Article first published in the ACES ‘The Terrier’ Magazine in Spring 2006
A Taste of Asbestos
Health and Safety Warning: You may be placing yourself at risk if you take this article seriously. Any offensive remarks are acknowledged as being politically incorrect and should be dealt with by developing a sense of humour.
Asbestos is a serious subject. Well have you ever heard a joke about it? Consider this:
Building Surveyor: ‘What would you like for lunch?’
Dyslexic Asbestos Contractor: ‘I’ll have a crocidolite sandwich and make it snappy.’
It fails on so many fronts. It offends dyslexics so I’ll apologise now before I receive any nosiop nep letters. Tommy Cooper would spin in his grave to know that I had butchered one of his jokes simply because I’ve never heard any about asbestos. Even then it doesn’t work verbally because the second ‘c’ in crocidolite is soft if you pronounce it correctly. So why bother to crack a joke in such bad taste? Well, I just wanted to put some bite into a boring subject.
It’s odd how things can completely change in such a short period of time. Not that long ago Asbestos was looked upon as a friend. It stopped you burning to death. We stuck it into every nook and cranny of our buildings. Only later did we discover that it might have a less friendly aspect to its nature. Now Safety Advisers go into a flat spin at the mere mention of it and, clad in protective gear, we rush headlong to rip it out. Even Max Clifford would have his work cut out to restore its reputation. Recently the Belgians of all people questioned if this obsession with identifying it and removing it is something of an over-reaction in relation to the least dangerous type. You know you’ve got problems when the Belgians side with you. Just look at the causes of the last two World Wars.
When I asked one of the older Building Surveyors about sampling techniques from those early days before asbestos became public enemy number one I got this reply:
‘We used to break off a lump. If it looked like asbestos, felt like asbestos, smelt like asbestos and tasted like asbestos then it probably was asbestos.’
Maybe the Belgians have a point, as asbestos eradication does seem to have become something of a self-fuelled industry regardless of the level of risk. They know a thing or two as they’ve been trying to kill the world with chocolate for centuries. Chocolate does taste better than asbestos and you might die happier but they realised a long time ago that it wouldn’t stop a fire. Hence the demise of the chocolate fireguard.
I can remember in the 1980’s when we first started to become aware of the dangers of asbestos but tended to think it was just scare-mongering. I used to share the journey to work with the County Waste Disposal Manager so took the opportunity to ask him what I should do about the dilapidated asbestos-cement garage at the back of my house. I wanted to replace it with a new sectional concrete one. His advice was to demolish it carefully wearing a mask and protective clothing. Then I should place the clothes and the waste inside double sealed bags that I should take to a special tip ten miles away and pay to dump them. Needless to say, I knocked it into bits with a sledgehammer and transported it down to the unmanned local tip on a dark evening before throwing my work clothes in the washing machine. I was young and foolish and asbestos removal didn’t form part of my job with the Council then but I’ve paid for my sins ever since. As soon as I became Property Services Manager and responsible for asbestos the guilt set in. Since then, every few winters when I develop a bit of a chesty cough along with the rest of the nation, I convince myself that it’s the beginning of asbestosis. This is a serious concern for me because an early death would defeat my ambition to retire at sixty and live to be a hundred, if only to plunder the pension fund for the exact same number of years that I’ve had to pay in. I’m sorry if that upsets those members of ACES who may have to work until they’re seventy-five to support me in that ambition but it’s your own fault for being young. My wife dismisses my hypochondria with the disdain it deserves.
‘You should leave your body to medical science as you’re the only person in history to fully recover from terminal asbestosis on at least five known occasions.’
She’d be as concerned as me if I’d ever dared to tell her that I’d put my work clothes in that washing machine alongside her underwear.
Nevertheless, asbestos kills. Now, of course, we don’t use the old Building Surveyor’s mythical methods but send samples to a laboratory for analysis and within a few days they tell us what it is. The old method, although less accurate, didn’t hold up the job. The new method now sustains a widespread panic until the results are known.
A recent incident in Kendal Town Hall illustrates this. We were replacing the ancient heating system with new boilers and pipes and modern zoning controls. All was going well until we ripped out some panelling in the Members’ room to discover large diameter pipes covered in flaking white insulation. The heating contractors were immediately called off, the room sealed and one of the Building Surveyors, wearing a rather fetching white paper suit and mask, despatched to chip out a sample. It was also decided that the risk was so great that the adjoining function room should be isolated in case some rogue fibres strayed under the door.
