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HEALTH&SAFETY- It's a risky business

Contractors have had a year to deal with new fire and asbestos regulations. How are they doing? asks Bob Towse, head of technical and safety at the HVCA
LAST year was an important one in the battle against the twin hazards of fire and asbestos.

The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (FSO) and the new Control of Asbestos Regulations (2006) clarified a number of issues surrounding two of the biggest risks contractors face in their day-to-day working.

In 2005, there were 33,400 fires in non-domestic premises leading to 27 deaths and crippling losses of over £1BN to British businesses. The FSO introduced in October last year placed clear responsibilities on building owners to do more to manage the risk of fires in their premises. One of its key requirements is the appointment of a single 'responsible person' charged with managing fire safety arrangements.

There are fines of up to £10,000 and the threat of two years in prison for anyone who fails to do this and the local fire officer can close the building down if he is not satisfied that the right steps are being taken.

At around the same time, a new Code of Practice for dealing with the hazard of asbestos in the workplace was made part of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006. Much of the spotlight these days is on the tragic impact exposure to asbestos in the past has had on the health of many former construction industry workers. However, this is not a hazard we can safely consign to history.

There is still a lot of accidental exposure to asbestos in the UK even today and the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that 1.8M workers could be exposed to asbestos in the course of their daily business.

Wherever a worker is drilling through walls or dismantling ceilings there could well be a risk of further contamination. Employers who are proven to be negligent in assessing the risk to their employees can be heavily fined or even imprisoned under current legislation.

In addition, the new legislation obliges the building owner to carry out a full survey of their building, identifying any asbestos present and managing and controlling contact with any asbestos, which is allowed to remain.

They are also required to produce an asbestos register listing what asbestos is present and its location. This means that any contractors coming to work in the building have a better chance of knowing where this dangerous substance is and can take the necessary precautions.

However, there is a worrying amount of anecdotal evidence that suggests many buildings still do not have a register. My advice to contractors is: No register - No work. Starting work in a building without first seeing the asbestos register is pure folly. You must know where the risks lie.

The secret of managing asbestos is knowing where it is and how to avoid it, as well as what to do if you should accidentally disturb it. Encounters with asbestos are almost inevitable in our line of work which means carrying out a risk assessment of the area before embarking on any work that might penetrate a wall or ceiling where asbestos could be present is essential.

Likewise with fire. Everyone is, to a greater or lesser degree, exposed to the risk of fire. Poor maintenance regimes, particularly in the case of ventilation ductwork, only increase that risk.
The new FSO has simplified things and means it should be easier now for any contractor about to embark on a new project to establish a point of contact in the building with the responsible person and establish just what are the site rules. Do not begin work without establishing this.

What both these issues have in common is that we are now one year into new regulations that should make it easier to assess the risks and avoid accidents. Therefore, contractors need to take a close look at how well they are implementing their risk assessment strategies and how up-to-date they are.

As with anything, prevention is far better than cure - and certainly cheaper.
1 November 2007


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