Asbestos: the unseen threat in the UK’s green revolution

Paul Young is underwriting manager at Markel

The green revolution is with us, and is being touted as a way to be more energy efficient and save money as the cost-of-living crisis impacts the UK. However, the shift to greater energy efficiency for domestic and commercial properties has increased the asbestos risk to contractors, many of whom will not remember the full impact of the asbestos crisis during the 1970s and 1980s.

“Green is good, in many instances. But going green does create new risks, one of which is asbestos coming to light during upgrades”

The peak usage of asbestos in the UK was between the 1950s and 1970s. During this time, there was a lack of awareness about the health risks associated with asbestos exposure. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and 1980s that the dangers became widely recognised, leading to increased regulation and eventual bans.

The primary health issues associated with asbestos are lung diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. These often take decades to develop after exposure, so the impact of asbestos use during its peak years continues to be felt well into the 21st century.

The UK government began to introduce regulations to control the use of asbestos in the 1980s. A significant turning point was the ban on the import and use of blue and brown asbestos, the most hazardous forms, in 1985. This was followed by a total ban on all types of asbestos in 1999.

Ongoing risk

Despite the ban occurring almost 25 years ago, asbestos-related diseases still kill around 5,000 workers each year and there are still thought to be anywhere between 400,000 and 1.5 million buildings containing asbestos in the UK.

The NatWest Greener Homes Attitude Tracker in Q2 2023 found that 66 per cent of homeowners plan improvements to the environmental sustainability of their property in the next 10 years, up from 63 per cent in Q1. In the commercial sector, existing regulations are expected to be expanded, requiring commercial buildings to meet minimum energy-efficiency standards by 2030 and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

These trends increase the likelihood that disturbing dormant asbestos may be more of an issue over the coming years. And should this be the case, the risk to unwary or careless contractors, or those reluctant to charge clients significant sums for certified asbestos-removal firms for fear of losing jobs, will also increase.

The Health and Safety Executive guidance on asbestos is extensive and it is worth all contractors reminding themselves of the risks and what to do if the material is found on site. Regulations must be strictly observed and any discoveries require careful management, especially during renovation or demolition works, to prevent exposure to the harmful fibres.

For commercial works contractors should always ask for a location register. If one is not available, work should stop and a sample be taken by a competent person.

If asbestos is subsequently found contractors should:

  • Stop work immediately.
  • Restrict access to the site.
  • Notify the relevant authorities, including the property owner and health and safety representatives.
  • Have the site assessed by professionals.
  • Develop a management and removal plan with the asbestos professional and have this agreed by the property owner and authorities.
  • Safely remove and dispose of the asbestos.
  • Undertake an air monitoring and clearance test before re-entering the site.
  • Document the discovery and removal process.

Insurance

From an insurance perspective, it’s worth understanding how cover works for contractors.

Most insurers will insist that, if asbestos is found, work stops immediately and an approved removal contractor removes the material. Should the contractor do this themselves and subsequent losses occur, the insurance cover may be invalid.

With commercial buildings, a contractor should know the type and location of asbestos from the owner’s register, but these can sometimes be inaccurate so it is wise to always be vigilant. Employers liability cover will usually still be valid if a discovery is accidental, for example if the register is incorrect. Public liability – damage to property and injuries to the public – will typically be excluded by insurers.

Domestic dwellings won’t have a register and insurers will look at the risk in different ways. Damage caused from roofers removing asbestos outside may often be covered, but other contractors, such as electricians drilling a hole in an asbestos wall, often won’t be covered for any losses that occur.

Green is good, in many instances. But going green does create new risks, one of which is asbestos coming to light during upgrades. And such is the danger with this material that today’s contractors need to be extra vigilant when upgrading properties.