Why modern employers cannot ignore the laws surrounding exposure to asbestos in the workplace

Thompsons Solicitors is one of the leading firms of asbestos litigation solicitors in the UK. The firm’s Past But Present campaign aims to highlight the families and communities that continue to be affected by asbestos diseases decades after exposure.  Here, they offer advice for employers who may not be aware of their legal duty.

There is an anecdotal view that Asbestos is merely a historical problem and not something that employers need to concern themselves with today. This is wrong. The law requires employers to take steps to protect their employees from being exposed to asbestos in the workplace.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a natural, mined material which has excellent heat and insulation properties. It is often referred to by its colour – e.g. blue (crocidolite), brown (amosite) or white (chrysotile) asbestos, with blue generally considered as the most harmful to health. Some employers are under the illusion that white asbestos is “safe”. All asbestos, whatever the colour, is potentially harmful to health if the fibres are inhaled.

For many years, particularly between the 1950s and 1970s, the UK imported millions of tons of asbestos, which was used mainly in the construction industry.  Although the UK banned the importation and use of blue and brown asbestos in 1985, followed by a ban of all asbestos importation and use in 1999, there are a huge number of buildings which still contain asbestos today, including workplaces.

Asbestos Diseases

If someone has been exposed to asbestos fibres, they are at risk of developing an asbestos-related disease in later life. If they develop such a disease, it will take many years – typically 10 to 60 years after inhalation of the fibres – before the condition manifests itself.

There are five recognised asbestos-related diseases:

  1. Pleural Plaques
  2. Pleural Thickening
  3. Asbestosis
  4. Lung Cancer
  5. Mesothelioma

These diseases range from being relatively harmless to health (eg. pleural plaques) to causing death (eg. mesothelioma).  Most sufferers from an asbestos-related condition were exposed at work.

Mesothelioma alone is responsible for approximately 2,500 deaths in the UK every year. That is a shocking statistic. Today’s employers must comply with their legal duties to ensure our current workforce is protected from exposure so as to avoid more innocent deaths in future years.

The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2012

It is well known that employers have legal responsibilities to protect their employees from risks to their health, safety and welfare. The main Act covering these duties is the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

In addition, the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2012 (“the Regulations”) specifically deal with exposure to Asbestos Containing Materials (“ACMs”).

The Regulations place a legal duty on the “duty holder” to manage ACMs.  Regulation 4 confirms the “duty holder” includes those who have an obligation of any extent in relation to the maintenance or repair of non-domestic premises or any means of access or egress to or from those premises”.

Regulation 11 confirms: Every employer must prevent the exposure to asbestos of any employee employed by that employer so far as is reasonably practicable…”

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states: “The duty to manage asbestos is directed at those who manage non-domestic premises: the people with responsibility for protecting others who work in such premises, or use them in other ways, from the risks to ill health that exposure to asbestos causes”.

Further, Regulation 3 confirms where an employer has a duty in respect of his employees, the employer is also under “a like duty in respect of any other person, whether at work or not, who may be affected by the work activity carried out by that employer….”

Employers should be aware of the Regulations and ensure compliance with them.  Failure to comply could lead to a criminal prosecution by the HSE, as well as future civil law claims for compensation by employees.

Key Points to Note

The Regulations cover a wide range of issues, all of which are important, but there are too many to detail here.  The following are some of the key steps employers are expected to follow:

  1. Identify ACMs in buildings built before the year 2000. If it is unknown whether a material is an ACM, it should be assumed that it is;
  2. Prepare and keep an up to date record of the location and condition of ACMs or presumed ACMs in the premises;
  3. Prepare a management plan that sets out how the risk from the asbestos is to be managed and ensure the management plan is put into action;
  4. Carry out regular reviews and assessments of the risks from actual or presumed ACMs, so any changes in the condition can be identified and managed;
  5. Ensure the asbestos management plan itself is regularly reviewed (eg. to take into account changes of the structure or use of a building);
  6. Ensure anyone who may come into contact with ACMs is provided with relevant information;
  7. Be aware of how to deal with unintended exposure to asbestos.

HSE Information

The HSE provides very useful and easily accessible information on its website, including The Approved Code of Practice and Guidance, photographs of what ACMs look like, clear explanations and easy to follow checklists to ensure compliance with the Regulations.

There is no excuse for any employer to say it cannot find the information needed when it comes to complying with what the law says about asbestos in the workplace.