting to bring a brush (for those unfamiliar with the air test, it is critical that analysts brush the area immediately beforehand to maximise surface disturbance)
  • Turning up unshaven (facial hair can reduce the effectiveness of respiratory protective equipment (RPE))
  • Overalls insufficient for the job

In some cases, the HSE’s observations led to enforcement action.

Air testing procedures also showed some poor practice – predominately where analysts rushed the counting of fibres, potentially leading to under-recording of asbestos. The HSE observed this on site, but also by studying 4SC certificates after the fact.

While some of these failings could be connected to the pressures to just get the job done, to my mind the trend reveals flaws in the auditing and implementation of the QC process. If these failings happened literally in front of HSE inspectors, then they’re likely to be normal behaviour that’s been missed or ignored by the analytical companies’ own audits.

In all, by my reading of the report there seemed to be significant questions in about a fifth of site inspections. The HSE has called for a strengthening of the processes including that:

  • around 5% of all 4SCs are audited/re-inspected
  • every analyst should be audited/re-inspected at least four times a year
  • auditing of stages two and four should be performed immediately after the analyst completes them
  • at least 5% of 4SC certificates should receive a desktop review

Personal Sampling

The HSE found the practice of personal sampling to be very poor – a personal bugbear of mine. Tests were predominantly run for only 10-30 minutes and included very limited information on what the operative was doing at the time. Together this leads to such small sample sizes that the reported results are high, yet provides no information to understand the result. In short, it’s near useless. Some analysts stated that licensed contractors were only willing to pay for the minimum of testing, but my experience (backed up by the report) is that LARCs don’t know what to ask for.

The Analysts’ Guide, when we finally get it, will help massively in this area, but in the meantime you can read my white paper on what’s in the draft version.

In contrast, the HSE judged background monitoring to be good, with accurate counting of fibres, plus floor plans and contextual information that illustrated clearly what was going on.

But here’s the issue: the skill set for both of these areas is fundamentally identical, and yet one was found to be very poor and the other excellent. This reveals a level of ignorance that still amazes me, and which isn’t restricted to analysts and LARCs. I have been in licence assessments where an HSE inspector has stated unequivocally that the a flow rate of one litre per minute is critical, and that exceeded this will invalidate the test. Wrong, but too many people believe that the rate is set according to how lungs work.

Tracy Boyle (ex-president of the British Occupational Hygiene Society) pinned Martin Gibson down on this at November’s FAAM conference. Essentially, the higher the flow rate the better. The bigger the volume of air tested, the lower the limit of quantification you can establish. These are the most important factors, and thankfully we will get clarity on them with the new analysts’ guide.

Who’s the boss?

Finally, the HSE also flagged up concerns about potential overwork and conflicts of interest within the 4SC system. Compared to when I started my career, 25-odd years ago, there seem to be fewer analytical companies working directly for the LARC. Similarly the days of multiple clearances per day are also reducing, though 30% of analysts still reported completing two 4SCs per day. While three or more 4SCs in a day was very rare, four organisations admitted that it happened on more than 20 days per year.

The HSE acknowledges that by working directly for the client, rather than the LARC, analysts will avoid conflict-of-interest problems. Its report also suggests a contractual clause specifying who pays for remedial work and retesting when an enclosure fails the 4SC, removing any pressure from the analyst on site. Whether the client is the building owner or the LARC, though, poor cleaning should mean the LARC pays.

Cold starting

A number of companies commented that coming to an asbestos-removal job ‘cold’ interfered enormously with their ability to make a positive impact on the project. The HSE underlined the legal duty on LARCs and their clients to cooperate with the analyst, and the report recommends that the analyst be involved from the earliest stages.

Ideally, analysts would undertake a pre-removal scoping visit to feed into the LARC’s method statement, but alternatively they’d at least receive a copy of the method ahead of time so that they don’t go blind into the job.

