Deadly dust

The death of John Shiers from asbestos-related cancer raises worrying questions for housing providers. Martin Hilditch kicks off our refurbishment and retrofit special by investigating what landlords should do to protect their tenants from a similar fate

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John Shiers died two weeks ago at the age of just 59 and his funeral took place last week.

Despite being diagnosed with cancer barely a year ago Mr Shiers was effectively handed his death sentence along with the keys to his flat when he moved to Hulme, Manchester, in the late 1970s.

Unknown to Mr Shiers, his home - along with the majority of the 3,500-odd properties in Hulme at the time - was riddled with asbestos.


Danger zoneDanger zone

Mesothelioma, the cancer that killed Mr Shiers, is caused by breathing in asbestos fibres. While the terminal disease is most commonly linked to exposure in the workplace, Mr Shiers and his closest family cannot think of anywhere other than his flat where he is likely to have come into contact with the substance.

Perhaps more pointedly, Manchester Council has admitted a limited liability in the case, based on its role as a landlord - in one of the first cases of its kind in this country (see box below: Asbestos and social landlords).

For the past 12 months Mr Shiers’ closest friends, and his partner Louis, have had to watch him suffer the dreadful consequences.

‘He had a horrible, horrible death,’ his close friend Ian Wilmott states. ‘He didn’t slip away. The levels of pain he suffered were horrific.’

How, though, could it have been possible for Mr Shiers, and potentially thousands of people like him, to be exposed to asbestos fibres in the homes they lived in? And why do some campaigners - including Mr Shiers in the last months of his life - fear that some of today’s tenants are being placed at similar risk?

The risk factor

Roughly 3,500 properties were built in Hulme in the late 1960s and early 1970s, following a slum clearance. Dogged by physical and social problems they did not stand the test of time and were demolished in the late 1980s.

Mr Shiers was one of the campaigners who flagged up these problems on the estate. By the bitterest of ironies he was also the first to expose the widespread presence of asbestos in Hulme’s homes.

John Shiers died of mesothelioma two weeks ago following exposure to asbestos
John Shiers died of mesothelioma two weeks ago following exposure to asbestos

A leading light in the city’s Labour group throughout the 1980s - including a stint as its chair - he was a party activist when he first became aware there might be a problem.

Caroline Keightley, a close friend of Mr Shiers who also lived in Hulme at the time, says the issue was first flagged up at a Labour group meeting in the early 1980s.

‘Someone who was a direct works joiner, I think, burst in,’ Ms Keightley, who is now a housing consultant based near Manchester, recalls. ‘He said “you lot are a waste of space. The big issue is that these flats are full of asbestos”.’

Taking action

The meeting marked the birth of Hulme Asbestos Action - a group led by four people, including Mr Shiers and Ms Keightley, who campaigned tirelessly for 18 months to make residents aware that asbestos was present in the flats. They also demanded that the Labour-run council address what they saw as the dangers.

It is important to stress that, while asbestos, which was used for a huge variety of construction purposes until 1999 when it was banned, is present in a huge amount of the UK’s housing stock, it does not present a risk to health as long as it is not damaged or disturbed. The campaigners worried both about the sheer scale of the presence of asbestos in people’s homes and the fact that residents had not been told where it was. This last point meant that householders could be unwittingly exposed to asbestos, for example, if a door or a bath panel was damaged or they carried out improvement work to their homes.

Ms Keightley says asbestos was so widely used at the time because it was cheap and the council’s main focus was job creation. She feels the authority did not take the health risks seriously until much too late. ‘There was so much complacency,’ she states.

The campaign she and Mr Shiers led was a huge success; both at informing the estate’s constantly changing population - it was a popular area with students at Manchester University - and, eventually, prompting action from the council.

By 1986, the council was sending out flyers warning residents of the dangers of asbestos. One leaflet, sent to households in part of the estate known as Hulme 3, where Mr Shiers lived, refers to asbestos as ‘the hidden killer in your home’. It goes on to say it ‘could be anywhere’ and has been found in boiler rooms, meter cupboards, all inside and outside walls, ventilation ducts, bath panels and ‘many other places’. It tells tenants that ‘if you are thinking of doing any DIY or decorating work, take simple precautions such as not scraping or rubbing down walls or putting in nails or screws’.

The leaflet reveals just how seriously the council was taking the issue by this point. It says there are now two options for the future of the estate; ‘demolish all 799 deck access homes in Hulme 3 and rehouse the tenants’ or ‘move the tenants out, get rid of the asbestos, refurbish the estate, and move tenants back’.

Too little, too late

By this time, however, the damage had already been done to Mr Shiers. He went on to have a successful career; working in the neighbourhood services departments in Manchester and Rochdale councils before taking on a senior management role at charity Save the Children. In later life he retrained and became a psychotherapist. But all the time he was unaware that the clock was ticking on his health because of his exposure.

Mr Wilmott says that following diagnosis his friend continued to put himself out to take care of others. ‘He spent a lot of the [last] year worrying about other people, making sure other people were OK,’ he says.

