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Health and safety regulations for the asbestos industry

First of all apologies for the title, it is intended to be a humorous one and I believe we can learn a lot from Europe. However, British H&S regulation has a not so secret weapon that gives it absolutely the right foundation and a huge advantage when it comes to the ‘league tables’.

  • In 2011 the UK was ranked best in the world at bringing people home safe from work,
  • The accident rate has been consistently 30% better than the European average,
  • Fatalities at work is 400% lower than in the US.

So we must be doing something right.

Asbestos legislations

At the recent European Asbestos Forum, Dr. Herm Zweerts of Arcadis presented a fascinating piece on the approaches to asbestos and the supporting legislation across Europe. His analysis showed that:

The control limits set for asbestos exposure across the continent varied dramatically.

  • Germany 1000 F/m3 (or 0.001 F/ml),
  • France 10,000 F/m3 (or 0.01 F/ml),
  • The Netherlands (NL) 2000 F/m3 (or 0.002 F/ml),
  • Spain and the UK falling some way behind with 100,000 F/m3 (or 0.1 F/ml).

The underlying regulatory controls also seemed to show differences in approach.

  • Germany had the highest levels of independent expertise,
  • France’s approach to property sales ensured transparency of where asbestos is in the domestic sector,
  • NL are very strict on containment (i.e. enclosures where us Brits are used to lighter control) and interesting developments in mapping asbestos,
  • Spain has a central register of exposure,
  • Zweerts picked out the UK for it’s clear information and pragmatic rules.

We in Britain should definitely learn from our European colleagues and in particular the areas of openness and transparency. France’s requirement for an asbestos survey to be conducted prior to any domestic property sale would in theory eliminate accidental asbestos exposure in the home. The fledgling NL mapping process that details known asbestos containing public buildings onto a cloud-based database with geographic map is also fascinating. In my experience it is often ignorance that leads to poor management of asbestos and ultimately exposure. Not knowing there is asbestos in the house, results in the artwork being positioned unwisely, or the ambitious removal of a wall leading to massive exposure. However, couple the French absolute requirement to survey domestic properties before they’re sold with the NL cloud database would give real transparency and the prospect for a roadmap to an asbestos free world.

Whilst we are still in this imperfect contaminated one though, ignorance remains our enemy. Asbestos is a scary subject, like the Plague or Anthrax just the word is often enough to strike terror. At best the world seems to know enough to be worried but not nearly enough to be considered knowledgeable. In this fertile ground of fear and ignorance, disreputable organisations can exploit us. I have heard of many projects large and small that are much much larger than the actual asbestos problem warranted. The German approach of independent experts may help this, but I believe we need to go further. Everyone that has any involvement in asbestos whether they are an asbestos operative, construction worker or property manager needs to understand asbestos better. Let me be clear – I am not attempting to minimise the problem, but calling for us, all of us to become educated clients.

Rigorous qualifications for the UK asbestos worker – like ACAD’s NVQ coupled with genuine competence and TNA assessments such as the ones that Assure360 can provide will transform the workforce into a professional one. Asbestos awareness courses for all (construction worker, tradesmen, teachers and even the general public) will give a level of knowledge that will dispel the fear. Those that commission asbestos removal projects or manage buildings should have advance courses in asbestos such as the UK’s P405 – shining a light on shady practice.

A central exposure database (like the Spanish one), could help fuel innovation. My Assure360 system centrally collates all exposure monitoring data in the cloud in an attempt to transform a duty of care task into this driver for innovation.

I started the piece asking ‘why are the Brits best at H&S?’, this was meant to be humorous, but there is a single reason for our practical regulation and my lack of concern over our high asbestos control limit. This is the foundation to all UK H&S regulation – The Health and Safety at Work Act (HASAWA). HASAWA came into force in 1974, is over 50 years old, and will in all likelihood be with us for at least another 50 – a near perfect piece of legislation. The authors understood that regulators do not have any hope of keeping pace with innovation. They will never be able to understand evolving industries sufficiently to implement adequate safety rules. So with a stroke of genius, they turned the whole framework on its head. The basic principles are:

  • The Employer creates the hazard
  • The Employer has an absolute duty to understand the hazard
  • The Employer has an absolute duty to minimise the effect of the hazard on all his/her employees and those outside of their employ – So Far As Reasonably Practicable.

The last phase is crucial – do what you can to eliminate or mitigate the risk. If we believe you could have done more, you WILL be prosecuted. Later guidance and regulation helps the employer in this task, but it remains their responsibility to assess the risk and eliminate it. The regulator no longer has to keep pace – all they have to do is make a qualitative judgement – “has the employer done enough?”.

The employer must constantly innovate to minimise the affect of his activities. This is the driver to the practical rules that Herm identified. The (embarrassingly high) figure set by the UK government for exposure is in reality a nominal one. As (due to HASAWA), the employer must reduce exposure as far as they can. The reality of UK asbestos worker exposure is somewhere between the French and German levels.

If legislation can be beautiful then HASAWA in its simplicity is just that.

The US legislative framework is very prescriptive, as is much of Europe. In essence if you can tick the requirements laid out for you, you’re in the clear. A graphic (and hopefully extreme) example of why this is a very poor approach is this:

Tony Rich of Asbestology LLC

Photograph kindly provided by Tony Rich of Asbestology LLC (in the USA)

It may take you a little while to work it out, but this is apparently a ‘technically compliant’ airlock in the US. It has three stages, separated by flaps. Ticks the boxes laid down in regs, but I’m sure you would agree – wholly inadequate. If the US had a Risk Assessment based approach like HASAWA, rather than a prescriptive one, an enforcer would be able to take one look and start building his / her prosecution.

It is because of HASAWA that we are very unlikely to see a Gulf of Mexico oil disaster in the North Sea. BP and it’s US subcontractors followed all of the rules, squeezing protocols and procedures until the relevant boxes could be ticked – with tragic and catastrophic results. In the North Sea, with a different approach, it would have been obvious that they could go a lot further than they did.

The one big weakness in the UK is that HASAWA is the Health and Safety at WORK Act, and therefore has no bearing on domestic situations. This is where I believe we can lean from France and NL, eliminating ignorance and fear.

Therefore my call is this one – the UK legislators should learn from the best in Europe. A good start to this would be by engaging in the European Asbestos Forum and in particular contribute to the 2016 conference. Secondly the world should recognise the fundamental flaw in trying to keep up with industry and lay the responsibility where it should be – with those that create the risk.

Find out how Assure360 can help you with asbestos health and safety compliance – call us today on 0845 226 4318

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"When the HSE asks [about your processes], Assure360 lets you record those processes and do a very simple print out to prove what those processes were and how they were completed."
Clinton Moore, Director, Sperion