The report’s final recommendation is that the HSE repeats the whole exercise after it publishes the final version of the new analysts’ guide. I’ve got my fingers crossed that might finally happen this summer. In the meantime it’s worth restating that I’ve based this summary on the draft version of the HSE’s analyst report, dated November 2018. I’m given to understand that it’s essentially final, subject to a spell check.

If it helps, I didn’t find any typos.

 

Plans of Work – our review of the HSE’s new guidance

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday March 13th 2019

Late last year the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) revised its Plan of Work (PoW) guidance – its third attempt.

The first was pretty awful, littered with duplicated effort and illogical formatting. Unfortunately, a good slice of the industry dutifully tried to implement it.

The second, Asbestos Liaison Group (ALG) memo 04/12 (commonly referred to as the ‘aide memoire’), was a huge improvement. It concentrated the contract manager’s mind on the recognised primary focus: a PoW is a tool for the site team, to help them complete the project safely.

As the aide memoire was so effective, it was a slight surprise to me that with the backlog of other priorities, the HSE was taking another run at it. So what’s the current guidance? Here’s a link to Asbestos Regulation 7 plans of work – purpose and core principles, and here’s my attempt to summarise it, and interpret some of the more controversial elements.

Getting the memo

The first thing to note is that the memo’s target audience is the HSE’s own inspectors, rather than licensed asbestos-removal contractors (LARCs) themselves. As an internal HSE guide, expect to read language like ‘have they considered’, rather than ‘have you considered’.

But clearly, as a document outlining the approach the HSE will take to assessing PoWs, the memo is also of huge importance to contractors. We’re also told that the guidance will appear in the the new HSG247 Licensed Contractors Guide when we get it – possibly in 2020 – so it’s doubly important.

Thankfully, item two in the introduction states that: ‘A PoW should be a practical and useful document describing a safe working method for staff to follow.’

We should keep this very much in mind, as clearly the PoW will be used by others, including managers, clients, auditors, regulators, and the analyst conducting the four-stage clearance (4SC). But if the document is produced just to please the client and the regulators, and not with your supervisor and operatives at the very forefront of your mind, then it will have failed its primary purpose.

Structure, detail and readability of the PoW

Before we get into the specifics, it’s worth drawing attention to the HSE’s guidance on making PoW documents readable and readily understood. Sensibly, it encourages the use of diagrams, flow charts and photographs as ways to provide key information and break up pages of text.

The guidance recognises different styles of the Plan of Work, from the fully self-contained, to those that make extensive reference to standard procedures. However, it cautions against the inclusion of very standard procedures, such as the bagging of waste and enclosure materials. The HSE’s logic here is that, presented with lines and lines of text covering the mundane, the site team could miss the one line of crucial detail.

The advice here is sensible, but I’d stress that a balance needs to be struck that finds the right level of detail for the team in question. Skills and experience can vary tremendously, and some workers need more guidance on basic procedure than others. If a project will involve new starters, agency staff or short-term workers (STWs), they’re going to need fuller descriptions and more information.

The guidance is structured into appendices:

  1. Contract and scope of work
  2. Relationship with the analyst
  3. Special characteristics of the site and its vicinity
  4. Site diagram or drawing
  5. What Good Looks Like – the timeline
  6. Control measures
  7. Equipment and materials

All seven contain a mix of text and simple bullet points detailing what should be considered where relevant. Remember that I’m pulling out some highlights for you to consider, rather than duplicating everything: you can find the full text here.

Appendix 1 – Contract and scope of works

There is a full page of bullets in this appendix, which are mostly things that a LARC would expect as standard. There are a few however, that some might have missed in the past.

Number of site personnel

While most methods include an upper maximum, the guidance is actually calling for the number of staff that will work, both within the enclosure and in support or supervisory roles outside. This is clearly much harder to put a reliable number against, and may vary as a project proceeds.

The dimensions and weights of the largest asbestos items

While the guidance is still only new, I’ve already seen instances where this is being requested by the HSE inspectors. The reason is the impact on how you intend to remove the waste. Will a 1m baglock be large enough to double-bag? Are other solutions to be used – e.g. passed as part of the 4SC process?