This included campaigning on behalf of the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victim Support Group; a charity which supported him through his last year. It is his work for this group that raises real questions for the current generation of social and private landlords.

Speaking in June this year, just months before his death, Mr Shiers laid down the challenge as he saw it.

Source: Associated Newspapers / Rex Features
Source: Associated Newspapers / Rex Features

‘We had to campaign to get information about asbestos and for the dangers of asbestos to be taken seriously,’ he stated. ‘Thirty years later, tenants are still not told where asbestos is in their homes despite the dangers of disturbing asbestos. This must change.’

A survey carried out by the GMAVSG at the time certainly revealed a vast difference in approach to the issue being taken by social landlords. It surveyed 16 housing associations, councils and arm’s-length management organisations in the Greater Manchester area. Two said they provided information to tenants about the exact location of asbestos in their homes. For others it was a different story, however.

One ALMO confirmed that it did have information about where asbestos was located in its stock but did not pass this on to tenants. In its response it stated it did not do so because ‘from past experience it proved that people panic’.

Spreading the word

Tony Whitston, who runs GMAVSG today, says he does not think it is good enough for landlords to keep the information to themselves.

‘If some social landlords can successfully inform their tenants without mass panic then others can,’ he states.

Telling tenants about asbestos in their homes does not just protect them, he adds. In fact, it also helps to safeguard workers, like carpenters and plumbers, who visit them to repair and refurbish their property. As Inside Housing’s research on previous cases reveals there are a small but significant number of cases each year where landlords or their contractors fail to provide appropriate information to workers carrying out refurbishment work in their homes. Mr Whitston feels that if tenants were warned about the location of asbestos in their properties they would be more likely to speak up if they thought workers were not taking appropriate precautions.

‘It’s like a bottle of poison,’ he adds. ‘If you leave the stopper in the bottle then it is OK. It is a question of managing the situation. How not to manage it is not telling people.’

Two Rivers Housing, based in Forest of Dean, was criticised in a housing ombudsman report earlier this year following an incident in which contractors cut through a board containing asbestos. Matt Hunt, director of development and asset management at the association, says it has updated the way it manages asbestos with changes including the introduction of a ‘new asbestos management software which enables us to undertake regular risk assessments’.

‘We provide tenants with an advice leaflet about asbestos in the home when they move in and updates are provided for inclusion in our tenant handbook and [we] give them access to asbestos information, specific to their property, if they are doing DIY or simply wish to have the information,’ he adds.

A major study of the way social landlords deal with asbestos by academics Dr Linda Waldman and Heather Williams in 2009, commissioned by the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, backs up Mr Whitston’s conclusion that landlords could do more, however.

The report found that it is not uncommon for tenants to carry out DIY work on their homes, or commission trades people to do it for them - often with the tacit encouragement of their landlords.

It found a variety of practices from landlords - from those who were open with tenants about the location of asbestos in their homes to those who chose not to inform them, or did not know.

Landlords’ decisions not to inform were often based on the assumption that asbestos was safe if undisturbed.

But the report added: ‘Scientific notions of risk, threshold levels and danger are not based upon accidentally drilling through an asbestos wall, or on children picking threads out of asbestos-containing panel or dedicated housewives scrubbing their asbestos floor tiles.’

It concluded that ‘far more could be done to safely manage asbestos [in social housing]’.

Good practice

The report did, however, praise 21,000-home arm’s-length management organisation Homes in Havering in particular for providing comprehensive information about asbestos in its repairs guide, which is supplied to residents in their welcome pack along with an inventory of the location of asbestos in their home.

Perhaps most worrying, watchdog the Health and Safety Executive was so concerned about the way social landlords are managing asbestos risk that it wrote to chief executives of housing associations, ALMOs and councils back in May 2009.

Its letter, seen by Inside Housing, states that the HSE had recently ‘encountered instances during the refurbishment of social housing properties where inadequate measures had been taken to prevent unsafe work associated with asbestos-containing materials. Workers, and in some cases tenants, may have been exposed to asbestos because of this failure to manage the risk,’ it adds.

David Taft, policy advisor for the HSE’s public services sector, admits that it has ‘identified situations where asbestos is not being managed safely’.
‘The key failing in asbestos management that we have picked up on is failure to provide adequate information to those working with it and failure to ensure the competence of those working with asbestos,’ he states.

Landlords should have a record of the location of asbestos and its condition, he states, but there is no requirement for them to pass the information on to tenants.

However, he states that there is ‘no excuse for landlords not to be aware of the dangers [of tenants carrying out DIY]. There needs to be good communication with tenants so they are aware of the dangers of carrying out their own work’.

Ongoing concern

If anyone needs reminding why this is so important they need only look at the tragic, premature death of Mr Shiers.

A spokesperson for Manchester Council says it wants to ‘extend our condolences to Mr Shiers’ family’.

‘Mr Shiers’ representatives are bringing a claim against the council and while the matter is being handled sensitively and appropriately it would be inappropriate to comment further,’ he adds.

