The HSE has been notified by the EU that its interpretation of the European Directive 2209/148/EC fails to adequately protect workers from the risks of exposure to asbestos.
The issue is associated with the current exemption from licensing, medical examination and exposure monitoring requirements as detailed in the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.
Currently, Regulation 8 of CAR 2006 states that all work with asbestos will require a licence (with all of the associated medical and exposure monitoring requirements) except for certain work exempted under Regulation 3(2). This regulation exempts work with asbestos where the exposure to asbestos is sporadic and of low-intensity and where the risk assessment has concluded that the Control Limit for asbestos fibres in air (currently 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre averaged over a 4-hour period) will not be exceeded AND where the work falls into one of the following four categories:
- Short, non-continuous maintenance activities (the EU directive states that such activities should be performed only on non-friable materials);
- Removal of materials in which the asbestos fibres are firmly linked in a matrix (the EU directive goes further by stating that this removal must be carried out without deterioration of non-degraded materials);
- Encapsulation or sealing of asbestos-containing materials which are in good condition;
- Air monitoring and control, and the collection of samples to ascertain whether a specific material contains asbestos.
Assuming that the HSE will eventually comply with the EU’s ruling, the implications will be quite far-reaching and will likely result in:
- No work being allowed on friable materials such as asbestos insulation, sprayed coatings, insulating board or rope (when in a frayed or dried-out condition) without a licence. This will rule out any work with asbestos insulating board where certain activities are currently permissible under the “one-hour rule”.
- No removal of asbestos materials where the asbestos fibres are “well-bonded in a matrix” where this will involve deterioration of non-degraded materials. This will rule out any work without a licence with cement where breakage of the material will be required or is likely to result. Presumably, this will also rule out any removal of textured coatings as it is impossible to remove these without further “degradation” of the material.
Exposure to asbestos fibres can lead to the development of asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma and there would appear to be no threshold of exposure below which there is zero risk of such diseases occurring. The risk does however vary with dose, even though this dose:response relationship is not so clear when considering the onset of mesothelioma (as opposed to asbestosis and even lung cancer). How then can we continue to assume that sporadic exposure to asbestos is acceptable?
This whole issue highlights the inherent problem of conducting any work on asbestos without invoking all of the health precautions and associated procedures necessary were the work to be considered licensable.
Minor works involving ACMs will continue to be required and it is probably not feasible to contract out all such work to an asbestos licensed contractor. However, these non-licensed tasks must be controlled vigorously and with as must vigil as with licensed works – after all there is more chance of something going wrong when working without an enclosure.
In many people’s opinion, the asbestos removal should NEVER be permitted without a licence. There is even an HSG 210 task sheet which permits the removal of a single, screwed on or nailed-on panel of asbestos insulating board! The removal of a nailed-on AIB panel poses a very high risk of exposure to fibre should any breakage occur! There is another task sheet which permits the removal of a single AIB ceiling tile using a mini-enclosure. How can this enclosure be erected, the task completed and the enclosure dismantled within the one hour permitted under the Regulation 3(2) short, non-continuous maintenance work exemption?
Work with asbestos cement has traditionally always been exempt from licensing requirements and yet the HSE publication HSG 189/2, “Working with Asbestos Cement” lists several likely fibre exposure levels well in excess of the current Control Limit – how then can such works be justified as being non-licensable when the Regulation 3(2) exemption does not apply if there is a chance of the Control Limit being exceeded?
There are too many discrepancies, inconsistencies and grey areas in current UK asbestos legislation, and too many areas which require greater clarification.
How often must a task be repeated before sporadic exposure becomes regular exposure?
Can the dismantling and removal of an asbestos garage roof be regarded as sporadic exposure? What about a workshop roof… or a factory roof? What if the same workers go on to do a similar job the next day?
We await the response of the HSE with interest.