I’m going to allow myself to go slightly off topic here because I don’t think some LARCs always understand the double-bagging process. The two bags have to add up to 1,000-gauge polythene, and the outside of the outer bag can’t have been inside the enclosure. It’s this last bit that seems to pass some by. A single wrap made from 1,000-gauge polythene fulfills the first element, but not the second – so it’s not sufficient.

Working from height

This is a key point. Removal of an asbestos insulating board (AIB) is different when done from a scaffold tower than it is at floor level. The method must detail all of the elements that are different – including getting that waste to the floor.

Welfare

Welfare is key, and the guidance calls for it to be detailed in the method. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a one-month or one-day job, you need to consider it, make provision and detail those arrangements. This could be temporary cabins that you or the principle contractor (PC) provide – but for very short jobs it could be the use of onsite or nearby facilities.

Appendix 2 – The relationship with the analyst

The biggest impact in this section is where the guidance states that a PoW should detail how long the 4SC is expected to take. If we look at the analysts’ guide (which is still in draft at the time of writing): where timings are mandated, the visual inspections alone are very lengthy. The visual for a single AIB panel is predicted to take up to an hour, and as the supervisor also needs to do this before the analyst can start – a small enclosure can easily take 3-4 hours to sign off. Boiler rooms could be days.

Personal monitoring

Contractors must essentially agree in advance with the analysts the details and duration of the personal monitoring. As readers will know this is not always easy. Often the analyst is working directly for the client and not the LARC. But it is crucial to know what you want, and to train the supervisor in what to ask for.

 

What will the HSE’s analyst report change? Read my analysis

 

Appendix 3: Special characteristics of the site and its vicinity

Identical projects in a nursing home, an empty warehouse or a demolition site will all be very different. They’ll throw up different answers to questions such as how you segregate your works from moving traffic, or vulnerable adults and children, and whether there are special hazards such as gas vents or live plant which will need to be made safe by specialists.

Emergency procedures

You will doubtless have a standard approach, but as soon as there is a working-from-height confined-space element, the standard approach won’t fit anymore. There is rarely one answer that fits all situations, and you may have to get imaginative. Sometimes, something as simple as having harnesses on hand that you can use to assist an incapacitated worker may be enough. Remember, too, that the confined space rules changed in 2015 – you can read my analysis here.

Appendix 4: Site diagram or drawing

The HSE reminds its inspectors of the minimum requirements for all drawings:

  • The enclosure(s) or work area(s)
  • Rooms or areas adjacent to the enclosure or work areas
  • Location of viewing panels/CCTV
  • Location of negative-pressure unit(s) (NPU)
  • Location of airlock
  • Location of baglock
  • H-class vacuum cleaners (H-vacs)
  • Location of the decontamination unit (DCU)
  • Location of the skip
  • Transit route, including its length
  • Waste route, including its length

Appendix 5: What good looks like – the timeline

In short, this appendix is all about sequencing. It is the raw planning, unique to every site, that the HSE expects to see. It involves answering questions relating to the order in which the job will be tackled. For example, if there are multiple enclosures, are they to be run simultaneously or one after the other?

The timeline needs to include hold points – very important elements of a job such as an electrical isolation, without which work cannot start, or cannot progress to the next stage.

In the case of longer jobs, the guidance also calls for a sensible breakdown of what is expected each day. If management, or the regulator, attend site on day 10, for example, they should be able to tell if the work is on target. The HSE may compare actual site progress against the schedule to draw conclusions about the standard of planning, the efficiency of the site team, or even the quality of its work.

Appendix 6: Control measures

The Timeline should contain the method proper – i.e. “We’ll do this, then this, then this” – so the HSE acknowledges that a PoW might not need a separate control measures section. Control measures could be in the timeline, in standard procedures, or even in site drawings. However you cover control measures, the following are key elements to keep at the front of your mind.

Risk assessment

In our industry it is very easy to be blinkered. We’re experts in asbestos, and most contract managers can draft an excellent method to deal with it. But what about other hazards? Sometimes asbestos is the least of our worries. The risk assessment should always be done first, and the control measures included in the PoW.

