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Conducting an asbestos survey in a retail center.

Conducting an Asbestos Survey in a Retail Center

When Melvin Simon & Associates, Inc. decided to survey its mall properties for asbestos, it was entering uncharted territory. The survey encompassed 26 malls in 13 states with 7.5 million square feet of space. It would carry a price tag of $300,000.

As a first step, company personnel learned everything they could about the asbestos issue. They read, attended training courses and industry seminars, and spoke to experts representing every facet of the industry. The company also included a seminar on asbestos issues in its annual employee conference.

Research uncovered some interesting facts that helped put the asbestos issue into perspective. First, an asbestos-free environment is a fallacy. Secondly, asbestos is a manageable hazard.

Asbestos is a mineral mined from the earth; it was not invented by some chemical company. Its heat-resistant properties made it a natural for building construction applications such as fireproofing and pipe insulation. Asbestos was the "miracle" mineral of construction until the medical community uncovered its carcinogenic characteristics. That discovery sparked fear and controversy that has fostered today's push to make the environment "asbestos-free."

Recognizing that everyone is exposed to asbestos during his or her lifetime, building owners and managers can take steps to minimize the level of exposure that could exist in their buildings. What they cannot do is completely eliminate asbestos from the environment.

A basis for action

Before owners and managers can tackle any asbestos problem, they must find out if it exists in their buildings. Simon's decision to survey for asbestos was based on a number of factors. Company officials had no knowledge of the existence of any asbestos-containing materials in their malls. However, they recognized the possibility that such materials might exist. Many of the malls were built before asbestos fireproofing was banned in the mid-1970s.

Like it or not, mall managers and developers are responsible not only for what they do know, but for what they should know. Precedent has shown that building owners today are responsible for the health and safety of their building occupants. The widespread publicity about asbestos makes it virtually impossible to argue that one had no knowledge that asbestos could exist in one's building.

For Simon, the reasons for surveying far outweighed those against it. However, the procedures for conducting such a survey were not as clear. While asbestos projects present similar concerns to those found during other construction tasks or building maintenance operations, they pose some unique challenges for property owners. The emotional and volatile nature of asbestos requires that building owners take extra precautions to protect the health and safety of occupants and workers who might come in contact with asbestos materials.

Like other projects, there is a right way and wrong way to deal with asbestos. building owners need to engage the services of companies that can help them identify and deal with any problems presented by asbestos materials in their building.

Requesting bids

Armed with its knowledge about asbestos, construction techniques, and mall management, Simon began looking for an environmental consulting and engineering firm to conduct the survey. Initially the company simply told prospective consulting firms that it wanted to conduct an asbestos survey in its mall properties.

In order to get an apple-to-apple comparison, the management company developed standardized minimum criteria on which the consulting firms could base their proposals. The criteria specified everything from how and when asbestos samples would be taken to the format of the consultant's final report.

The management company estimated the number of samples it felt would have to be taken based on the amount of square footage in each mall. In turn, it asked the consulting firms to come up with a number they felt would be appropriate. The consulting firms submitted proposals based on both figures.

The final contract was a not-to-exceed agreement that would ensure that the management company paid only for the amount of work done, not what was estimated. In other words, if the consulting firm estimated it would take five days to do one mall and it only took three, Simon would pay for only three days of work.

It is critical for management firms and developers to clarify what they want from an asbestos survey before approaching a consulting firm. Such surveys can range from a preliminary inspection to identify the potential for asbestos-containing materials to a full comprehensive survey that will verify the presence of friable and non-friable asbestos-containing materials.

A preliminary survey does not include sampling or assessing materials that carry the potential for containing asbestos. On the other hand, a comprehensive survey will not only identify those materials, but will determine the location, type, and condition of any asbestos that exists in them. The consultant's final report should be designed to provide the end product expected by the property owner.

Simon wanted a report that could be used as a reference tool by mall managers when implementing strategies for monitoring their particular asbestos situation. It was important that the report categories and format were consistent so that mall managers could easily find and compare information with each other or with corporate officials.

At a minimum, the consultant's final report was to include the following: the location, amount, and condition of any asbestos-containing materials; recommendations on remedial action; and the cost for implementing such actions.

