Asbestos in the spotlight as health & safety consultancy case comes to court


The HSE have put asbestos firmly on the agenda in recent days as the Government looks at amendments to the regulations surrounding this potentially deadly material that kills around 4000 people annually in the UK. There are three aspects of the EU Directive that the UK is alleged not to be fully compliant with. These are:

  • the notification of work;
  • medical examinations;
  • record keeping.

It is very likely that the exemptions from these three requirements, which do not currently apply to low-risk work, may be subject to tighter control with a consequent reduction in the cases being exempted.

Meanwhile many construction health and safety cases are coming to court, the latest of which involves the Cardiff firm of safety consultants PHH Environmental (UK). From 15th to 25th January 2010 they were engaged to carry out an asbestos survey on the Old Castle Cinema in Merthyr Tydfil, which was scheduled for demolition.

The client was of course responsible under health and safety legislation for obtaining a report from a competent body on any asbestos present on the site and what should be done about it within the work plans.

Asbestos presence not spotted

The survey came up negative for the presence of asbestos. The demolition commenced without any specific precautions and it was only then that demolition workers discovered asbestos to be present, and in so doing they had disturbed it.

The eventual legal outcome was that PHH Environmental (UK) Ltd pleaded guilty at Merthyr Tydfil Magistrates’ Court of breaching Section 3 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (which requires employers to avoid exposing to risk any people who they do not employ). The company was fined £5,000 and also had to pay prosecution costs of £3,000.

The investigating HSE Inspector pointed out that refurbishment and demolition work relies upon receiving accurate asbestos surveys, thus reducing risks of exposure to fibres. The construction safety consultants carrying out those surveys have to make sure that they are comprehensive, that they probe into the actual building fabric, and that they are carried out by competent persons.

The case emphasises the need for industry-trained construction health and safety experts who will take a pro-active approach to their work, and will help their clients meet their obligations.

Choose your consultants carefully and ensure that they have the expertise to carry out asbestos surveys and that they can act as CDM Co-ordinators on construction projects, helping to build asbestos removal and other health and safety aspects into the design of the works from the outset.