Asbestos; have we really thought this through?

Asbestos; have we really thought this through?

, James Bundy

Most of us would say that innovation is a good thing and let’s face it us kiwis love a little bit of number eight wire! We’re pretty good at innovation too; it was a kiwi who invented the electric fence, bungy jumping, amphibious vehicles that work, jetpacks and more impactful things like the disposable syringe. But not all innovations or ideas are however so successful. Our construction industry has toyed with untreated timber wall framing combined with direct fixed lightweight wall cladding and of course with asbestos too. Asbestos was one of those miracle products, incombustible and a stable product binder that provided strength. Unfortunately, no one foresaw the impact that tiny asbestos fibres, barbed in form, would have on the respiratory system if released into the air we breathe. WorkSafe estimate that 170 Kiwis die each year from asbestos related respiratory illness.

As an industry, we are now addressing the legacy. The Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations came into effect last year, setting out a PCBU’s duty regarding managing risk associated with asbestos and Worksafe have introduced an approved code of practice. It’s not all new information, and it builds on the knowledge of overseas contributors, notably the UK and Australia. Certain aspects however will come as a shock to some.

If you own a commercial property constructed prior to 2000 and you have reason to suspect asbestos is present, do you know that you need to have an Asbestos Management Survey completed by a competent person and prepare an Asbestos Management Plan? If you find asbestos, what then? Did you know that in some instances you may need vacate the workplace?

Once asbestos is found there is a variety of ways to manage it, however if airborne or loose, due to their fine barbed nature; cleaning up asbestos fibres can pose challenges.

At Hampton Jones, we have come across contamination scenarios where sprayed asbestos fire proofing applied to steelwork on a gable wall by a roller door, resulted in contamination of an entire warehouse and its stored goods. We have also come across asbestos cement roof sheeting that, having become friable, released fibres that swept through the windows of the building below. We have also come across early asbestos removal schemes that have been found to have left in place asbestos containing dust.

The above can commonly mean that a workplace once thought to be safe to occupy, has then been shut down as unsafe until cleaning is completed, which comes at great expense. This has complex implications when a building is leased, as most leases have not been written to adequately deal with the allocation of cost, particularly if a fit-out needs to be removed to facilitate works or a tenant’s chattels become contaminated.

Business interruption can be insured for and clean up managed. Inconvenient yes, but more so would be the loss of a loved one.