Notifying tenants

The most challenging task in the survey process was notifying tenants about the survey. Early on, management company officials decided that keeping their intentions from tenants was not the way to proceed. First of all, management firms cannot barge into a tenant's space and conduct work without approval. Secondly, if tenants found out about the survey secondhand, it would jeopardize the company's credibility and create unnecessary alarm.

The management company notified tenants via a corporate letter delivered by the mall operations director or manager along with a second letter drafted by the mall staff. The first letter explained the reason for the survey and introduced the consulting firm. The second letter announced that a meeting would be held to explain the procedures involved in conducting the investigation. Tenants were asked to sign for the letter so the company could have a record of notification.

In addition, the public relations department developed a standard press release to be used by mall managers to answer any inquiries they received from the media. A standardized release ensured that the media would get the same information about the survey from each mall manager.

For most mall management companies, the word "asbestos" sparks visions of empty malls and angry tenants. When Simon notified tenants about the survey, it received a much different reaction. Tenant meetings held at the two test malls were poorly attended. Out of a prospective seventy tenants, only four to six came to the meetings. Company officials were disappointed. They wanted to make sure that tenants understood that the company did not know whether or not asbestos existed in the malls, but was surveying because the potential was there. They wanted to address any concerns before the inspectors arrived at the malls.

The company's disappointment was soon replaced with relief. Apparently the news of the survey and what was discussed in the meetings spread through the mall "grapevine." The inspectors were welcomed by tenants, who displayed curiosity and calm concern about the materials that might exist in their space. Many went out of their way to help the inspectors and were surprised at how little time and inconvenience was associated with their visit.

Despite the low tenant turnout and the apparent lack of alarm, the company decided to continue the meetings in all the malls. It wanted to address all the issues ahead of time and maintain a consistent approach in each mall. It was not worth taking the chance of having that one objection or question crop up in the middle of the survey that would possibly create delays and unnecessary panic. The average tenant turnout ranged from 15 to 20 percent throughout the rest of the survey.

The tenant meetings were directed by the project manager from Simon and/or Alternative Ways, the asbestos contractor conducting the survey. Topics covered at the meetings included discussions about asbestos, its origins and implications. The surveying process was explained in detail to familiarize the tenants with the logistics of the project.

Oddly enough, many of the questions asked at the meetings were about personal experiences the tenants, their friends, or family had had with asbestos exposure in the home or at work. The most prevalent question was how the survey would affect their business. It was explained that, depending on the space, the survey could last as little as 5 minutes and as long as 45 minutes.

Conducting the survey

The steps to be followed in conducting the survey were also explained during tenant meetings. First, the inspectors would visually inspect the space for suspicious materials such as ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, and surfacing materials used for fireproofing, sound-proofing, or decoration that might contain asbestos materials.

If suspicious materials were identified, the inspectors would come back at another time to take bulk samples. Sampling was necessary to verify the existence of asbestos. It was stressed at the meetings that it is impossible for someone to determine if a substance is asbestos simply through a visual inspection. Samples must be analyzed in a laboratory to confirm the presence of any asbestos materials.

When taking bulk samples, the inspectors would be wearing protective respirators. However, tenants were reassured that they and their customers were not in danger.

While tenants and mall management could be easily notified and educated about the survey and asbestos, it would be physically impossible to talk to every person who entered the mall. So to reduce the possibility of unnecessarily alarming the public, the inspectors would try to conduct the bulk sampling out of public view. For instance, if the workers needed to take a sample above a drop ceiling, they would work in the back room of the store. If the sampling had to be done in public view, the inspectors would come back during off-peak hours or when the mall was closed.

In addition to measuring tenant reaction, the test malls served several purposes. Both companies wanted to find out if the procedures they had outlined on paper would actually work in the mall environment.

The asbestos consultant planned to use three teams of two inspectors to conduct the survey. The time needed for each mall was calculated by estimating the amount of square footage that could be covered by one inspector in one day. It was decided that each team would survey eight malls, with the surveys ranging from two to seven days. The test surveys let the consulting firm know if their time and manpower estimations were correct.

