What killed Steve McQueen?

Did daredevil action man Steve McQueen die leaping fences on a motorbike? Or racing fast cars? No, Steve died aged 50 from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by his exposure to asbestos. Pictured in the 1971 film Le Mans, McQueen’s heat resistant body suite, pulled over his mouth and nose, was lined with the fibres.

Did daredevil action man Steve McQueen die leaping fences on a motorbike? Or racing fast cars? No, Steve died aged 50 from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by his exposure to asbestos. Pictured in the 1971 film Le Mans, McQueen’s heat resistant body suite, pulled over his mouth and nose, was lined with the fibres.    

In March 2011 Dianne Willmore received £240,000 in damages after the High Court Judge ruled that exposure to asbestos fibres as a school pupil had caused her incurable lung cancer. At Dianne’s secondary school, more than 30 years earlier, asbestos insulated ceiling tiles were stacked in the corridor while workmen re-routed some cables and in the girls’ toilet while vandalism was repaired. Prankster classmates also moved ceiling tiles about in order to hide belongings in the ceiling cavity.

The landmark case set a new president; if the asbestos exposure was avoidable, then the duty holder can be prosecuted. The ruling could pave the way for similar claims nationwide.

Why is this significant to social housing providers? Well, for duty holder, read housing association, ALMO, or council. And February 2011 saw the HSE begin unannounced inspections of construction sites across the UK, to check that asbestos compliance was being carried out. If ever there was a good time to review your own organisations asbestos compliance, then perhaps this is it!

Most organisations recognise the importance of gas safety, and report quarterly to the board regarding CP12 compliance. Death from carbon monoxide poisoning is instantaneous, so we treat it seriously. The same importance is rarely placed upon asbestos risk management, though perhaps the only difference is that asbestos can take 40 years kill you.

Carrying out UKAS, ARCA and RICS accredited asbestos training, together with my experience in undertaking asbestos audits and compliance work for over 20 housing associations, ALMOS and housing groups, I have noticed a number of recurring themes that highlight the extent to which asbestos is not being treated with due care.

·         Out of date asbestos management plans, policies and procedures;

·         No strategic asbestos risk management review body or steering group;

·         Poor communication between asbestos surveyors and employers, resulting in significant differences in the interpretation of guidance, that are never picked up;

·         Inconsistent risk evaluations applied to asbestos survey results;

·         No defensible strategy for survey programmes adopted;

·         No re-inspections undertaken;

·         Non-compliant terminology, algorithms, or methodology upon electronic registers;

·         Overall risk assessments based purely upon material risk assessments;

·         Insufficient controls for unlicensed work by DLOs;

·         Residents not formally or comprehensively advised of asbestos material within their homes;

·         Non-existent refurbishment surveys prior to planned works;

·         A lack of impartiality as contractors employed to recommend the removal are also those who will be paid to undertake it;

·         Asbestos removals not updated in the register;

·         Asbestos registers not consulted by external contractors or DLOs;

·         Asbestos processes or use of data by contractors not audited;

·         Processes routinely outside any compliance protocol, for example tenant DIY approval, disabled adaptation and voids;

·         Insufficient or infrequent asbestos awareness or recognition training.

But like other compliance aspects, a suitable asbestos re-inspection protocol should be developed, tested, implemented and reviewed.

 

Interpretation of guidance and working protocols needs to be rehearsed at an appropriate level, evidenced and regularly reviewed. After an HSE inquiry has commenced, it is too late to start implementing procedures; published guidance requires re-inspection of any asbestos containing materials identified at intervals not exceeding 6 to 12 months, regardless of risk posed or location. Should material deteriorate and exposure to fibres occur, any prosecution will be extremely difficult to defend.

 

As most asbestos legislation and guidance was originally conceived for non-domestic, commercial buildings, it is not always clear how the principles should be applied to a tenanted domestic portfolio. From practical experience in developing template protocols and associated compliance management frameworks, most organisations are unwittingly not complying with published HSE guidance, or in some cases, even their own asbestos policies or management plans. The chances of asbestos fibre release, HSE investigation and prosecution are considerably magnified. More importantly, your staff, contractors and residents maybe at life-threatening risk.

HSE guidance requires asbestos management plans are reviewed at least every 12 months. If it has been longer since this was undertaken and reported to your board, take this opportunity to commission a robust, informed and comprehensive review to identify any gaps in compliance.  

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