Asbestos training for general contractors
The University of the West of England (UWE) is a large estate, comprising four main campuses occupying approximately 155 acres. It consists of a mixture of properties, many constructed or refurbished from the 1960s, leaving UWE with a legacy of asbestos to manage.
Around 17,000 ‘work requests’ are completed each year, ranging from reactive repairs to minor refurbishment projects. Construction activities that pose the greatest risk of accidental damage and exposure to asbestos include:
- Working above suspended ceilings in corridors due to the presence of AIB (Asbestos Insulating Board), shadow battens and fire breaks.
- Altering internal doors, partitions or windows with internal asbestos rope lining and asbestos beading.
- Upgrading the original, external windows which have a range of asbestos products associated with them, eg closure panels and asbestos cement sills.
However, there is potential for all types of tradespeople to come into contact with asbestos as it is present in a wide range of other materials such as textured coatings, floor tiles, lining to electrical fuses, sink pads, gaskets, door panel lining and toilet cisterns.
The University has a comprehensive asbestos management plan and asbestos register, both legally required. One element of the plan relates to the control of contractors. The University’s work request system draws relevant information from the asbestos register and, for thousands of minor jobs, this is the only information that contractors need. To use it meaningfully they must be able to positively locate the asbestos, consider whether they might disturb it and respect the risks.
Awareness is critical, so UWE required all contractors working on site to be able to offer proof of asbestos awareness training. The University supplemented this by providing further site-specific information as part of the general induction for contractors working on its sites. However, a review of the asbestos training that contractors were able to demonstrate showed a very mixed picture. In some cases their training was often many years old or did not comply with the core syllabus stipulated within HSE’s Approved Code of Practice, L143. In other cases some contractors had not received any asbestos training at all. As a result of this, UWE decided that, from 1 January 2009, all contractors working on site must have received accredited asbestos awareness training within the last two years.
Although UWE’s decision to do this was well communicated, many contractors, particularly SMEs, struggled to meet the new requirements. This presented a problem. One option was for UWE to refuse to employ companies who did not provide adequate asbestos awareness training to their employees. However, this didn’t sit comfortably with its commitment to use and support local, smaller suppliers who would have been particularly affected. It also risked delaying work until contractors could either comply with UWE’s new requirements or it sourced other contractors. Another option was to relax its standards but this could mean that there may be operatives working on site with little or no asbestos awareness training. UWE found an alternative solution.
The University identified two, local and accredited, asbestos awareness training providers and sat in on their training to gain assurances about its quality and delivery. UWE worked with these providers to include site specific information for contractors in their training material. From July 2009 both training providers take it in turn to attend the university each and every week, to deliver asbestos awareness training immediately after the mandatory induction for contractors. The induction and awareness training is refreshed every two years.
The positive consequences
UWE has since helped deliver over 4000 hours of face-to-face, accredited asbestos awareness training, often to contractors with either insufficient or no previous training. UWE’s re-inspection programme, which is legally required, can show that the university had a 23 month period with no known accidental damage to asbestos.
The University can also report a heightened ‘contractor awareness’ of asbestos throughout the supply chain as evidenced by 12 recorded incidents of contractors stopping work on encountering suspect material (which in one instance was found to be asbestos).
Although this training has represented a considerable investment, it has helped to safeguard the health of contractors, staff and students. It has also served as a powerful message about the importance that UWE places on the protection, health and wellbeing of those working and studying in its estate.