Mr Wilmott, who also lived in Hulme and admits he is ‘terrified’ about his own possible exposure to asbestos, says his friend would have wanted his experience to prompt today’s landlords to think again about their policies.

‘That’s the call to arms,’ he adds. ‘If there is asbestos in the property the occupants should know. That’s what John would want - his experience to help prevent preventable deaths.’

Landlords’ responsibilities

The government has just finished consulting on a new set of asbestos regulations.

Current duty to manage asbestos requirements apply to common areas of premises, such as foyers, corridors, lifts, and outhouses.

Health and Safety at Work regulations mean organisations also have legal duties to ensure the health and safety of staff (and others) in domestic premises as a place of work.

Organisations also have duties to identify asbestos and carry out a risk assessment of work liable to expose employees to asbestos.

They should carry out management surveys on properties which contain or may contain asbestos containing materials. More intrusive refurbishment and demolition surveys must be carried out if work involving disturbing the fabric of the building is planned

Asbestos and social landlords: recent history

November 2011

Funeral of John Shiers, 59, who died from mesothelioma. He was exposed to asbestos while living in his flat in Hulme, Manchester, in the 1970s and 1980s.

October 2011

The family of John Brown, 45, who died of asbestos-related lung cancer launch a legal battle for compensation. Mr Brown spent years installing cabling in properties including housing association and council stock in and around Redcar and Cleveland.

September 2011

South Kesteven Council and a building contractor are fined £19,600 between them after being prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive following the spread of asbestos during bathroom renovation work at a flat in Grantham.

May 2011

Nottinghamshire building firm fined £20,000 after being prosecuted by the HSE after contaminating the possessions of an elderly resident of a sheltered housing scheme with asbestos during bathroom renovation work.

March 2011

Two Rivers Housing Association criticised in a housing ombudsman report after contractors cut through a board containing asbestos while trying to solve a condensation problem.

January 2011

Rotherham’s arm’s-length management organisation fined £7,000 after a plumber was exposed to up to 50 times the legal limit for asbestos while refurbishing a bathroom.

November 2010

Contractor fined for failing to provide adequate information or asbestos training to workers on a heating upgrade of a North Tyneside Council house.

October 2010

Report for Milton Keynes Council reveals two historic incidents where the management of asbestos by a contractor was inadequate. It says this placed ‘both workmen and, on one occasion, residents at risk’.

September 2010

Nuneaton and Bedworth Council fined £5,000 after sending an employee to deal with a water leak in a sheltered housing complex without warning him asbestos was present. The work, in which the employee sawed through material containing asbestos, was carried out in a public area.

June 2010

  • Lincoln Council and a contractor fined £14,250 between them after a worker left a family exposed to asbestos fibres for three days. Broken panels and asbestos debris were left on the bathroom floor of the council home.
  • Audit Commission re-inspection reveals that Crawley Council did not have a ‘sufficiently robust’ approach to managing asbestos.

February 2010

  • The Homes and Communities Agency settles out of court with plumber Albert Heaps who developed an asbestos-related lung disease. He said his illness was caused by working on new housing developments in the Stevenage area between 1966 and 1981.
  • The HSE serves an improvement notice on Meres and Mosses Housing Association after a contractor was exposed asbestos while working on a ceiling. The notice was complied with.

November 2009

Liberal Democrat MP Sandra Gidley tables a House of Commons motion stating that the house ‘condemns the action of Testway Housing in Hampshire in failing to remove asbestos from as many as 60 homes’.

September 2009

  • Audit Commission housing management services inspection report in Accent Peerless reveals its ‘approach to asbestos, smoke detection and electrical safety testing is weak, creating health and safety risks for tenants’.
  • Audit Commission housing management services inspection report into the Vale of Aylesbury Housing Trust says its ‘approach to managing asbestos is underdeveloped and, until improvements are completed, there are potential health and safety risks to tenants and contractors’.

August 2009

A 48-year-old plasterer with months to live after being diagnosed with mesothelioma receives compensation. He was exposed to asbestos more
than 20 years previously while working for a building company on the renovation of council homes across the north east.

July 2009

Fife Council and a contractor are fined £13,700 after workers and members of the public are exposed to asbestos as the result of refurbishment work to council properties in Inverkeithing.

John Brown’s story

John Brown, from Stockton, was just 45 when he died in April 2010 of asbestos-related lung cancer.

He thought he had been exposed while working next to asbestos-lagged pipework while installing cables and wiring for TV systems in the early 80s to the late 90s. There was a long list of housing association and council homes he worked in, across a wide variety of locations.

His wife, Pauline, is seeking compensation, working with law firm Irwin Mitchell, from his former employers, including Redcar and Cleveland Council, for which he carried out work.

‘He did a lot of alarms for the pensioners’ bungalows and warden call systems,’ she says. ‘He had to go in a lot of the lofts.

‘You’re going back a lot of years. It wasn’t like it is now. They wouldn’t let you work now unless you are all covered up. People just didn’t seem as scared about it or probably didn’t think it would do as much harm as it has done.’

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