Asbestos is still a threat

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral and has been used for about 150 years on a commercial basis. It is versatile, plentiful and was ideal as a fireproofing and insulation material. But it can be deadly when inhaled. Asbestos-related disease caused by past exposure to asbestos is currently responsible for up to 3,500 deaths a year, making it the UK’s biggest work related killer.  

Asbestos was used extensively as a building material in Great Britain from the 1950s through to the mid-1980s. It is estimated that more than 500,000 non-domestic premises still contain some form of asbestos. Any type of building (factories, offices, schools, hospitals etc) could contain asbestos.

Serious diseases can be caused when asbestos fibres are released from materials, become airborne, and are inhaled. Certain forms of asbestos fibres are particularly difficult for the body's natural defences to break down, so increased or prolonged exposure can cause a substantial build up of fibres in the lung. There are three main diseases caused by asbestos: lung cancer, mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lungs or lower digestive tract which is rapidly fatal) and asbestosis (a chronic scarring of the lung tissue which can be seriously disabling and fatal).

Who’s at risk?
The most likely way asbestos containing materials (ACMs) in buildings will be disturbed or damaged is through maintenance, repair or construction activities. This includes even small jobs such as installing telephones or computers, putting up shelving or installing security systems. Anyone carrying out such work will need to know whether the building does, or may contain ACMs, where the ACMs are located and what condition they are in.

Building maintenance workers and caretakers are a group particularly at risk due to the nature of their work, as are builders and those in related trades, such as plumbers, electricians and carpenters, as they may encounter asbestos during the course of their work. In fact anyone who drills into or cuts material, or maintains plant or equipment within a building, could unknowingly be exposed to asbestos fibres.  This is why the Health and Safety Executive have launched a new communications campaign this September. The “Don’t take the gamble” initiative aims to raise awareness amongst maintenance workers and dutyholders that asbestos is still a threat, and gives practical advice on how to avoid exposure to asbestos and how to meet any legal duties.

Where is asbestos found in buildings?
ACMs come in a wide variety of different forms and identification is not easy. You can presume that asbestos is present but before any work starts small samples should be taken and checked by a laboratory. If you don’t check, full asbestos safety precautions will still have to be used to undertake the work.
 
High-risk ACMs
Any removal or stripping of these ACMs or work that could lead to high levels of fibres being released is likely to require a specialist-licensed contractor (visit www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos for more information)

  • Asbestos moulded or preformed lagging used as thermal insulation on pipes and boilers
  • Sprayed asbestos used for thermal insulation,  fire protection, partitioning and ducts
  • Asbestos insulating board (AIB) 
  • Some ceiling tiles
  • Soffit boards below roofs

Lower risk ACMs
Work on these ACMs is unlikely to require a licence but full risk assessments must be completed and safe working practices must still be used and those undertaking the work will require specific asbestos training:

  • Asbestos containing floor tiles
  • Asbestos cement roofing and guttering
  • Textured decorative coatings

What are your responsibilities?
If you are responsible for maintenance and repair activities for non-domestic buildings, either through a contract or tenancy agreement, or because you own the building, then you have duties, as a ‘dutyholder’, under Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations. This means that you should know whether your premises contain asbestos, where it is, what condition it’s in and then ensure that you manage it properly which includes telling those people who may disturb it that its there.

What are the main dutyholder requirements?
Regulation 4 requires dutyholders to:

  • take all reasonable steps to determine the location, amount and condition of materials likely to contain asbestos
  • presume materials contain asbestos unless there is strong evidence that they do not
  • make and keep an up to date record of the location and condition of the ACMs or presumed ACMs in the premises
  • assess the likelihood of anyone being exposed to fibres 
  • prepare and implement a plan setting out how the risks from the materials are to be managed
  • review and monitor the plan periodically
  • provide information on the location and condition of the materials to anyone who is     liable to work on or disturb them i.e. maintenance workers

It needs to be emphasised that the regulation does not require the automatic removal of ACMs. If the material is in good condition and will not be disturbed then it does not pose a health risk and it is usually safer to leave it in place and manage it.  If the material is damaged or is likely to be disturbed and it cannot be repaired or protected, it should be removed.

Anybody undertaking any sort of work on ACM’s must be competent, adequately trained and use safe working methods. Licenced contractors must be used for most work with asbestos insulation, asbestos insulating board and asbestos coatings. Asbestos waste, whether in small or large amounts, is subject to the Hazardous Waste Regulations 2005. Don’t take the gamble, remember: 

  • Manage any asbestos in your building
  • Make and keep a written record of its location and condition
  • Tell people who may work on asbestos that its there, particularly maintenance workers and contractors

Further guidance on asbestos can be found at www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos or via HSE InfoLine Tel 0845 345 0055

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