In a recent parliamentary committee hearing with the head of the HSE, the following question was asked:
Question. We understand that contractors doing asbestos work can appoint their own analysts to check that the work meets the regulatory requirements. Is that akin to contractors marking their own homework? Could it not be a requirement for the building duty holder to appoint the analysts to make sure that there is real independence?
HSE answer: We have never seen any sign or suggestion in the various inspections that we do that there is any issue with analysts undermarking the results of the work that they get. It is hard to see what the benefit in that would be, in the sense that quite often the removal conditions will end up removing at a level below that which is required under the regulations anyway. What that final piece of analysis is doing is ensuring that there is sufficient clearance.
Many in our industry would question the validity of this answer.
Unfortunately, the current HSE framework in place leaves space for removal and analytical works to be carried out in a substandard manner. Under the new analyst guide asbestos removal contractors can still appoint the analyst who signs off their works. Whilst there may be no ‘connection’ between the removal and analytical companies this setup makes the removal contractor the ‘customer’ and as we have all heard ‘the customer is always right’. This doesn’t seem to me like a setup that is likely to give the analyst freedom to fail enclosures and tell the contractor they need to do a better job. Only true commercial independence from the removal contractor empowers the analyst to air their true judgement of the enclosure they are clearing.
The HSE do attend site and check on contractors, but rarely in my experience do they come and speak to the analyst. In fact in my 12 years of doing analytical work not one has ever wanted my opinion on the works. I would also question why they never check on the analysts works, or ask to see the clearance certificates or recently cleared areas.
They HSE have also carried out various studies with asbestos contractors, but during these the operative always know they are being watched and are almost certainly on their best behaviour. That isn’t to say that many removal contractors don’t work diligently and to high standards, but it is hard to believe there is no element of ‘participant bias’.
Where do the difficulties lie?
The main issue that Adams faces in the industry is that we are often competing with businesses that do not have the experience, track record or skilled analysts to carry out a comprehensive 4 stage clearance and accurately monitor removal works. Many of our jobs are to correct the works of others; some historic and some frighteningly contemporary.
These analytical consultancies will price cheaply to win the business. To achieve a manageable profit margin, they will often try and fit 2 or even 3 jobs in a day even if, in reality, they actually require a day or more of analyst attendance to undertake a comprehensive 4 stage clearance. There are only a couple of ways in which analytical consultancy can achieve profit on these tight margins; either by cutting corners and not undertaking a thorough job, or by putting undue pressure on analysts, sometimes pressuring them into working long hours beyond the normal working day. This has the knock-on effect of decisions becoming blurred, and work not carried out to the highest standard. Some analysts may not turn up to the 2nd or 3rd site of their day until 4 or 5pm, at which point contractors will be pressuring them to conduct their work as quickly as possible. Lack of morale for the analysts will potentially also see them rush through the job so that they can leave at a reasonable hour. Added together, this is a recipe for shoddy workmanship and ultimately an incomplete assessment of the works. It is also one of the key reasons why the industry has a shortage of skilled labour, as many leave after just a few years owing to work pressures and poor work life balance.
Why does this happen within the industry?
Ultimately, there is little incentive for an asbestos removal contractor to employ a high-quality analyst from both a time and cost perspective. Any additional cost to an asbestos removal project will eat away at their profits, and so they will often look for the cheapest and quickest analysts to ensure that the job can progress quickly.
There is also little genuine accountability. In 10-15 years’ time when residual asbestos from a poor quality 4 stage clearance are identified, the removal contractor and analyst will have more than likely moved on. The customer is then left with the unexpected cost of carrying out the removal again – essentially paying out twice for something that should have been conducted properly in the first instance.
This also leaves the customer exposed to the potential legal ramifications of inadvertently exposing building occupants to asbestos over that period of time, when they had assumed that the risk had been removed. Should an employee or contractor working in the customer building later develop mesothelioma then they will be liable to the legal actions. Many businesses will pay out compensation without fighting it legally to avoid bad PR.
Often the issue of poor quality asbestos removal/ 4 stage clearance arises because the customer’s project manager may not have a full understanding of asbestos removal/ clearance and what is involved. They will often be guided by cost and will allow contractors to appoint their own analysts, whilst not having the technical knowledge to challenge poor practice when it occurs. This is not a critique of project managers – they cannot be expected to have expertise in every area, but it does highlight the need for them to consult with industry experts who understand what is involved and can guide them to make the right (and not necessarily the cheapest) decisions.
Adams Environmental have been experts in asbestos consultancy since 1986. We understand the industry, with the highest standards in accreditation. Please do not hesitate to contact us for your asbestos consultancy needs.