The adjoining function room was widely used by the public. That night it had been booked for a Dinner Dance. This had to be cancelled for their own protection, much to the annoyance of the Town Hall Manager and his paying guests. The situation was aggravated because that exact same function on that exact same night one year earlier had also been cancelled due to a local power failure. Not surprisingly the organisers didn’t renew the booking for a third year. After a few days the sample analysis returned from the laboratory – no asbestos detected.
I asked the Senior Building Surveyor what the sample contained. He gave me a highly technical and very graphic trade description. I gleaned from those two words that in the great Town Hall-building days of the Empire hordes of natives scoured the forests of India for the droppings of a particular breed of monkeys that fed on a high fibre diet of sawdust and gypsum plaster. This provided the local economy with an export much prized for its insulating qualities. He didn’t say if he’d ever tasted it in the past.
Recently the Building Surveyors got stuck into our new Asbestos Hazard Register. We’d had an old one that was held in a spreadsheet and had worked reasonably well at a basic level for many years. However we felt that it lacked something – mainly useful information – since we only tended to record asbestos after we’d found it and removed it. Not a lot of use for those following behind who might want to know a little more – like where was the stuff that we hadn’t removed. We bought the new Hazard Register as part of our Technology Forge Integrated Property Management System and what an excellent module it is proving to be. We soon had our existing data transferred and set about adding new Asbestos Surveys and Risk Assessments and recording actions in respect of inspecting, sampling, removal, encapsulating, monitoring etc all in accordance with the MDHS 100 recommended code of practice.
The problem that we then encountered was that we had all this information but it was only available to the Building Surveyors on their computers – not a lot of use to our Contractors or the Architects or Tenants who might want to organise work where asbestos existed. It needed to be more readily accessible. Discussions with Technology Forge revealed the development of their even newer web–based Hazard interface to enable others to view the Register over the Internet. I asked if I could see an example of the interface in practice and was referred to their first customer – Birmingham City Council.
I logged onto BCC’s web-site and scoured it for the Hazard Register. Not a sign of it, so TF gave me a contact in Birmingham.
‘ Hello, I’m the Property Services Manager for SLDC. I’d like to view your Asbestos Register please but can’t find it on your web-site.’
‘Well you won’t – it’s restricted to local contractors. They have to register for special access.’
‘Well I only want to see how it’s set up. Can I register?’
‘Well why not?’
‘Data Protection Act’
‘What data needs protecting – surely you want people to have this information to protect them?’
‘You can’t have access.’
I gave up and TF sent me some screen prints off their development model to assess it. It was excellent and the Council bought it. It’s now up and running. We made the decision that we wanted any one who might need the information to have it to protect them against a lingering death in 30 years time. So we made it open on a ‘read-only’ basis to the rest of the world. Should you want to view it log on to www.southlakeland.gov.uk/asbestos. You might need to search under specific properties such as Kendal Town Hall or South Lakeland House or Canal Head Depot to find any actual survey results. So I’m issuing an invitation to anyone who works for Birmingham City Council. Come on – explain it to me – why is your Asbestos Register such a big secret? Data Protection? What’s in there that only certain local contractors can see but I can’t? What’s in there that that wouldn’t be released under the Freedom of Information Act? I’m interested. Maybe South Lakeland has got it wrong in telling the rest of the world and if so I’d like to know why. Surely you’re not still using the taste test in Birmingham and are too embarrassed to tell us?
I was browsing our Register the other day – looking at our Industrial units – as you do – and noticed a high preponderance of toilet seats listed. I asked the Building Surveyor why he’d listed such items as asbestos hazards. It turns out that often asbestos is mixed in with the resin in the manufacturing process so, whilst safe to use, you might need to be careful on the morning after enjoying a particularly lethal curry or when disposing of any old or damaged seats during refurbishment. His remarks about the old and new testing methods came to mind and I hoped that if he’d taken a sample that he’d sent it to the laboratory for analysis – the alternative really doesn’t bear thinking about. Then again, if you work in Birmingham perhaps there is no alternative?
©David Lewis Pogson 2006