It’s worth stressing this because it’s simply so important. Say we are dismantling an asbestos cement roof below overhead power lines: it would be very easy to design the perfect asbestos job, which endangers the lives of everyone on site. And while that’s clearly an extreme example, we commonly do work at height, in confined spaces, or near unprotected drops and other hazards. The core thing to remember is to always keep the risk assessment in mind when designing the whole project.

Beyond this critical issue, the HSE focuses on specific areas including the following:

  • Flap deflection – this technique should be used as a ready reckoner for adequate functioning of air management
  • Will there be direct connection of the DCU – and if not, why not?
  • Long waste and transit routes – consider transportation
  • Arrangements for cold or hot working conditions
  • Manual handling – in particular plant and waste
  • Temporary waste storage – if so why, where will it be, and how it will be cleaned afterwards?

Appendix 7: Equipment and materials

Most of the material in the final appendix is relatively standard: it’s common to most load lists and I won’t repeat it here. There is however one unusual nugget: just listing ‘stepladder’ or ‘tower scaffold’ is not clear enough. The plan writer should specify how many treads the ladder should have, or the size and width of tower scaffolds and their working platform height. The idea is so that the right equipment can be hired, or the site crew know to load enough components.

Conclusion

Overall, this is a very useful document that helps focus the Plan of Work author’s mind on what is important – putting together a comprehensive plan to ensure asbestos removal work is safe and effective.

Together with the analysts’ guide it should help bring best practice situations into the mainstream, raising the standard of the PoW, and with it the quality and safety standards we can achieve across our industry.

Is an asbestos-free world possible?

Written by Nick Garland on Wednesday February 20th 2019

More than 19 years since it was banned in the UK, asbestos remains widespread in our private and public buildings. It’s still there because removing it all presents a huge, hazardous and expensive challenge, but also because in most cases, managing it in place has been thought to be an effective safeguard.

However, despite strict rules, lapses and disturbances are common, and both workers and members of the public are still exposed to deadly fibres. There have been calls for asbestos to be removed altogether from the built environment, but such large-scale removal would inevitably involve challenges, not least of which would be the sheer cost of safely extracting and processing millions of tonnes of highly carcinogenic materials.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral which we’ve used extensively: the two together mean that there’s a background atmospheric level. It raises the question: Is an asbestos-free world possible? Would it be worth the effort? Who would foot the bill? We spoke to industry experts.

What’s the law?

The UK banned the use and import of all asbestos under the Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations 1999. Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, parliament created a legal ‘duty to manage’ asbestos in all non-domestic premises. Duty holders must:

  • Take reasonable steps to identify asbestos
  • Assess the risk it poses
  • Make and act on a plan to manage the risk
  • Communicate the risk and plan to anyone likely to disturb the asbestos, such as building contractors

There’s no explicit legal requirement to remove asbestos-containing material (ACM) if it can be safely managed and contained.

The current controls – backed up by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) enforcement – have been working to reduce asbestos exposure, but it hasn’t been eliminated.

In the light of ongoing incidents, in 2013 the European Parliament called for the removal of asbestos from all European public buildings by 2028. Two years later, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health said that UK workplaces should be made asbestos-free by 2035.

Why aren’t we removing more asbestos?

Despite this, UK and European law remains unchanged. To explain why, industry experts point to what we’ve already learned in more than 30 years of removing ACMs: it’s a risky, expensive business. Jon Chambers, QSHE compliance manager at Interserve Environmental Services, explains that the cost of removing all asbestos from all UK public buildings would run to many billions of pounds. But there are other fundamental concerns.

“The asbestos industry would not be able to cope at its current size and scope,” says Chambers. “The current UK industry standards are very high, but with increased workloads and short timescales, it’s foreseeable that standards of work would drop, [and this would directly] affect the safety of those involved in the works, and building users.”

