Half a million buildings in the UK contain asbestos, which at least should be good news for removal contractors. But changes in legislation could give unlicensed fi rms the opportunity to compete for the work alongside licensed operators. Lisa Glancy and Stephanie Hendries report
A CONSULTATION document published by the Health and Safety Commission last week set out plans to amend the asbestos regulations that came into force in 2003. These state that all forms of asbestos removal ? apart from work with asbestos cement ? need to be carried out by licensed contractors.
The consultancy work on the proposed changes was carried out by the Health and Safety Executive and sponsored by the Association of British Insurers, two organisations that are, unsurprisingly, very interested in mitigating the crippling costs of monitoring and insuring asbestos removal.
The document details changes to the law which will mean that certain types of removal work, where exposure to asbestos is only 'sporadic and low-intensity' will not need to be done by a licensed contractor.
In particular, it highlights plans to drop the removal of textured decorative coating from the licensed contractors' remit, enabling those without the licence ? which costs £909 and has to be earned via a certification process ? to carry out this sort of work.
The changes cover work involving textured finishes such as Artex, popular in the 1970s and 1980s, after new research showed that asbestos exposure levels from this material are much lower than was previously thought.
So what does this mean for licensed asbestos removal contractors?
HSC figures show that one third of asbestos work involves the removal of textured decorative coverings.
If given the go-ahead, the amendments could open up a vast amount of work to unlicensed contractors, which has raised the alarm among safety campaigners.
But the Health and Safety Executive doesn't seem too worried. Kevin Walkin of the HSE's asbestos policy unit said: 'Licensed contractors are aware they may lose work. But they can still bid for it.' It was a revision of the European Union's Asbestos Worker Protection Directive that spurred the HSC's push for better regulations. The commission wants to simplify the asbestos regulations in UK law, which currently deal separately with controls, licensing and prohibitions, into one code.
Health chiefs describe the proposals as an improvement to the code, which will cover both licensed and unlicensed workers.
Yet the problem still remains that many untrained workers removing asbestos are unaware of the dangers, or are at times even unaware of the presence of asbestos in the building they are working on.
Tony O'Brien from the Construction Safety Campaign said: 'Many workers don't know they are working with asbestos. Everyone needs to be aware of it and the danger it poses.' And a spokesman at a licensed contractor, Norwichbased 1st Choice Asbestos, said: 'The problem comes from cowboy builders, the sort that simply bust down walls and roofs, not worrying about asbestos.
They consider the removal of asbestos the same as removing a wall.
'We will most definitely lose out. We are a specialised firm. A lot of asbestos removal can already be done by demolition contractors if it is cement-based.
'But now, with the rules and regulations lowered, we stand to lose out even more. There is another issue with how they actually remove the waste asbestos, because it needs to go to regulated sites rather than just dumping it in the street.' At present there are 18 licensed landfill sites run by the Environment Agency.
The Health and Safety Executive denies it is soft pedalling on the issue and insists that all work with asbestos, whether or not it needs to be done under licence, must be done by competent people with the r ight cont rols.
The consultation period will run for three months, with the new regulations set to be in place by April 2006.
The review has sparked fierce debate among key stakeholders such as trade organisations, unions and local authorities.
The Asbestos Removal Contractors Association has attacked the HSE for basing its proposals on inadequate research and for being principally concerned to cut costs.
Arca's general manager Stephen Sadley said: 'We disagree with the proposals to allow just anyone to remove textured decorative coatings. We accept that it is low-risk, but it is not 'no risk'. Unlicensed contractors won't have the expertise, knowledge or insurance to do the job properly.' The proposed changes to the regulations also have implications for the health of workers and their families.
Arca chief executive Terry Jago said: 'The reason the changes have been brought about is because the Association of British Insurers feels it is paying too high a price in insuring these licensed contractors and because the HSE simply does not have the resources to regulate all 44,000 asbestos jobs being carried out in the UK. HSE figures show that visits were made to just 891 sites last year.' The issue of insurance remains high on the agenda in the asbestos debate. While licensed contractors pay higher insurance rates to cover themselves for the dangerous work they carry out, this is not the case for unlicensed contractors.
A source at one licensed contractor said: 'We pay through the nose to insure our men. It is unfair to allow unlicensed contractors to carry out specialised work.' But the Health and Safety Executive is adamant the industry will remain the same, with 'proper' controls over all aspects of asbestos removal, even in the areas which have been ident if ied as low r isk.
The HSE insists it has a good relationship with Arca, despite the presence of protesters outside the launch of the consultation hearing last week.
Mr Jago added: 'The real truth is that the HSE may say that all work has to follow the code of practice, but a large majority of the unlicensed contractors don't even know what the code of pract ice is.
'We believe that if we lose this particular argument more and more types of asbestos removal will be deregulated.' It seems clear that licensed contractors are set to lose out if the proposed changes are implemented. Not only could they miss out on one third of all their work, but they face a battle to compete with cheaper companies, which pay significantly less in overheads. What is more, if these changes are made, it may be the first step in deregulating an already dangerous industry.