Asbestos: Ignorance is Not Bliss

As the owner of a commercial building constructed or renovated up to the early 1990’s, chances are good that some of your building materials contained some form of asbestos. The most common materials that could contain asbestos are: ceiling tiles, vinyl flooring, mechanical insulation, and fire proofing compounds.

Typically asbestos containing building materials are safe to have in your building until they are disturbed. Unfortunately, some types of asbestos are very easily disturbed. Once disturbed, asbestos fibers are so fine that they can travel by air far beyond your work zone if not properly handled. The health implications of asbestos are often severe and can take many years to manifest. This leaves building owners open to liability long after a renovation project. This is why ignoring it or working around asbestos containing materials in your building can be risky business.

For example, in a recent project in BC, the owner of an apartment building of which they were renovating a portion, has found themselves not only in a work stoppage situation, but they are covering the costs of all tenants being moved to hotels since construction particle debris was found in two units. While it is still uncertain whether the owner knew of the risk or not, the cost of their project has skyrocketed, as has their risk of liability. Imagine paying for the food and lodging for all of your tenants! Read the article here.

What are your economic risks of ignoring asbestos in your building?

None, if you never do a renovation. Once you consider any type of renovation, some of your risks are:

  • Cost of work stoppages
  • Cost of tenant relocation
  • Ministry fines
  • Legal action from tenants or patrons if not properly informed and cared for
  • Cost of increased project scope and timeline.

Having insurance isn’t enough to cover all of these risks. While some of the risk can be transferred to your contractor through the bid and construction process, ultimately the responsibility will fall to you.

How can you mitigate your risks?

  • Have a full inspection and report of your building’s asbestos containing materials. In Ontario, you should receive a Designated Substance Assessment from this process.
  • Include the report in your bid documents for prospective contractors.
  • Ensure all bidders include their process to reduce the risk of asbestos exposure during construction.
  • Check the credentials of your potential contractors: ensure they are qualified to conduct the level of asbestos abatement that you require.
  • Once you are ready to begin construction, inform your tenants of the construction and risk mitigation plan.
  • Be present during your project – not so present as to be a hindrance to the workers, but present enough to know if the contractor is going off plan or increasing your risk. If they do, stop work immediately and create a solution.

All of this may make you question your desire to renovate at all! The long term benefits of having a safe and renovated building will far outweigh your investment in the renovation. You may as well do the renovation sooner than later; who knows what the cost of construction materials and labour will be in a few years when you can no longer avoid them.

As with any risk, it’s always better to make yourself aware of it and plan ahead than to be caught off guard and not have the time to assess your choices fully. We’ve found that the more risks you acknowledge and plan for, the less risk you actually encounter.

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