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.
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