Housing Associations and other social landlords have been in the news in recent years thanks to the large number of asbestos related claims that are being made against them as a result of the handling and disposing of the substance in their properties.
Only last year Anchor, one of the country’s largest care providers which has 30,000+ properties in the UK was fined £10,000 by the Health and Safety Executive as a result of failing in its duties with respect to asbestos. In this particular case Anchor had used a subcontractor to replace a lift in a sheltered housing scheme property and the subcontractor had removed asbestos boards from the lift shaft without taking any steps to try and stop the spread of asbestos fibres as a result. The other two companies involved in the situation were also fined but it was Anchor that received the biggest penalty.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is something that has been a problem in the UK for many years – it could be found in any building that was constructed before the year 2000, particularly those that were built during the period 1950 – 1990. It was used mostly as a fire proofing and insulation solution so is often found around boilers and pipe insulation, as well as in ceiling tiles and garage roof tiles. It was used frequently in lower cost housing projects as, at the time, there was no knowledge of the dangers that it posed to human health.
Why is asbestos a problem?
Asbestos causes around 5,000 deaths every year in the UK, mostly as a result of Mesothelioma, which is a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs and the lining that surrounds the body’s lower digestive tract. This type of cancer is almost exclusively the result of exposure to asbestos and, unfortunately, by the time it has been diagnosed is usually fatal. Health conditions such as asbestosis and pleural thickening may also result from asbestos exposure and in extreme cases can also be fatal. The problems arise with asbestos when the fibres are breathed in.
How are housing associations/social landlords affected?
There have unfortunately been numerous cases like that mentioned above involving social landlords. In fact, the Health and Safety Executive was so concerned about the way asbestos was being handled by social landlords that in 2009 it wrote to councils and housing associations stating it had “encountered instances during the refurbishment of social housing properties where inadequate measures had been taken to prevent unsafe work associated with asbestos-containing materials. Workers, and in some cases tenants, may have been exposed to asbestos because of this failure to manage the risk.”
What steps can be taken?
It is when the asbestos is disturbed that it becomes dangerous so during building works tends to be the time of greatest risk. The regulations and requirements surrounding asbestos in housing association properties are complex but social landlords have a responsibility to take reasonable care to prevent personal injury and disease as a result of disturbed asbestos. If not they may be fined by the Health and Safety Executive and, where an injury has been sustained as a result of asbestos exposure, a compensation claim could be made.
If you are being investigated by the HSE, please call our regulatory team for free initial advice.