RICS Draft Guidance Note: Asbestos - legal requirements and best practice for property professionals and clients (4th edition)

RICS Asbestos 4th edition consultation draft

4.2.5 Identifying asbestos before work

There may be asbestos in the property that is only revealed once work takes place. The asbestos register will generally only have identified asbestos in surface materials in readily accessible locations, such as walls or ceilings. Any building work that goes beyond these surface materials or locations may need a more intrusive asbestos survey.

Under the CDM Regulations, the client has a duty to provide all pre-construction information in relation to the property. This includes details of any asbestos surveys, asbestos registers and management plans relating to the property. In helping the client compile pre-construction information, the principal designer needs to consider this information and provide it to the principal contractor, in order to help the principal contractor in the preparation of the construction phase plan.

In the event that no current, suitable and sufficient information is available, the principal designer will need to identify the gap in the information and arrange for the client to obtain a suitable project-specific refurbishment and demolition survey prior to works commencing. It is not considered good practice to rely on the principal contractor to obtain the refurbishment and demolition survey. If you do, consider the requirement for collateral warranties and adequate management of the process on behalf of the responsible person and/or the client. This should include a requirement that the asbestos surveyor is UKAS accredited for inspection, and ideally testing too. The earlier in the project the risks from asbestos are considered, the greater the likelihood that exposure is prevented.

There are many occupational groups that could come across asbestos when working in a building. Some of them are obvious, and some are less so. They include:

  • architects, building surveyors and other professionals
  • demolition workers
  • construction operatives
  • maintenance and repair staff
  • general odd-job tradesmen
  • plumbers
  • electricians
  • gas fitters
  • painters and decorators
  • carpenters and joiners
  • fire and flood restoration technicians
  • shopfitters
  • plasterers
  • roofers
  • heating and ventilation engineers
  • telecoms engineers
  • computer and IT installers, and
  • fire and burglar alarm installers.

This is not an exhaustive list, but even from this it is clear that it is a challenge for employers to establish that asbestos is not present in the work area before any work takes place. At the very least, it should be assumed that asbestos is present so that measures can be taken to prevent any disturbance.

There are various ways in which asbestos can be identified before work starts, such as:

  • consulting existing asbestos information
  • carrying out sampling of suspect materials and
  • undertaking a full survey of the area and/or building.

Users of the survey establish that the inspection was undertaken by someone competent, and that the information gathered is reliable. A poor survey is often worse than no survey at all, but the quality of the survey will not become apparent until work has already begun on site - when it may well be too late.

It is not just a poor survey that can lead to asbestos being disturbed on site. Not having any survey done at all is more likely to lead to incidents of accidental disturbance, as would (perhaps to a slightly lesser extent) proceeding with the work on the basis of the wrong type of survey. One example of this is using management survey information to plan building work that should only go ahead if a more intrusive refurbishment and demolition survey has been carried out.

Disturbance and potential exposure could also occur if a survey has been completed but the survey information is not used as part of the planning and execution of the work. In this situation, it does not matter how thorough the survey was; if the information is not included, the survey is useless.

It is not only exposure and consequential long-term risks to health that should be prevented, as there are a number of other adverse effects:

  • the spread of asbestos, resulting in the contamination of adjacent areas
  • evacuation
  • expensive clean-up costs and
  • possible building closure.

In such cases, it is likely the regulatory authorities would take enforcement action, including criminal prosecution, and others affected may seek compensation through civil court proceedings.

See appendix D for more information on asbestos surveys.