These concerns are shared by many in the industry, including Martin Stear, a chartered occupational hygienist and fellow of the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) Faculty of Occupational Hygiene. “Removal would need to be done properly,” he says, “otherwise we would have massive problems, and years later find out that the standards [of work] were shoddy.”

There is, however, another major problem. With up to six million tonnes of asbestos thought to remain in UK buildings, removing it all would clearly overwhelm the current landfill system’s capacity to cope.

“If we remove all the asbestos, where are we going to leave it all?” asks Dr Yvonne Waterman, founder and president of the European Asbestos Forum. “Asbestos fibres do not degrade, so putting it back into the ground and covering it up is not a long-term solution.”

For Dr Waterman, the wholesale removal of asbestos would require “the policy and regulations, the manpower, the designated areas for storing asbestos, and many innovations to remove asbestos more effectively and cheaply.”

“In this context,” she warns, “2028 is practically tomorrow.”

Dr Martin Gibson, principal specialist inspector (Occupational Hygiene) at the HSE, has underlined the problem faced by the UK specifically. Speaking at the October 2017 BOHS asbestos roadshow, he noted that the UK’s industrial revolution was the world’s first. The UK was the first country to start importing asbestos on a large scale, and it imported the most: in the 1960s and 70s the UK imported 40% of the world’s capacity to produce amosite asbestos. The UK has so much asbestos that removing it all would be uniquely difficult, perhaps impossible – that’s why it has had to become so good at managing the problem.

Is removal necessary?

Clearly, the safe removal of asbestos on this scale is a considerable challenge, which begs the question of whether it’s necessary. In the UK, around 5,000 people die each year from asbestos-related illness, but it’s forecast that the incidence of mesothelioma will halve between 2014 and 2035 as the UK’s 1999 ban begins to finally impact the disease.

The HSE position relies heavily on this analysis, which plots the weight of asbestos imported against the incidence of mesothelioma over time. If it’s correct, we’re at or near the peak for mesothelioma deaths, which will begin to fall in the next few years.

Graph showing how the incidence of mesothelioma has tracked the quantity of asbestos imported into the UK, with a time lag of several decades

However, if we look at previous versions of this chart, we find that the peak has been repeatedly pushed back as death rates continued rising. Worldwide, mesothelioma mortality is showing the same kind of stubbornness, which some argue is due to increased environmental exposure despite increasingly widespread bans.

Despite effective management, continuing environmental, occupational and accidental exposure is likely to have consequences, and removing asbestos from buildings will only have an impact on the latter two. Generally, experts agree that removal is the ideal option, but only where the process is thorough, and safe for those undertaking the work.

In Europe many countries are actively pursuing ambitious programmes of removal from the built environment. In 2009, Poland embarked on a 23-year programme of asbestos abatement which includes widespread removal. In the Netherlands, the government is moving to ban – and require the removal of – all asbestos roofs by 2024. Meanwhile, the regional government of Flanders, Belgium, is implementing an ‘accelerated asbestos elimination policy’ to remove an estimated 2.09 million tonnes of high-risk ACMs by 2040.

Although none of these quite aim for ‘asbestos free’, it could be argued that they’re the necessary precursors to more widespread and complete action. In particular, despite the earlier European Parliament call, the EU is unlikely to act for some time.

“In the near future, more efforts are to be expected from individual countries than the European Union,” thinks Dr Yvonne Waterman. “The EU will, I expect, not regulate further on asbestos until its newest members have had a chance to catch up on the existing asbestos regulations – that’s a big job already.”

Overcoming the challenge

As pioneering and ambitious programmes, it’s not surprising that the Dutch, Belgian and Polish schemes described above face hurdles. In Poland, environmental organisations have already criticised the slow pace of asbestos removal, complaining that inventorying was incomplete and claiming that removal – theoretically due by 2032 – would drag on until 2080 at the earliest.

Even the Netherlands’ more modest scheme shows that the experts’ concerns are well-founded. Working flat-out, the Dutch asbestos removal industry lacks the necessary capacity to deal with all asbestos roofing by 2024. Not all homeowners can afford to replace their roofs, but grants are only available for roofs above a certain size – and many of these have run out already, way ahead of 2024. For others, the only option may be DIY-removal, which is permitted with some restrictions, but which may come with a counter-productive risk of greater contamination and exposure.

