Health & Safety

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14 August 2009

asbestos warning sign

Asbestos was used extensively as a building material in Great Britain from the 1950's through to the mid-1980's. It had many uses and was ideal for fireproofing and insulation. Any building constructed before 2000 (houses, factories, offices, schools, hospitals etc.) could contain asbestos.

Asbestos is made up of thin fibres, if in good condition asbestos materials are safe, but when the materials are damaged the asbestos fibres can become airborne.

  • More people die from asbestos related disease per year than are killed on the roads.
  • Every week 20 tradesmen die from asbestos related disease.
  • Every week 6 electricians die from asbestos related disease.
  • Every week 3 plumbers die from asbestos related disease.
  • It can be present in any building built or refurbished before the year 2000.

The smallest asbestos fibres cannot be seen with the naked eye and are only dangerous if they are made airborne and breathed in, but ALL types of asbestos fibres are potentially fatal if breathed in.

Working on or near damaged materials containing asbestos or breathing in high levels of asbestos fibres, that may be many hundreds of times that of environmental levels, could increase the chance of getting an asbestos related disease. Around 4000 deaths a year result from the serious diseases that are caused by fibres of asbestos being inhaled.

There are three main diseases caused by asbestos:

  • Mesothelioma (always fatal),
  • Lung Cancer (almost always fatal) and
  • Asbestosis (not always fatal but can be very debilitating).

These diseases can take from 15 to 60 years to develop and there is no cure for any of them, so you need to protect yourself now to prevent you contracting an asbestos related disease in the future. People who smoke and are also exposed to asbestos fibres are at a much greater risk of developing lung cancer.

The main precaution you should take is:

DO NOT work if you are unsure whether asbestos is present. Your manager or the customer should tell you whether it is. If they have not - ask them or your safety representative.

Other important precautions are:

DO NOT work if:

  • asbestos is present but you have not been trained to work safely with it,
  • the asbestos materials are sprayed coatings, board or insulation and lagging on pipes and boilers - only a contractor with a licence should work on these.

DO NOT disturb asbestos if you can help it.

Only work with asbestos if:

  • you have had asbestos training, the work has been properly planned and the right controls are in place (e.g. you have the right equipment),
  • the materials are asbestos cement, textured coatings and others which do not need a licence.