Businesses that have failed to deal with dangerous asbestos in their premises, and have put employees or contractors at risk, are using gagging orders to keep their failings quiet.
According to a laywer at national firm Simpson Millar, victims are increasingly being forced to sign gagging orders before receiving their compensation.
Anyone who owns and occupies commercial premises has a legal duty to manage asbestos, and to warn those who might come into contact with it. Electricians and plumbers are particularly at risk and, despite years of campaigning, contractors and employees are still being put at risk.
Helen Grady, specialist mesothelioma solicitor at Simpson Millar, is aware that some employers do not fulfill their duties when it comes to managing asbestos in their premises – evidenced by the number of calls the asbestos team gets each month from people who have recently been exposed without warning.
Ms Grady explains: “Asbestos is present in a huge number of commercial buildings yet SMEs in particular are reluctant to arrange for the proper surveys to be carried out. They know that if asbestos-containing materials are found, they might have to pay for it to be made safe and that can be expensive.
“When cases for negligent exposure to asbestos are settled out of court, victims are sometimes only awarded their damages after signing a gagging order – preventing them to ever speak of their case. I strongly discourage this; it is important that those who put people at risk are exposed in public. But when sufferers are already dealing with the enormity of receiving a diagnosis of mesothelioma or asbestos related cancer, they can’t face another battle in the role of whistle-blower. Understandably, but sadly, it means that neglect goes unnoticed and failings are allowed to continue.”
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 are very clear; businesses that occupy commercial premises must either be certain that they are free of asbestos, or take steps to discover if any has been used and what condition it might be in.
“Doing nothing is not a defence,” said Ms Grady. “Business owners should presume asbestos is present, investigate and confirm if it is, and then take appropriate steps to inform and protect anyone who might come into contact with it. From the frequent HSE prosecutions, we can conclude that this simply isn’t happening.”
Simpson Millar regularly receives calls from tradesmen who fear they might have been exposed to asbestos after having carried out work on commercial premises.
“Often, no warning is given or displayed. Sadly, even brief exposure to asbestos can cause irreparable damage. Afterwards, there is nothing anyone can do but hope they won’t get ill in the future. Keeping notes and records of an incident can help with a future claim but that is very little comfort,” said Ms Grady.
The number of people dying today from exposure back in the 60s and 70s still hasn’t peaked, but there is no reason why anyone should die from asbestos related diseases 10–60 years from now. But they will, says Ms Grady, because some companies continue to disregard the regulations that have been written to protect workers.
She says business owners and landlords could be worried the required hazard signage will frighten off tenants and ruin their business. While enforcement remains sporadic and failures inexpensive, Ms Grady warns there is little incentive to comply.
“While the regulator isn’t showing its teeth, very few businesses are motivated to follow the rules even though they are there to keep employees and contractors safe. The Government needs to tighten up controls or we will continue to see the devastating effects of what asbestos does to the human body for another 60 years.”