Most asbestos removers not insured for accidents
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Most asbestos removers not insured for accidents

The government issues several large-scale contracts for asbestos removal at old factories, mostly belonging to the Malta Industrial Parks. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

The government issues several large-scale contracts for asbestos removal at old factories, mostly belonging to the Malta Industrial Parks. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Companies offering asbestos-clearing services in Malta do not need to have public health risk insurance and though government tenders for its disposal normally demand this sort of cover, the requirement was recently dropped.

An exercise carried out by The Sunday Times of Malta shows that a majority of Malta’s asbestos-handling companies are not insured for the accidental exposure of third parties to asbestos fibres, which, when airborne, can be inhaled and potentially cause cancer.

The companies were asked for a quotation from a journalist posing as a prospective client, who also inquired whether they had insurance cover.

Only two companies out of the five that advertise such services claim to have cover and the owner of one said his company does not actually do the cleaning itself but leaves it to an unnamed “foreign company”. It is this company that has the insurance cover, not his.

There are many more small outfits which do not advertise but take clearing jobs without having any particular expertise

Moreover, industry sources said there are many more small outfits which do not advertise the service but take clearing jobs without having any particular expertise, let alone cover.

One contractor even claimed such insurance “probably does not exist”, as he argued it was not necessary.

The “miracle mineral”, as it was sometimes called in the industry, was used widely for insulation and fireproofing until the late 1970s, before the full extent of the health hazards it poses was accepted.

The toxic substance is hazardous when airborne since it is made of tiny fibres that are easily inhaled.

It is particularly dangerous when being transported, unless covered in plastic and disposed of carefully. As a result, the material became heavily regulated but while Malta too follows EU prescribed directives on the subject, there is no licensing regime, which means that in theory any company could start doing this work.

Moreover, there is no requirement for insurance covering for public exposure in spite of the inherent risk in the business, which has been plagued by lawsuits from individuals who would have contracted lung cancer from asbestos exposure.

A spokesman for Mepa said the authority is responsible for overseeing the transportation, storage and export of the material but the actual regulation of asbestos cleaning companies falls under the Occupational Health and Safety Authority (OHSA).

However, the OHSA pointed out it is mostly responsible for the “health and safety of workers engaged in the handling of asbestos-containing material”.

The authority’s environmental health CEO Mark Gauci said there are other regulations that safeguard public health and the environment. However, there was no response when the health authorities were asked to point out which body is responsible for public and environmental health risks. The authority does oversee the industry in the sense that it requires that asbestos contractors submit a method statement every time they plan to carry out a job involving the material.

However, the regime is far more stringent in places like the UK, for instance, where companies in this business require a licence that is only granted after they meet certain industry standards imposed by the British Health and Safety Commission.

Moreover, a precondition of the licence is the requirement of a public health and environmental insurance cover.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that the government issues several large-scale contracts for asbestos removals in old factories, mostly belonging to the Malta Industrial Parks (MIP).

Over the past years, many factories have been cleared out of tons of asbestos, and there are many more on stream, some of them sitting right next to residential areas.

Public tenders normally require third party exposure insurance. However, the requirement has not been consistent.

In a recent tender, the clause requiring insurance cover was mysteriously dropped. Questions sent to the authorities asking for explanations remained unanswered at the time of writing.

A spokesman for the Economy Ministry said MIP was currently investigating a tender issued for the removal of asbestos at a factory in Marsa last year on suspicion that the winning bidder did not actually have insurance cover, despite it having been a specific requirement of the tender.

Diseases caused by asbestos usually take between 10 to 40 years to develop.

Malta had its fair share of asbestos victims. In 2012, the heirs of several former dockyard workers filed individual and class action lawsuits in the US, seeking their right to compensation in damages for occupational exposures to asbestos products while working – among other places – on US warships.

Some of them also took their battle for compensation to the European Court of Human rights in the same year, over the government’s refusal to payout on behalf of the now defunct Malta Shipyards.

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