Asbestos was a wonder material. Versatile, strong and heat resistant. That’s why it ended up being used in building materials and products for decades. But in the latter part of the 20th century people started to realise it was in fact extremely harmful. In 1999 it was totally banned from use in the UK. So that should mean it’s no longer an issue. Shouldn’t it?
The blunt reality is this. Asbestos continues to present some very real dangers and is responsible for the deaths of around 5000 people in the UK each year. That’s more than the number of people killed on the road.
All forms of asbestos – crocidolite (blue), amosite (brown) and chrysotile (white) – can be really harmful because they can contaminate the air in the form of dust. And you don’t need to be exposed to large quantities before it becomes a health risk.
While asbestos is no longer used, it’s present in many buildings and homes. Remember if a building was built or refurbished before 2000, there’s a possibility that materials containing asbestos have been used. If that material’s disturbed or damaged, the fibres are released into the air and put people in the vicinity at risk of inhalation. And asbestos could be hiding in all kinds of places. Coatings on ceilings, walls, beams and columns. Ceiling tiles. Asbestos cement water tanks or gutters. Insulation. Partition walls. Downpipes. Flues. It’s virtually impossible to identify it with the naked eye.
In particular, tradespeople are very vulnerable. The HSE estimates that 20 tradespeople a week are dying from asbestos related diseases. That’s why there have been several high profile campaigns run by bodies like The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and the Health and Safety Executive to try to make tradespeople more aware of the dangers and better able to protect themselves.
Why’s asbestos so dangerous?
Asbestos related diseases can take decades to develop. But tragically by the time they’re diagnosed it’s often too late for effective treatment. Diseases include mesothelioma (a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs and lining surrounding the lower digestive tract), lung cancer, asbestosis (scarring of the lungs) and pleural thickening.
What are your responsibilities and how should you minimise the risk?
If you’re responsible for maintaining non-domestic premises, or if you’re the building owner, you’ve a duty to manage the asbestos in them and to protect anyone using or working in the premises from the associated risks.
In some instances, if the asbestos is in good condition and undisturbed, it’s actually better to leave it alone. It can be safe as long as its presence is known and well maintained. If you’re intending to do any building or maintenance work in your premises (or on anything else that might contain asbestos) you need to check for its presence and identify its type and condition. You must then assess all the risks and manage and control them. In many cases that will mean you’ll need to use a licensed contractor. Even non-licensed asbestos work still must have effective controls put in place.
If you’re concerned or unsure about what you need to do to safely manage asbestos in your building, talk to us about helping you manage the risks. As a facilities management company that also offers an extensive range of support solutions, we can advise you on detecting its presence and removing it if appropriate. And if you’re considering a building refurbishment and need to understand the risks that asbestos could pose, and then deal with those risks, get in touch now to find out how we can help.