As you might expect, hospitals are one of the worst possible places for asbestos to be present. Unfortunately, due to the age of many NHS buildings, they are also among some of the most likely to contain the potentially fatal material. Asbestos in old hospitals is a major issue, however, it can also be present in more modern buildings as well.
Asbestos was once commonly used in the construction industry and use of the material was only banned back in 1999. When you consider that the NHS was established back in 1948 and the fact that large public buildings such as hospitals are incredibly costly and time-consuming to replace, it should be no surprise that a significant number of hospitals across the UK have the potential to contain asbestos materials. For context, the HSE estimate that up to half a million commercial, industrial and public buildings are likely to contain asbestos in some form or another.
Many would be shocked to discover just how common asbestos in hospitals truly is though. According to a BBC inquiry, nine out of 10 NHS trusts admit that they do have hospitals which contain asbestos. This figure is based on 211 respondents, of which 198 said they had the material present in their buildings. Another report by BBC London found that a staggering 94% of hospitals in the nation's capital contain asbestos.
The number of hospitals affected by asbestos is not completely known, although an MP has called for an audit of NHS buildings to understand the extent of the problem. However, what we do know is that, while asbestos is very dangerous, it is also something that can be contained and managed with careful planning and by taking the appropriate steps to keep both workers and patients safe.
Who is responsible for managing this problem, and how should it be dealt with?
Non-domestic properties, including hospitals, are all subject to a 2004 law which requires asbestos to be managed. This is, of course, to ensure the safety of anyone who could come into contact with the hazardous material. While this is unlikely to be an issue for patients – as the remaining asbestos in hospitals is generally in areas where only certain members of staff would have access to – it still remains vital to be diligent when you consider the risks involved.
In order to ensure any exposure is avoided, there must be a duty holder. The HSE state that the identity of this duty holder in public buildings, such as hospitals, will depend on how the responsibility of the maintenance of the premises is allocated. This duty holder is responsible for determining not only the presence of asbestos, but also the level of risk that it carries.
The level of risk is affected by both the type of material and its condition. All this information is put on a register, providing access to anyone who works in the affected areas, including outside workers, such as contractors who could potentially disturb the materials during their work. A licensed surveyor specialises in assessing the risk that different forms of asbestos poses in a property and can provide expert asbestos guidance for hospitals.
A management plan should also be prepared, setting out how the hospital plans on managing asbestos now and in the future. This is vital because although non-domestic properties may have similar issues with these materials, each building is different and has specific individual needs. Part of this management plan will include whether work needs to be undertaken to remove asbestos-related materials.
How to determine if asbestos management in hospitals require a license
Whether or not asbestos-related work requires a license depends on the level of risk involved, as some low intensity and sporadic work can be exempt from needing a license. One measurement to determine if something is eligible for non-licensed work is whether or not the work exceeds the legal control limit of 0.1 asbestos fibres per cubic centimetre of air, or whether the asbestos in the air exceeds 0.6/cm3 measured over 10 minutes.
It must also meet one of the following four circumstances:
- a short sporadic task with non-friable materials
- a removal task with asbestos-containing material (ACM) in decent condition without any deliberate break up and where the asbestos is firmly contained and/or covered by another material
- a task where the ACMs are in good condition and are being sealed
- an air monitoring/control task to test the concentration of fibres, including the collection and analysis of samples to confirm their presence.
If the asbestos-related work does not fit any of the above descriptions, then it will require a licensed professional.
There is little doubt that asbestos remains a large problem in hospitals due to the age of the buildings, as well as the challenge of conducting necessary work with minimal clinical disruption. However, it is one that, with proper management and the right expertise, can be kept under control with no impact to the health and safety of both patients and staff.
If you have further questions about the type of asbestos-related work you require, visit our FAQ page.