Coordination between the mall managers, tenants, and project managers was essential to the success of the project. A chain of command was developed to ensure that emergencies could be handled immediately and under the proper authority. The survey teams were in constant communication with both firms' headquarters.

The mall managers worked closely with the survey teams to ensure that they had access to the areas that were scheduled for surveying. The survey would include the common are of the mall, the tenant spaces, and some of the anchor stores.

For several reasons, it was decided that the survey would be conducted while the mall was open. Generally speaking, mall operating hours run from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. To conduct the surveys during off hours would require the use of extra mall personnel to provide mall access to the inspectors. More importantly, tenants would have to come to the mall at odd hours to let the inspectors into their space. Tenant presence was necessary to familiarize the surveyors with the particulars of their space.

Since the inspectors would work during operating hours, mall managers were responsible for sensitizing the surveyors to the unique situations they would face in the mall environment. For example, security concerns made bank and jewelry store owners reluctant to have strangers in their stores. For obvious reasons, restauranteurs would be apprehensive about conducting the survey during peak hours.

The survey teams toured each mall upon their arrival and developed their schedule based on the type of stores they would be surveying. During these initial walk-throughs, the inspectors identified potential problem areas and structural characteristics that might need special attention or equipment.

During the test surveys, the inspectors saw firsthand how the management company wanted things done. The consulting firm developed work procedures that would be in accordance with the objectives and philosophies outlined in the management firm's project criteria. A consistency of approach was established to ensure that that philosophy was evident in each mall.

The consulting firm also implemented methods for dealing with potential "problems" the inspectors might encounter during the survey. For instance, during any asbestos survey, there is the possibility of discovering an asbestos situation that presents an immediate hazard. It was imperative that inspectors be prepared to handle these hazards if they occured.

For example, if the survey team found damaged insulation in a particular space, it would immediately prohibit access to the area. Inspectors would take samples and send them with a priority status for analysis to determine if the material contained asbestos. If the lab results came back positive, the team would isolate the area. At that time, work protocols would be prepared for the necessary clean-up, and an abatement contractor would be selected.

The test malls provided the opportunity to customize the surveys. After finalizing their strategies, the survey teams were dispatched to the remaining 24 malls. The consulting firm made sure that the inspectors were afforded time off between surveys to avoid burnout. Estimates of the number of samples to be taken and the time needed for each mall were conservative to leave room to deal with unexpected delays or badly contaminated areas that would require generous sampling.

Fortunately, the test surveys paid off. The inspectors received excellent cooperation from the tenants and encountered few delays. The field survey was completed in three months.

Mall management firms and developers can conduct asbestos surveys in a timely and cost-effective manner with little disruption. The presence of asbestos in a mall does not mean it is time to board up the windows and put up the out-of-business signs. Preplanning and education can make addressing asbestos issues as routine as other building maintenance operations.

A.W. Massing is a project specialist with Melvin Simon & Associates, Inc., the largest manager and second largest developer of shopping centers in the nation. He is responsible for assisting the firm's shopping centers in dealing with possible asbestos-containing materials, contaminated underground storage tanks, radon gas, or other environmental issues.

Mr. Massing was trained in environmental resource management and advanced construction techniques at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and at New York University. He has 15 years of experience in construction trades and construction management.

John Luxford is vice president of operations at Alternative Ways, Inc., a nationally recognized environmental consulting and engineering firm based in Bellmawr, New Jersey. He supervises the firm's laboratory, consulting, field services, and training departments.

As project manager on the Simon asbestos survey, Mr. Luxford was responsible for overseeing the assessment activity, the laboratory analysis, and the final report preparation. He is a trained industrial hygienist and a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.

PHOTO : Initial surveying for possible asbestos-containing materials was conducted unobtrusively during off-peak shopping hours so as not to alarm shoppers and hurt sales.

PHOTO : Whenever possible, samples of potentially contaminated materials were collected in backrooms and storage areas of mall shops.
COPYRIGHT 1989 National Association of Realtors
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Title Annotation:includes related article on selecting an environmental consulting firm
Author:Massing, A.W.; Luxford, John
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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