Home Resources Blog March 2015

Contracting competent surveyors

09 March 2015
Asbestos surveys hedged around with caveats and running to hundreds of pages are of little use to a duty holder Louis Wustemann presents occupational hygienist Martin Stear’s advice on what makes for a bad survey.

With specialist surveys of asbestos in premises, as with most things, you get what you pay for. Cheap asbestos surveyors are cheap for a reason: they cut corners and they decide how to limit the survey’s scope. They will helpfully provide you with a “book” of limitations and caveats, often longer than the actual report. The report might say “surveys were limited to a height of three metres”, for example. This qualification is typically included because the surveyor could only fit a small ladder into their car boot. But it would be hard to find a duty holder who is only interested in the bottom three metres of their building.

Other qualifying clauses include: “we didn't’t want to damage the paint”; “the office was locked (or busy)”; and “there was too much furniture in the way”. And just in case they have not sufficiently covered themselves, the inevitable sting in the tail: “We cannot accept responsibility for any errors or omissions in this report”.

Competent surveys take time, sometimes weeks, and should seek to cover and understand all areas that could contain asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). Access to all rooms, too high or confined spaces or poorly lit areas can be planned. A surveyor who says they struggled due to the area being darkly painted and poorly lit, as in a night club, has failed to make the little effort required to organise adequate lighting.

Even if you avoid the cheapest surveyors, many will fail to provide the information clearly and unambiguously. Many surveyors visit a site and take samples of suspicious materials, providing the duty holder with a report showing where these samples were taken.

Each sample is given a whole page of the report showing what was found, including a picture, with scoring for its type and condition. If there are 500 samples you receive 500 pages, plus many more of preamble. If the surveyor takes 10 samples from the plant room pipework insulation, each found to contain asbestos, you will wade through 10 pages. I have seen vinyl floor tiles in the same room provided with two pages, one for the black tiles and one for the white ones.

But the important point is that the pipework insulation contains asbestos. No matter how many samples the surveyor took, one page is enough. It should describe the plant room and the extent and condition of the insulation, referring to the samples.

Check that a prospective surveyor is qualified and has experience in your type of premises. Agree the scope of the survey with them including any areas they will not access. Agree the format for the report, to present the ACMs found in a clear and unambiguous way, rather than detailing each sample. Request clear plans that show where the ACMs are, not just where the samples were taken.

If you don’t take these precautions, you may not know you have a poor or impenetrable report until a starts a job, breaches the supposedly non-asbestos wall and then, too late, stops as the suspicious looking debris falls to the floor.

The adoption of an OHSAS 18001 certified health and safety management system would means that the organisation is forced to address the competency of contracted services. Sourcing OHSAS 18001 certified contractors can therefore satisfy stakeholder concerns and provide the assurance duty holders require.

A longer version of this article appears this month at www.healthandsafetyatwork.com