The Health and Safety at Work Act underpins everything we do in the asbestos sector, yet within it – and in copious Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance – you’ll find unnerving phrases like ‘so far as reasonably practicable’. These create room for interpretation, with the result that people can be unclear how far they should go when removing asbestos. Even the way that some of the direction is framed can lead us into tricky territory: I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been told ‘it’s only guidance’.
So after a recent thread on the HSE’s forum, I thought it would be worthwhile analysing how the regulations are structured, and what we should be doing when designing a job. Particularly, if ‘perfect’ isn’t possible, what do we prioritise?
First let’s look at the ideal conditions for asbestos removal. We have an enclosure that is small, but big enough to allow efficient and safe removal of the asbestos. The air in and out is sufficient and balanced. The enclosure is perfectly sealed, and it’s designed in such a way that there’s no working from height. The combination of method, suppression and local exhaust ventilation (LEV) ‘eliminates’ all fibre release at source.
Obviously it’s a rare job indeed where we can get all of our controls by-the-book, so often there’s a need to find compromise. First up, I should stress that compromise should only come with need – you can’t just miss out controls. Where there are good practical or safety reasons why a control isn’t possible, you need to design others to mitigate.
To track back and answer that common response when people depart from the direction, it is not ‘guidance’; it is ‘Guidance’. Project design should be in line with the ‘Guidance’, or be equivalent to or better than it.
The Health and Safety at Work Act is not a tick box set of regulations. It’s written with an understanding that no two jobs are identical, and is specifically designed to harness our imagination as professionals in ensuring safe working practice in all circumstances. To that end we need to really understand the hazards, the resultant risks, and the controls we implement to eliminate or minimise them.
A clear view of the risks
We, as asbestos professionals, are also guilty of being rather blinkered. We’ve got our specialist subject, so asbestos risk is all too often the first and last thing we think about. But take a step back and reappraise our typical work environment: while asbestos is complex, many other risks such as height or electricity pose a more immediate threat. In other words, we have to think of the whole project.
The particular example raised in the HSE forum was a small-to-medium metal frame shed with an asbestos insulating board (AIB) ceiling, and asbestos cement roof. Roof, frame and AIB were pinned together with J-bolts, and the building was in close proximity to neighbours.
- The AIB couldn’t be removed in isolation without a lot of breakage
- Cropping the bolts would uncouple the roof
- Crosswinds made external sheeting prone to catastrophic damage
The conundrum posed was whether you would build a full enclosure – with the high cost and the risk from crosswinds – or crop the bolts and remove the cement and AIB at the same time with no enclosure, but with perimeter air monitoring. Because of the breakage, removal of the AIB alone was discounted as an option.
Consider the first option. A full scaffold enclosure would create a rather large working at height issue. Just constructing the canopy has a risk, but then sheeting internal ranch-boards would involve working above a fragile roof. This risk is difficult to control and can have an immediately fatal consequence. And if the winds get up, it could all be for nought.
My argument is that the overall risk is lower if we build the enclosure internally, and control the increased asbestos risk that we create. Controls in this case should include strongly over-specifying the negative pressure ventilation (or over-neg if you’re in the industry) . The considerable breakage of AIBs needs to be mitigated with surfactant, shadow vacuuming and increased respiratory protective equipment (RPE) provision, for example air-fed RAS masks. As Paul Beaumont pointed out, there would be the potential of AIB fibre / fragments to become trapped within the corrugated sheeting, too.
The four-stage safety clearance certificate would identify this likely residual risk, mandating further controls when removing the cement sheets. As this is now a small asbestos risk, we may be able to approach the remaining stages of the project with a roofless enclosure, bringing the cement sheets down into the building.
Balancing the risks
This example distills a common problem, where we are faced with a choice between one or more risks that are potentially controllable, or another that is very difficult to control. I would go with the former – and this extends into all other areas of asbestos removal where we are too used to controlling the asbestos risk at the expense of ignoring or exacerbating others.
There are other examples. A classic is working in a loft in the summer. The new confined space guidance makes it clear that the heat makes this a confined space, yet often what I see when auditing is a cube at the bottom of the loft access, a three-stage air lock, and a negative-pressure unit (NPU) with roving head passed up through the single access point. This gives excellent control of the small AIB debris risk, but massively increases the risk of death from heatstroke.
What to do instead? You won’t find it in the books, so again it’s down to our professional creativity. Why not dispense with the roving head, harness the natural leakage of the tiled roof and over-neg the enclosure? Even in winter, this might be a good idea as the common setup would hinder an emergency evacuation, for example if there’s a fire in the building.
My argument is that the asbestos risk is complex and difficult to control, but we can’t let it blind us to the rest of the job. It must be properly balanced against the other risks of the working environment: addressing one risk in isolation may leave the site team in danger, or raise their overall risk. Training and refreshers for managers should therefore cover all construction hazards and how to control them. It’s important to remember this at the time of auditing or assessing performance: peer reviews must look at all hazards, rather than just how well the manager has dealt with the asbestos.
Indeed, if asbestos is the only hazard that a contracts manager understands, are they truly ‘competent’? I’m sure that being ignorant of other construction hazards would not be seen as a defence.
As professionals we are responsible for looking at the whole project, and balancing the hazards and risks against each other. Our controls should then be crafted to mitigate all of them. Some controls may elevate the risk from other hazards, which then have to be looked at again. Designing safe working environments and procedures requires the application of knowledge, experience, and imagination. As no two jobs are the same, the latter is not only crucial – but demanded by the Health and Safety at Work Act.
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