Asbestos, which is the single greatest cause of work-related death in the UK, was a widely-used insulation material in commercial buildings, homes and machinery until its use was banned 1999. Whilst asbestos that is intact and in good condition may not pose a risk if it is undisturbed, the fibres of asbestos (which can be inhaled into the lungs and can cause a lot of harm to health) can become airborne when asbestos material is damaged or cut into (e.g. during maintenance or upgrading work).
There are several diseases caused by asbestos. These include:
Asbestos is present in a huge number of workplaces and often there is no record of where it is. It can be in roofs, boilers, lagging for pipes, some types of tiles, and insulation.
Workers most likely to come into contact with materials containing asbestos are those who work in:
However anyone can come into contact with asbestos fibres if asbestos is in the workplace and it is not controlled or removed. Office workers, shop workers, teachers and cleaners have all died from asbestos-related diseases. It can take between 15-60 years for symptoms to develop after working with asbestos. If you smoke and are also exposed to asbestos you are at much greater risk of developing lung cancer.
Working with asbestos is considered a high-risk activity which can involve significant hazard, risk or public concern. Work with asbestos requires a high degree of regulatory control, which is achieved through the licensing of work.
In most cases it is illegal to work with asbestos unless you hold a licence to do so. In so far as is possible, exposure to asbestos fibres must be prevented when working with asbestos. Where exposure to fibres cannot be prevented altogether, exposure must be kept as low as is practicable by measures other than the use of respiratory protective equipment. The regulations specify the work methods and controls that should be used to prevent exposure and spread. Although licenses may not be required to carry out a particular job, employers will still need to comply with the general rules detailed in the regulations.
Even if you are not working with asbestos, your employer still has a duty to find out if asbestos is present in the workplace. If it is, your employer must devise a plan on how it is to be managed.
If you suspect there may be asbestos present in any area you are working in, discuss it with your employer. Please also make sure that your union safety representative knows about it. Do not touch any material that may contain asbestos unless you have been fully trained to do so, and it is part of your job.
The HSE website provides a range of information on how to prevent exposure to asbestos at work.
The TUC has a number of resources on its website. You should also contact your union or health and safety representative for advice if you have any issues relating to asbestos in the workplace.
The Health for Work Adviceline can offer advice on safe methods of working with asbestos, including guidance on:
For more information about working with asbestos, or for guidance on employee health issues, contact the free Health for Work Adviceline on 0800 0 77 88 44.
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