Every year the last week of October is designated as the European Week of Health and Safety. This year the week, which runs from 24 October through to 1 November, is focusing on Safety Maintenance. Across member states the enforcing authorities will be giving emphasis to the subject, at visits paid to duty-holders during the week. They have also organised training seminars and conferences and will be publicising the guidance that is available. In support of the European Week of Health many employers, trade federations, trade unions and individual companies will also be sponsoring events and initiatives which promote and explain the precautions required for maintenance work. 

Maintenance is ubiquitous; it is an issue for everyone from the largest chemical company or energy producer down to every office and corner shop. It is also an issue that employers can easily overlook or under-estimate, whether they are among the largest in the country or among the legions of small businesses. 

This is well illustrated by a case that came before the courts last month and resulted in a fine of £1 million being imposed on Marks and Spencer. Three of the firm’s contractors were also prosecuted and fined separately for related offences. During refurbishment of M&S stores in Bournemouth and Reading the customers, staff and construction workers were put at risk of exposure to asbestos containing materials.

The court heard that the company had recognised that ceiling tiles used in the stores contained asbestos and produced guidance on how it should safely be removed. However, they failed to give their contractors sufficient time and space for the procedures to be met. 

Even though importation of asbestos and asbestos containing materials has been prohibited since 1992, it is still to be found in many building materials and in some parts of plant and machinery. While it is in good condition and not disturbed it presents no harm to anyone. But when it is disturbed and worked on, invariably during maintenance work it will release dangerous asbestos fibres into the air.

The key measure to preventing exposure is to know exactly where asbestos containing materials are or may be located on your premises. Buildings put up after 2000 will not contain asbestos. Buildings put up before that date may contain asbestos and employers operating from those buildings are required to have an Asbestos Management Plan. A competent person is required to assess (or confirm by testing where necessary) where asbestos containing materials are or are likely to be located. Details of the assessment along with a site plan should be recorded. This assessment will form the basis of the Asbestos Management Plan developed for the premises.

The Management Plan will set out your approach to maintaining the asbestos in a safe, passive state, for regularly checking to ensure that it has not been damaged and becomes a risk, and how you will deal with the risks should the asbestos containing materials or nearby structures require repair or modification.   

The plan should always be given to contractors being asked to tender for or to work on the premises, particularly if their work is likely to disturb the asbestos. They can use the information to inform their approach to the work. If they know that asbestos is present in a particular area or component they may be able to plan their work to avoid disturbing it.  Alternatively they may be able to develop a procedure that involves the minimum of disturbance to the asbestos and can be done with appropriate precautions but without the need for a licenced asbestos removal contractor, full enclosure and subsequent decontamination of the whole working area.  

Our Health and Safety Advice Consultants and our 24 Hour Health and Safety Advice Service are always available to offer detailed advice and guidance on the various aspects of asbestos control and management and also issues surrounding maintenance, just ring on 0844 892 2772.