All employers and commercial property owners ought to be aware of their obligations regarding asbestos. This is particularly relevant for owners and occupiers of agricultural premises where asbestos was a widely used insulating material, such as within compressed asbestos cement roof sheeting, cladding and building partitions.

The disturbance and disrepair of asbestos containing materials causes asbestos fibres to become airborne and inhaling these fibres can potentially cause fatal diseases. Certain diseases are caused by frequent and prolonged exposure to asbestos, however even short and low level exposure can lead to an individual contracting a fatal asbestos-related condition. Asbestos-related disease is said to be the greatest cause of occupational deaths in the country, causing the deaths in the UK of an estimated 5,000 people each year and around 20 tradesmen per week. The symptoms generally do not present themselves until decades after the asbestos exposure has occurred.

Over time a number of regulations have been introduced to protect both those working directly with asbestos and members of the general public. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 was brought into force to upgrade and consolidate the existing legislation in this area. The key provisions of the regulations include:

  • The regulations apply to every person who has an obligation in relation to the maintenance or repair of a non-domestic property. Every such person has an obligation to assess whether or not asbestos is or is likely to be on the premises. An up-to-date record of the location and condition of the asbestos containing materials should be kept, and the risk to those coming into contact with these materials should be assessed. A plan as to how such risks will be managed should then be put in place and regularly reviewed.
  • High risk work involving asbestos must only be carried out by a licenced contractor. Examples of ‘high risk’ work include the removal of pipe lagging or roof sheeting where the material will be damaged or broken causing asbestos fibres to become airborne. All licenced work, and some categories of non-licenced work, must be reported to the relevant enforcing body (typically The Health and Safety Executive or local authority) in advance of the work commencing.
  • Any work involving asbestos, irrespective of whether it is being carried out by a licenced contractor, requires a risk assessment to be completed and implemented before it is carried out.

The consequences of failing to adhere to the regulations can result in criminal proceedings with the penalty being a fine or, in some cases, imprisonment. Recent examples of successful prosecutions following a breach of the regulations include a building contractor who ignored the contents of an asbestos survey and began demolition without having the asbestos removed in advance. He was sentenced to 24 weeks in prison. Companies which failed to repair/remove asbestos-containing materials that were in poor condition have recently been fined £65,000 and £150,000 respectively. Personal injury proceedings may also be instigated many years down the line if a person develops an asbestos-related condition through exposure to asbestos.