Asbestos in Construction

Asbestos in Construction

Any Project Manager will be able to tell of that sinking feeling when they hear the words “looks like we’ve found asbestos boss…” and the ensuing sense of dread when they realise that they are working under an all-risks contract. However, this is certainly becoming a much wider problem as increasingly more brownfield sites and former industrial/commercial buildings are being redeveloped. Indeed in 40 years at the vanguard of asbestos risk management, the last 2 alone have seen ACS Risk Group parachuted in to more halted ground works and major refurbishment projects than ever before.

ACS Director Martin Mitchell notes that much of the heartache, delay and spiralling costs could be avoided by proper planning, assessing and strategising at the early stages of major construction and demolition projects. We now operate in an age where everyone in the construction chain should be trained to at least ‘asbestos awareness’ level, appropriate asbestos surveys or ground investigations should be carried out ahead of any works and adequate supervision should be undertaken during asbestos removal or remediation to discharge the client’s legal obligations to monitor contractors. However, this increasing awareness has also resulted in the emergence of new asbestos consultancy, training and surveying companies, many of whom operate without the appropriate accreditations or competencies. The use of such organisations can give clients a false sense of security at best or can result in unsafe working conditions (asbestos exposure situations), breaches of environmental law (remediating sites without proper authorisations) or illegal waste management practises (wrongly classified waste consignments) at worst.

The situation is often made worse still where contract packages include the demolition and asbestos removal elements but without any independent or impartial project management or monitoring. It is not uncommon for the package to be priced on scant asbestos information or inappropriate surveys which can result in the contractor being faced with difficult decisions where ‘unforeseen’ asbestos is uncovered during the site phase (particularly where they are working to a fixed price).

Worse still is where no survey is provided at the tender stage and the contractor is required to ‘guess’ at what asbestos may be present in order to price the demolition part (which must obviously include any asbestos removal)! Again, without proper monitoring and impartial advice the demolition/asbestos contractors may feel they have no means of proper recourse for unforeseen asbestos identification and this has been seen to result in poor quality asbestos removal and the resultant contamination of demolition rubble where there is simply not enough money in the pot to deal with it properly. The knock-on effect can be land contamination, stockpiles of Hazardous/Special Waste and generally unsafe or undevelopable sites.

The message is clear. It is imperative that a proper assessment of any site is carried out at the planning stage and that adequate asbestos information is obtained and analysed as early in the process as possible. This means UKAS accredited asbestos surveys of buildings and asbestos-specific ground assessments if an SI identifies made-ground or any mention of asbestos. Good quality advice should then inform the decisions on how any asbestos should be dealt with and whether this would be best delivered under a standalone contract. This process should also give opportunity for consideration of how the client will discharge their ‘monitoring’ obligations – e.g. through the use of a third party asbestos project manager or auditor, as opposed to the outdated notion of the asbestos contractor appointing their chosen ‘Analyst’ to check their work (which is something  of a conflict of interest).

The presence of asbestos on your site is not an automatic disaster but it does have the potential to be so. Please plan properly.


[Martin is a qualified Chemical Engineer and Safety Practitioner specialising in asbestos risk management. He is a member of the Faculty of Asbestos Assessment and Management and has been a Director of ACS for 20 years.]