Robert is a consulting engineer in the building services industry. This role sees him working alongside architects and structural engineers in the design, planning and renewal of buildings.
Part of his work involves overseeing the safe removal of any asbestos from electrical and heating systems. But when he started as an apprentice in the heating industry in the 60s, there was little awareness of the dangers of asbestos.
In this interview he talks about the ubiquity of asbestos, and how it has had a devastating impact on two people very close to him. He also discusses his thoughts on what needs to be done to help strengthen existing asbestos regulations.
Robert spoke to us to support our Don’t Let the Dust Settle campaign running throughout April 2023.
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What drives you to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos?
“I lost my brother five years ago to mesothelioma. He wasn’t in the industry; he was a banker and accountant. But in his early years as a bank clerk in the 1970s, in the days before computers and electronic calculators, the teller had to add up all the deposits on an NCR machine. It sounded just like a machine gun. The solution, to protect the customers, was to form acoustic booths to absorb some of the clatter. Many of these would’ve been lined with asbestos fibre, and that was the best conclusion as to his likely exposure drawn by his medical advisers.
“And now a friend of mine has mesothelioma. In his youth he worked in the shipyards in Glasgow as a joiner and cabinet maker. In those days asbestos was then to be found in abundance in every corner of a ship for insulation, acoustic and fire purposes. It was the job of the apprentices to attend upon ships coming in for overhaul, to strip all the asbestos insulation in the boiler room preparatory to renewal and repair of the plant. So this is where he is likely to have been exposed. He was diagnosed three and a half years ago and is currently undergoing treatment at the Royal Marsden.”
“There are thousands of buildings with hundreds of miles of pipework buried in walls – how do you deal with it?”
Can you tell us a little about your job?
“At 29 I vowed never to work for anybody again and set up in private practice as a consulting engineer. This involves the renewal of central boiler plants as well as the planning and removal of any asbestos in accordance with the 2012 asbestos regulations. The first step is to carry out an R&D (Refurbishment and demolition) survey to establish the degree of contamination. After this specialist contractors need to be engaged to come in and remove asbestos as well as any items containing it. This includes boilers, electrical equipment, pipes, all those things. They are best removed by a specialist who will go in with the full PPE kit.”
What are you finding on sites you survey?
“Buildings dating from 1900 onwards, particularly those built in the 20s and 30s, often had retrofitting of central heating. This meant cutting channels into the brick walls so that they could place the pipes inside. The void would then be filled with a mixture containing asbestos, and then plastered over. There are thousands of buildings with hundreds of miles of pipework buried in walls – how do you deal with it?”
“[Asbestos was] thrown around like confetti.”
What changes have you seen in the asbestos industry?
“Well, in 1960 when I started on site as an apprentice, with magnesia asbestos – it was all thrown around like confetti.
“But since then, I’ve seen a sea change in attitude. Once upon a time, as in most industries, it was just seen as a thing that went with the job, tradespeople were working in places full of fibre floating around. Thankfully, that’s not the case now.
“I had a case only a year ago where people installing a new flue in a boiler room discovered what they thought looked like a small piece of fibre – they shut the site immediately. That’s the attitude that has to prevail now, and I’m very proud of it.”
“In my personal experience a lot is being done, but whether a lot is enough remains to be seen. I’d like to see a greater or more rigid enforcement of the asbestos regulations.”
What are your thoughts about the ongoing threat posed by asbestos?
“In my personal experience a lot is being done, but whether a lot is enough remains to be seen. I’d like to see a greater or more rigid enforcement of the asbestos regulations. Greater awareness and always seeking the opportunity to remove asbestos must be paramount in the forward planning and maintenance of the buildings.”
Who do you think should be leading on these changes?
“You can make a lot of noise about it and people can just say “I can’t afford it, I’m not going to do it” and bypass it, and that’s where there’s weakness there, and that wants attending to.”
“What we find is that it comes down through the Health and Safety Executive, they are the people responsible for issuing the proclamations, but they need the backing of the law, parliament, in order to be able to enact that. Nothing serious gets done until there is an act of parliament, it is very difficult to manage otherwise. You can make a lot of noise about it and people can just say “I can’t afford it, I’m not going to do it” and bypass it, and that’s where there’s weakness there, and that wants attending to.”