Construction Site Risks From Asbestos in Soil - The Lowdown

Construction Site Risks From Asbestos in Soil - The Lowdown

02nd June 2015

Here at Safety Fabrications we take health and safety issues seriously and we’re always on the lookout for useful and relevant information which will allow our readers to make informed decisions on health and safety issues in the workplace.  As such, we’ve recently reported on the health risks associated with construction dust and we’ve just come across some new information on the dangers of asbestos in the soil.

It’s been known for many years that airborne asbestos is a particular hazard for construction industry workers.  We have some pretty strict legislation here in the UK that’s designed to minimise risks in the future.  We have a long history here in Britain of asbestos being used in our buildings and, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) exposure to asbestos is the leading cause of occupational disease among construction workers.  In fact, HSE research suggests that asbestos exposure is responsible for more than two thirds of cancer deaths within the industry as a whole.

However, it’s recently come to light that there are also health risks that need to be avoided when it comes to asbestos containing soils (ACS) which is making working on sites with high levels of ACS extremely hazardous.  Asbestos fibres from the soil can be released and become airborne from both wind disturbance and the physical disturbance resulting from site development.

There is not much data available as yet on the concentration and distribution of asbestos in the soils of the UK – however, the Construction Industry Research Information Association (CIRIA) has suggested that there are high levels of asbestos fibres buried in Britain’s brownfield sites.  This is of particular concern to the construction industry now that the new Conservative government has pledged to expand construction activities on brownfield sites which is likely to increase the incidents of asbestos from soils being released into the atmosphere.

While developers are becoming increasingly aware of the health hazards due to asbestos in soils, this is being seen as a positive development for the industry.  There has been a noticeable surge in enquiries asking for soil analysis samples for asbestos fibres to determine whether construction sites have asbestos in the soil.  In the first three quarters of 2014, there was a 25% increase in pre-emptive developer enquiries and it is hoped that this proactive approach will see affirmative action being taken to mitigate the risks associated with asbestos and ACS before they become an issue. 

However, CIRIA suggests that the widely used level of 0.001% asbestos fibre in soil may not be suitable in all cases.  This level does not take into account other factors which could increase the dangers faced, such as the range of different soil types here in the UK and the differing composition of soils.  For example, dry, sandy soils are likely to release more asbestos fibres when disturbed than does wet, clay soils.  Although CIRIA is able to raise awareness of this issue, the organisation is unable to alter official guidance and regulation as to what is considered a safe level of asbestos in different types of soils.

As a result of this, the industry is in need of some sort of official guidance and regulations as to what is considered to be a safe level of asbestos in different types of soil.

This is an issue which we’ll be watching closely at Safety Fabrications and we will make sure that our readers are up to date on any future developments on this issue.