Historically asbestos was seen as a ‘magic mineral’, incredibly strong and resistant to heat, electricity and water. It was used by the Greeks and Romans who recognised its unique fire-retardant properties.  In more recent times asbestos found a vast array of commercial and industrial applications especially when building materials were in short supply after the Second World War.  It was used as insulation, roof tiles, fire resistant suits, even in cosmetics.  Asbestos appeared to be a ‘miracle product.’

Today we recognise its dangers.  In the UK alone more than 5,000 people die every year from asbestos-related disease (HSE statistics).  The majority of these deaths occur as a result of exposure to asbestos in the workplace, and most of them are in the construction industry.

Asbestos refers to a group of minerals made of long fibres.  Although its use has been banned in many countries, it is still mined today, with Russian and China being two of the biggest producers. There are three main types of asbestos which are usually identified by their colour:  crocidolite (blue), amosite (brown) and chrysotile (white).  They are all hazardous.

Unlike amosite and crocidolite, which were banned in 1985, the use of chrysotile continued in the UK until 1999.   Therefore, there is a strong likelihood that any structure built or refurbished pre 2000 will contain asbestos – roofs, ceilings, walls and floors could all be contaminated. Left undisturbed asbestos poses no threat but during maintenance, alteration, removal or demolition of asbestos containing materials (ACMs), asbestos fibres are released into the environment.  Inhaling these fibres can be fatal.

Diseases linked to Asbestos

Asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and pleural plaques are the most common diseases related to asbestos exposure.  They all affect the lungs or the membranes surrounding them. Those who worked with asbestos post WW2 could have inhaled asbestos fibres over an extended period of time resulting in asbestosis. Thankfully the introduction of regulations over 40 years ago to control exposure to asbestos have reduced the instances of this dreadful disease.

But in stark contrast to asbestosis, mesothelioma cases have escalated in recent years. Mesothelioma is a cancer of the cells which make up the lining of the outer surface of organs including the lungs, heart and gut.  Pleural mesothelioma – the most common variety – can develop in the tissue covering the lungs while peritoneal mesothelioma grows in the lining of the stomach.  Mesothelioma can develop as a result of workers encountering small quantities of asbestos fibre over a short space of time, for example during demolition or maintenance work involving invasive drilling or cutting into materials which might contain asbestos.

It can take over 20 years for mesothelioma symptoms to show and unfortunately, the prognosis for those receiving a diagnosis is grave because it is not usually detected until the disease is well advanced.  Around 2,5000 of the 5,000 deaths from asbestos related diseases recorded annually are as a result of mesothelioma.

Duty to manage

Under The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 an employer must make sure that a risk assessment for the presence and condition of asbestos is carried out.  Depending on the work to be undertaken this can be either intrusive or non-intrusive. Anyone with responsibility for the maintenance of non-domestic premises has a ‘duty to manage’ any asbestos present, ensuring that anyone working or using the building is protected from the health risks which exposure to asbestos poses.

If asbestos containing materials (ACMs) are known to be present, but are in good condition and unlikely to suffer damage, it is acceptable for them to remain in situ.  In this instance the condition of the ACM should be monitored regularly and managed to ensure it is not disturbed. Training is mandatory for anyone likely to be exposed to asbestos at work.  This includes maintenance workers and the many other workers and trades who may come into contact with or disturb asbestos (eg. plumbers) while working, as well as those involved in asbestos removal work.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has good advice and guidelines which include:

  • Avoid working with asbestos wherever possible. If you’re not sure whether asbestos is present, don’t start work. Your boss or the customer should tell you whether or not asbestos is present.
  • Don’t work if the asbestos material present is a sprayed coating, board, or lagging on pipes and boilers. Only a licensed contractor should work on these.
  • Where asbestos is present, you can only continue to work if you’ve had asbestos training and you’re using the right equipment.
  • To minimise asbestos dust, use hand tools instead of power tools, and keep materials damp but not wet. Clean up as you go, using a special (class H) vacuum cleaner (not a brush). Double-bag asbestos waste and label the bags properly.
  • When working with asbestos, always wear a proper mask. Ordinary dust masks are not effective.
  • If there is any uncertainty about the presence of asbestos, work should stop while a competent specialist is consulted. Asbestos is the single biggest cause of work-related deaths in the UK and will be for many years to come.

DCP Safety & Training offers Asbestos Awareness training courses, both classroom based and as an e-learning course. For further information, please do not hesitate to contact Mark Price on 01206 890558