Asbestos belongs to groups of six naturally occurring minerals which are made up of very fine, yet extremely durable fibers which can resist fire, heat and many chemicals. It was widely used throughout the 20th Century in many products from building materials to fireproofing equipment, but at the time the dangers of working with asbestos were unknown. The fire-resistant properties of asbestos were one of the main reasons why it was used so widely in many industries, from shipbuilding through to construction.
In reality, any building that was refurbished or constructed before the year 2000 may contain asbestos. Being aware of asbestos particularly if you work in the construction industry is very important because certain types of materials will break more easily than others potentially releasing harmful asbestos fibers. Therefore, you need to understand how to recognize asbestos-containing materials and what precautions you should take as you go about your day to day duties.
Employers have a duty to keep their employees safe, reducing and where possible eliminating exposure to asbestos. Employees also have a duty to demonstrate asbestos awareness and adhere to health and safety policies implemented by employers.
Asbestos fibers are microscopic and if inhaled over a long period of time, they can result in often fatal diseases such as Asbestosis, pleural thickening, lung cancer or Mesothelioma, many years after the initial exposure. Some sufferers of Mesothelioma don’t experience symptoms for as long as 60 years after exposure. After the fibers are inhaled, they cling to the tissues in the respiratory system, very slowly causing inflammation and many other health problems long into the future.
There are many places in commercial and domestic properties where asbestos can be present including:
- Sprayed coatings on ceilings, walls or columns
- Asbestos cement on water tanks
- Loose fill insulation
- Lagging in pipes and around boilers
- Asbestos Insulation Boards used in ceiling tiles, panels on fire doors or partition walls
- Toilet seats, cisterns and bath panels
- Asbestos Insulation Boards (AIB) found in electrical fuse boards
- Vinyl floor tiles
- Fire blankets
- Decorative coatings on walls and ceilings such as artex
- Asbestos cement roofs, panels, gutters and downpipes
- Flues for boilers and heating systems
- Roofing Felt
Hundreds of occupations were and still are affected by asbestos exposure. It was a product used in thousands of industrial projects and commercial products so if you work in the industry, you are encouraged to increase your asbestos awareness so you understand what to do if you encounter any materials and how to safeguard yourself and those around you.
Before you start working in a new location, it is important to determine whether asbestos will be present. In non-domestic properties, the people who are responsible for maintenance should provide you with up to date information about the locations and extent of asbestos in the building.
In domestic properties the owner may not be aware of where the asbestos is, so you should proceed with caution, particularly if you are drilling, sanding or removing any surfaces where asbestos products may have been used. If during any of your projects asbestos is identified, it should be removed by a qualified and licensed professional. Asbestos products such as old flues or textured coatings present no risk provided that they are not drilled, sanded or disturbed.
When asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed, the microscopic fibers are released into the air and then inhaled by the people working with it. Asbestos is an incredibly dangerous material and it is really important that you have a good level of asbestos awareness, understanding where it is used and what to do if you encounter the material.