How To Manage Asbestos As A Small Business


As a small business in a low-risk environment, the safety of your premises may not be at the top of your agenda. Yet while you may not even have enough employees to necessitate a health & safety policy, you are still obliged to keep track of any asbestos on your property. If you don’t deal with it properly, you are putting yourself and your employees at risk - and your business at risk of severe penalties. Here are some tips for how to manage asbestos as a small business:

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While the use of asbestos was banned almost two decades ago, it remains an ever-present and potent threat. With many buildings erected as late as the 1980s still containing asbestos - and records often proving patchy - it pays to be wary about the substance. Surveying your property and dealing with it accordingly could save you significant hassle down the line.

Asbestos law in the UK and Ireland

In the UK, the management of asbestos is governed by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, which are enforced by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). In Ireland, it is governed by the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Exposure to Asbestos) Regulations 2010, which is in turn enforced by the Health & Safety Authority (HSA). Both laws cover roughly the same ground.

Asbestos was banned as it was found to be a potent carcinogen and irritant, causing a range of debilitating lung diseases. The jagged microscopic fibres released by disturbing asbestos are absorbed into the cells deep within our lungs, from which they cannot be removed. These fibres prevent the cells from healing properly, and can ultimately cause them to mutate into cancer cells.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral which comes in several varieties, often denoted by colour. Brown and blue asbestos are the most dangerous but rarer forms, while white asbestos is less dangerous and more common. However, all forms of asbestos are capable of causing permanent damage, and there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres.

The responsibility for dealing with asbestos can vary depending on the terms of your contract. If you are responsible for the repair or maintenance of the property, it is likely that you will be considered the primary dutyholder under law, and are responsible for managing asbestos. However, the landlord is also considered a dutyholder in most cases. Regardless of whether the landlord retains the primary responsibility for dealing with asbestos, however, you will also be held liable if any problems arise which you did not take steps to remedy.

Recommended reading: Health & Safety is Essential Even for Small Businesses: A Guide to Getting Started

How to identify asbestos in a commercial property

As an effective fire retardant and form of sound and heat insulation, asbestos was widely used in coatings and fillings for all sorts of objects. Asbestos was most commonly used for pipe lagging, boiler insulation, cavity wall insulation, boards and panels, bitumen and vinyl floors. Small amounts were also used in textured ‘Artex’ wall and ceiling coatings until the late 1980s.

Because of the wide range of application of asbestos, asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) can be present almost anywhere in a property. While properties built in the post-War period are most likely to contain ACMs, they are also commonly found in much older and newer properties. Many are stable and not harmful as long as they are not tampered with, but the age of these products puts them at risk of decay, which can release the deadly fibres.

While it is possible to identify some ACMs by sight with the correct asbestos awareness training, many cannot be identified with any certainty. Many products are visually identical in their asbestos-containing and asbestos-free versions, including vinyl flooring and textured coatings. The only sure-fire way to locate all of the ACMs in a property is to conduct an asbestos management survey.

A qualified asbestos surveyor will visit your site to undertake a comprehensive visual inspection. If they find any materials which they suspect may be ACMs, they will (where possible) take a small sample to send to the lab. They can then compile a report on the location of ACMs and their current condition, before outlining a plan to manage and curtail any risk they pose.

How to manage asbestos as a small business

ACMs hiding in plain sight (e.g. panels and roofing) do not usually pose an immediate danger, and can be managed once they have been identified and tested by a specialist. The more dangerous varieties are forms of loose asbestos, primarily forms of insulation for walls, pipes and boilers. These are often found in maintenance and boiler rooms, but the loose fibres can easily drift and become distributed throughout a building via ventilation systems.

The danger comes when the ACMs are disturbed. Many people drill through partitions, wall panels or ceiling textures without the knowledge that they contain asbestos, and pose serious long-term risks to their health. With a full asbestos management plan, you can identify the condition of any ACMs in your property, and determine how you should go about maintaining, modifying or removing them.

Some forms of ACM can be removed or modified without a licence or the need to notify the local council, including ceiling textures and intact wallboards. However, any ACM poses a potential risk to health if it is not removed properly, including the use of breathing apparatus and dampening the material to reduce the spread of fibres. We always recommend that any work - however small - is undertaken by a qualified professional.

Any employee who’s likely to come into contact with ACMs during their daily work should be sent on an asbestos awareness training course. This should cover both the theory and practical elements of asbestos recognition and management, in order to both identify sources of asbestos and to interact with them appropriately. The potential harm caused by asbestos is such that every effort should be made to avoid disturbing it - something that’s easily done by accident.

Asbestos management is a vital process for businesses of all sizes, but it needn’t be an expensive one. An asbestos survey can be conducted infrequently, and asbestos awareness training is available in an online or classroom format for a reasonable price. Ultimately, the benefits of dealing with asbestos will be felt by your business and its employees for years - both in physical safety and the peace of mind it provides.



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