Holland has targeted asbestos cement roofs – because the erosion of the roofs has been found to allow asbestos fibers to be released into the air as the cement matrix deteriorates after thirty years. Also, over the years, weathering and water runoff leads to contamination of the surrounding soil. The Dutch scheme shows a potential pitfall of removal legislation: unintended consequences. Without adequate funding, this may lead to an increase in DIY roof replacement that may make the situation worse.

There are other key issues in any large-scale removal programme: cost, safety, the lack of capacity, and the need for safe disposal of ACMs. So, aside from the insights gained in these countries’ more narrowly focused attempts, what would be needed to support a national or international scheme?

Risk-based, and realistic

For occupational hygienists like Martin Stear, it’s about setting appropriate risk-based surveying and removal standards, then ensuring they’re properly executed. “We’ve been removing asbestos on a large scale since the 1980s, but we keep going back to the areas we’ve stripped and re-cleaning them,” he says. “Areas are found to still be contaminated due to poor removal works – and sometimes even this is wrong. Sometimes an area is clean, but a surveyor has used an over-sensitive test and found some fibres.”

For compliance managers like Jon Chambers, any talk of a 10-year programme is completely unrealistic. He stresses that the industry would need guidelines and plans in place at an early stage to allow time for the necessary growth, and the required training and investment.

Addressing the problem properly would require a structured approach, he says: “I would suggest a risk-based programme where only hazardous materials are removed. Low-risk items can safely stay in situ for longer, and be removed further down the line.”

Unavoidably, any wide-ranging asbestos-removal programme would need to be enacted through legislation, and enforced and regulated by government bodies such as the HSE. As an example, Chambers suggests mandatory asbestos management plans for all public and private non-domestic buildings. “Make it a legal requirement that plans must specify the removal of all ACMs with a risk rating above a certain level, or any damaged or friable material,” he suggests.

Yvonne Waterman suggests that the key is to look at ways of making asbestos waste harmless – “We need a safe, effective and affordable denaturisation method. I am studying several quite different ones, because that is where the future of asbestos lies – being made into safe brick fillers in the circular economy. No more waste, no more dangers for future generations.

“The legislator and the asbestos-removal sector would need to work very closely together, each supporting the other. Additionally, we would need to find a safe, effective and affordable eradication method.”

Show me the money

In addition to the need for political will and the inherent complexity, there’s no getting away from the fact that removing all asbestos would be a colossal expense. “It is only money that could really make it work,” says Jon Chambers. “There would be a huge cost to any large-scale removal, and I have no idea where the money could come from.”

Yvonne Waterman agrees. “Eradication is hugely expensive, and we are hardly in a flush economic period. We would all like to have an asbestos-free country, but let’s be realistic: who will pay for it all?”

In a sense, however, we are – slowly – removing asbestos from the built environment. Managing in place is only possible for so long, and as ACMs reach the end of their life, or the buildings that contain them are refurbished, gradually they’re being removed. Older asbestos-containing properties are being demolished altogether. Provided the work is done with the proper controls, to the appropriate standards, the process is constantly reducing the amount of asbestos still ‘out there’, and lowering the risk of exposure. “Over the past decades, we can see that the air quality in terms of asbestos fibres in the Netherlands is improving considerably. This proves that the asbestos ban and regulations are effective.”, says Yvonne Waterman.

We’d all like to see faster progress, and perhaps in different times there will be the political will to pay for it. In the meantime, Jon Chambers reminds us of the simple, vital reason for the industry to carry on with its work: “The removal of asbestos safely will save lives in the long run.”

 


Header image by Flickr user Chilanga Cement, Creative Commons

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.

Hazardous Materials Expo – what we did, what we learned, and why we’re going next year

Written by Nick Garland on Tuesday October 2nd 2018

It’s been a fortnight since Contamination Expo 2018, and those of us that attended, exhibited or spoke have had time to decompress. I say that because, for those who haven’t done an Expo yet, it is something to behold, and leaves you somewhat dazed.

