A Guide to Asbestos

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What You Need to Know

  1. Asbestos was formerly a highly popular building material, used in insulation, fireproofing and various other products. It has been banned in all forms since 1999.
  2. If asbestos fibres breakdown and become airborne they can be inhaled. Over time this can cause serious damage to the lungs.
  3. Mesothelioma (a form of lung cancer) is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos.
  4. Asbestos can be hard to detect without a full inspection as it is often mixed with other materials. However, knowing when a building was constructed and the areas asbestos was likely to be used can give you a good idea of where you are likely to find it.
  5. If materials containing asbestos are left undisturbed and are in good condition, they pose no threat.
  6. You should not carry out DIY work on materials if you are unsure if they contain asbestos. You need to inform any tradesmen you hire if there is a risk they’ll be exposed.
  7. If you’re a tradesmen, you must be licensed to carry out certain kinds of work where materials containing asbestos are involved.
  8. If you are carrying out work which does not require a license, be sure to adhere to safety guidelines. Wear a filtration mask and avoid the use of power tools to minimise the amount of dust you release into the air.
  9. Diseases that develop due to asbestos exposure can take a long time to discover. Bear in mind your potential past exposure to asbestos if you start to develop respiratory problems later in life.
  10. If you are diagnosed with an asbestos related condition, you may be able to claim compensation. It’s advisable to start proceedings as soon as possible after receiving a diagnosis as there is a limited time in which claims can be made.

You’ve probably heard some of the horror stories concerning asbestos and the effect it can have on your health. It’s the biggest cause of work related deaths in the UK, and if you work in building maintenance, breathing in asbestos fibres in the course of your work could put you at increased chance of contracting a fatal illness, such as mesothelioma. Inhabitant’s of buildings that contain asbestos could also face health complications, with children being particularly at risk.

Needless to say, it’s of paramount importance to protect yourself from this serious health hazard. In this guide we’ll explain the risks asbestos poses and how you can mitigate them.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos was a very popular building material from the 1950s up until the 1980s. It’s a naturally occurring fibrous material that was commonly used for insulating and fireproofing buildings. Though blue and brown asbestos have been banned since 1985 and white asbestos has been illegal since 1999, it can still be found in most public buildings that were constructed before that time.

Prolonged exposure to asbestos can damage the lungs. The HSE reported that, on average, 20 tradesmen die from exposure to asbestos every week. Worryingly, it can take up to 20 years for symptoms to develop. This means it will not be immediately obvious if you're health is being damaged.

Detecting Asbestos

With the exception of recent builds, homes, offices, factories, schools and even hospitals can contain asbestos. Despite its prevalence, it can be difficult to detect, as it’s often mixed with other materials.

The attic and walls are often cause for concern, but aren’t the only areas you need to worry about. Asbestos has been found in a long list of products, including ceiling tiles, boilers, pipes, cement roofing and floor tiles. Though, difficult to detect in of itself without having a full inspection carried out, knowing that it is likely to be in certain parts of older properties can help you avoid carrying out work on materials that might release asbestos. As well as the products mentioned above, be wary of;

  • Roof sheeting
  • Gutters and pipes
  • Ceiling and wall cavities
  • Water tanks and cisterns
  • Window and door panels
  • Pipe insulation
  • Sprayed fire protection coatings

The presence of asbestos doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to panic. For the most part, as long as it is well maintained and is not disturbed it doesn’t cause problems. It’s when the fibres breakdown become airborne and are inhaled that it’s dangerous.

If you are planning on carrying out work in these areas yourself or with the help of professionals, you need to be aware of the potential dangers and inform those who could be affected. If you’re a tradesman you should be told by your employer whether or not asbestos will be involved in your project.

If you are going to have to work in proximity with the substance, then you need to be properly trained. Indeed, in the case of materials where there’s a high fibre count, such as sprayed coatings, you can only carry out work if you are licensed to do so (if you’d like to get training, you can visit ukata.org.uk to find out more). If you’re unsure as to whether it is safe to proceed, you should not begin a project.

You can find a list of the various regulations regarding the different types of work involving asbestos here, as well as advice on how to carry out non licensed work safely.

General Safety Tips

If you are a professional and find yourself taking on a job that you have the relevant training to perform, as well as any specific guidelines you may need to follow, there are also some general safety rules you should always bear in mind.

Wear a mask (a fitted FFP3 type, not a regular dust mask) and overalls and be sure to dispose of them properly after use. Be sure to label all asbestos waste as such. Use hand tools rather than power tools and keep materials damp to reduce the amount of asbestos being release into the air. When cleaning, use a class H vacuum and clean as you go. Do not use a commercial vacuum cleaner.

What to Do If You’ve Been Exposed to Asbestos

If you think you’ve inhaled asbestos, it’s important to seek medical attention. You should remember that symptoms can take decades to become apparent, and so their cause may not seem immediately obvious. If you are feeling short of breath, experiencing chest pains, or coughing more than normal you should seek out your GP and advise them if you have or have had a job that entails exposure to asbestos, or if you’ve lived with someone who has. If possible it will help to have details of the dates involved, the type of work you were undertaking and the type of asbestos you were handling. They should be able to advise on how to relieve your symptoms and whether you need to see a specialist in respiratory medicine.

If you’re diagnosed as having mesothelioma or another asbestos related diseases and you’ve been exposed to asbestos in the course of your work as a result of following instructions that put you at increased risk or contravened regulations, you could be entitled to compensation. This could be awarded through courts, via government compensation schemes or another form of financial assistance.

It is important to act quickly after receiving a diagnosis as, though it’s not always enforced, there is a three year statutory limit for making a legal claim against a former employer. This begins from when you are made aware of a disease. It’s still possible to take action if your former employer no longer exists, as payment will usually come from their insurers.

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