What landlords and tenants of leased offices need to know about asbestos

Management of any asbestos risk is something that needs to be considered by landlords and tenants alike when entering agreements to lease offices.

What is asbestos? 

Asbestos is a fibrous silicate mineral. 

In simple terms, asbestos is a fibrous rock containing millions of tiny fibrils. These fibrils are so tiny, it is not visible to the human eye and can only be identified under a specialist microscope. In New Zealand, the one most common form of asbestos is white asbestos. The fibrils of white asbestos can be described as long and curly.

These certain characteristics give the fibrils flexibility to be woven into various types of building materials. It’s high tensile strength, temperature resistant, chemical resistant, electrical resistant and acoustic attenuate properties made asbestos an extremely attractive building material. As a result, asbestos was heavily used throughout the building industry in New Zealand. 

What has it been used for in the building industry? 

Asbestos was used extensively across the building industry including construction of offices, warehouses and residential housing. Asbestos is commonly mixed with other materials. If the building you are occupying was built, altered or refurbished from 1940 to the mid-1980’s, it is likely to contain asbestos containing materials (ACM). Buildings built after 1 January 2000, are less likely to contain ACMs. However, there is still a chance ACM is present in the building. 

In a workplace, asbestos can typically be found in the following places: 

  • Decorative/textured ceilings 
  • Insulation 
  • Wall claddings 
  • Over-cladding 
  • Roofing/super six 
  • Pressed metal stone coated roofing tiles (early 1980’s) 
  • Roofing torch applied 
  • Flue pipes 
  • Fibre cement sheeting (millboard) 
  • Flooring tiles 
  • Electrical circuit boarding 
  • Pipe insulation 

What are the potential health risks of asbestos? 

When asbestos is left alone, it is not a threat to the human health. Only when asbestos is exposed, can it cause a serious health risk. 

Activities that occur in a building such as contractors carrying out maintenance, refurbishment and other works, may expose asbestos.

When asbestos is exposed, the asbestos containing fibres are released into the air. These fibres are so tiny you cannot see them and once inhaled, the fibres are lodged deep into the lungs. 

The human body may not react instantly to the inhaled fibres, however in the long term there may be a risk of developing fatal diseases. Pleural disease, asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer are some of the killer diseases caused by inhaling asbestos. 

Asbestos in the workplace 

Asbestos is the single biggest cause of work-related disease deaths. According to WorkSafe New Zealand ‘In 2010, an estimated 600-900 people died of work-related diseases in New Zealand. Of that number around 170 people died of asbestos-related diseases’. 
Carpenters, plumbers and electricians equate to 67% of all cases of work-related diseases. But whether you are a tenant, contractor or member of the public, entering a building with airborne asbestos puts you at risk of developing fatal diseases. 

What are the current regulations around asbestos and their requirements? 

The two pieces of legislation that apply to asbestos is the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (The Act) and the Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations 2016.  Under The Act, a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable the health and safety of the workers such as employees, contractors and subcontractors (please refer to Section 19 of The Act for the full definition of worker).  The Act is put in place to protect workers and other people against harm to their health, safety and welfare. 

Workplace hazards including asbestos must be managed by a PCBU, to ensure the asbestos does not harm anyone. As part of managing asbestos risks, a workplace PCBU must: 

  • Identify or assume the presence of asbestos and ACM at the workplace that the PCBU knows or ought to reasonably know about 
  • Assess the likelihood of exposure to airborne asbestos from the identified or assumed asbestos 
  • Eliminate or minimise the risk by putting control measures in place 
  • Review the control measures to make sure they are effective 

If asbestos is identified, a PCBU must prepare an Asbestos Management Plan. This includes identifying the specific asbestos risks and putting in place controls to eliminate or minimise the risk of asbestos harming anyone. 

Does all asbestos have to be removed? 

Not all asbestos needs to be removed. The removal of asbestos is dependent on the risk and level of asbestos exposure. If the asbestos or ACM is in good condition and is undisturbed, the risk of airborne asbestos is relatively low and removal is not likely required. However, only a professional conducting an asbestos survey is able to determine the level of risk and its implications. Some factors a professional may consider when deciding if asbestos requires removal include: 
Condition of the asbestos or ACM 

  • Whether it is likely to be damaged or will deteriorate 
  • The potential quantity of airborne asbestos fibres that could be released, based on its existing condition 
  • Whether it is likely to be disturbed through routine work 
  • Whether it is in an area where workers are exposed to the material 
  • Potential exposure routes 
  • Maximum potential human exposure 

What information should I seek from my landlord in relation to asbestos? 

If you are looking to occupy a space, it is a good idea to ask the building owner for an asbestos survey. The asbestos survey is conducted by a professional, qualified surveyor who can help identify any asbestos present in a building. If asbestos is identified, it is a legal obligation as of 4 April 2018, under the Asbestos Regulations, that landlords have an Asbestos Management Plan (The Plan) prepared based from the undertaken asbestos survey. 

The Plan should be made available for any worker who carries out or intends to carry out work on the property. The Plan entails the type, location and extent of the asbestos containing material, along with recommended actions to be taken. The Plan should be reviewed annually, to ensure it is kept current. 
Your landlord can confirm all asbestos has been removed, or provide proof there is no asbestos in the building based on a previous survey conducted by a qualified person. Only then, an asbestos survey is not required. 

What are the tenants obligations in relation to asbestos? 
A workplace may have more than one PCBU such as a landlord or tenant. Under the Health and Safety Act, all PCBUs must, so far as is practicable, consult, co-operate with, and co-ordinate activities with one another to make sure they meet their legal duties. Therefore it is important to talk to your landlord to understand any legal obligations you may have. Carefully consider the lease obligations to determine whether the asbestos survey is a landlord or tenant cost.