The 2018 event was a big change on previous years. Relocated to the NEC in Birmingham, it was significantly larger, having been merged with the established RWM (Recycle and Waste Management) Expo. Both changes together meant we had to plan our visit a bit more carefully, and had me wondering – would Assure360 be invisible in such a large show?

I needn’t have worried. The whole event was a great success, with our Expo Fringe meet and greet session a particularly positive highlight. Here we got the chance to share drinks, nibbles and a Q&A with customers and new contacts, and the evening evolved into some free-flowing customer feedback. The fact that we’re now in discussions with some potential new customers is a welcome bonus.

Launching Paperless

We officially launched our new app and database solution, Assure360 Paperless, which addresses one of the industry’s biggest challenges. Asbestos removal is hazardous and highly regulated, so licensed contractors need to complete – and record – a vast number of safety-critical checks. Once a project is finished, checking the associated paperwork can take the admin team days or weeks.

The onsite admin consumes hours of valuable supervisor time, but until now the only alternatives have been expensive bespoke solutions usually built on ‘smart’ forms. And while these may save time on site, they’re effectively bits of electronic paper: they don’t reduce admin.

Assure360 Paperless is the Holy Grail for the asbestos industry, solving the admin problem by applying our granular, data-based approach. When any check is converted to data, we can instantly report on just that tiny element – not an entire form. Also, as it’s data, we can automatically sense-check it – massively reducing the admin time required afterwards.

Whilst we are a data company, I am asbestos and H&S, so when we create a solution it’s with a fundamental understanding of the industry. Assure360 Paperless applies our insight, freeing the supervisor to supervise, and increasing productivity throughout all aspects of your asbestos removal projects.

Interested? Discover more about going Paperless.

Talk highlights

At the event itself there were numerous fascinating talks, but two that stood out for me were by Graham Warren from ACAD, and Yvonne Waterman and Jasper Koster of the European Asbestos Forum (EAF).

In their talk on hidden asbestos, Yvonne and Jasper presented frankly shocking revelations of just how much of the material still comes into Europe, despite national prohibitions.The list of sources went on and on, and included items such as children’s toys, electrical goods and jewellery. My jaw dropped at the revelation that China permits products to be described as ‘asbestos free’ if they contain less than 10% asbestos.

If you get any chance to hear Yvonne and Jasper speak, you should take it. I’ll be sure to highlight any future events they’re attending in our events calendar – roll on the next EAF conference, in 2019!

In his talk, ACAD’s Graham Warren had some startling figures for the ‘average’ licensed contractor. By dividing the number of supervisors and operatives in the industry by the number of licence holders, he revealed that the average LARC has about 14 operatives, and seven supervisors. If we accept that NVQs are the industry’s baseline competence qualification, and that going through the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) costs about £1,000 per operative and £2,000 per supervisor, the average qualifications bill works out at a minimum £28,000 per company.

But ACAD has driven through changes in how NVQs are delivered – first and foremost by creating a dedicated training centre, open to all. ACAD provides the centre and the internal QA, but anyone suitably qualified can take candidates through. The new structure looks like this:

New ACAD NVQ Centre structure

This egalitarian structure is a striking change, and it should address the fears of traditional training providers that the big boys will steal their lunch. It also introduces another interesting angle: there is nothing to stop a LARC getting suitably qualified at a local college and taking its own folk through the process. For this to be practical, of course, that LARC would need a detailed and comprehensive competence assessment system – all Assure360 users have this by default.

If an average LARC takes its own staff through the ACAD centre, that scary £28,000 training cost comes tumbling down to only about £7,000. And if that company is a CITB levy payer, it could benefit from grants to the tune of £15,000 – potentially netting an £8,000 ‘profit’ on the process.

All in all, then, the Expo was exhausting, useful and very interesting. We’ve booked again for 2019 – see you there!

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…)

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.