Asbestos at Work: What Should You Do?

If you think you have discovered asbestos at work, the most important thing is not to touch it. Asbestos is a serious health hazard only when it’s snapped or damaged, so leave it well alone until you can get a professional assessment. While it’s mostly associated with buildings constructed 50 or 60 years ago, asbestos was still permitted as a material until 2000, and still wreaks havoc on many lives.

Asbestos danger warning sign

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral, found in certain types of rock. There are six kinds of asbestos, three of which are particularly prevalent in building materials used throughout the 20th century. These are Chrysotile (white), Amosite (brown) and Crocidolite (blue).

Asbestos became popular due to its unique qualities, which include chemical, heat and electrical resistance. It is exceptionally chemically inert, and as a result, commonly used as a primary material and additive in industrial construction, as well as commercial and domestic properties.

Where can asbestos be found?

There are many, many places in a property where asbestos may have been used. The most common include:

  • Lagging (insulation) around pipes
  • Insulation boards in ceilings, soffits and partitions
  • Spray coatings
  • Cements used as roofing, guttering and flue pipes
  • Reinforced composite materials such as floor tiles, cisterns, stair finishes and construction adhesives
  • Fire-safety equipment like cable insulation, fire blankets

These materials have varying levels of asbestos content, but all pose a significant threat to health and safety if disturbed. Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) should always be dealt with by an expert.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

Asbestos breaks down into microscopic fibres which, is the material is damaged, get released into the air. If these are inhaled, they can cause serious health problems that may not become apparent until years down the line. Current figures show that around 5,000 people each year die from asbestos-related diseases, including:

  • Mesothelioma, a cancer which is exclusively linked to asbestos exposure and affects the lining of the lungs and / or lower digestive tract.
  • Asbestos-related lung cancer, similar to that caused by smoking, which may be controlled for a period of time but is often fatal.
  • Asbestosis, due to extended exposure to asbestos fibres which have scarred the lungs, causing shortness of breath.
  • Pleural thickening, where the lining of the lungs swells and thickens, causing chest pain and short breath.

Asbestos roofing

What to do if you find asbestos

If you lease your building, check the contract to determine who is responsible for managing asbestos in the property. It usually varies between the landlord, tenant and managing agent. This person will need to have a professional asbestos survey conducted, by accredited surveyors like Crucial Environmental, to ensure compliance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR 2012).

Once the location of ACMs has been established, the material will need to be analysed and a risk assessment carried out to determine how much of a threat it poses to the occupants of the building. You will need to inform any relevant parties about the asbestos, and devise a management strategy to ensure it is safely removed, or kept sealed and in good repair.

It’s a legal requirement that the owner or operator of any business has an asbestos management plan in place, to ensure that staff and members of the public are kept safe. The location of the ACM will need to be documented, and its condition regularly monitored.

What if the property is going to be refurbished?

If you’re managing commercial or industrial premises which are due to be renovated or demolished, you will require a separate survey. A demolition and refurbishment survey will ensure that ACMs are handled in an appropriate way to minimise risk, and help you find a qualified contractor to carry out specialist removal.

It’s always advisable to play it safe when dealing with potential ACMs. Remember, you cannot see or smell asbestos fibres when they are in the air, but materials are only dangerous if they become damaged. Apply a seal or coating to the material, and always use a professional to remove them. While asbestos is still a very real threat, it’s entirely manageable and doesn’t need to affect your livelihood.