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About this resource

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).

Background to asbestos

There are several diseases caused by asbestos. These include:

  • Mesothelioma (which is always fatal).
  • Lung cancer (which is almost always fatal).
  • Asbestosis (not always fatal, but can be very debilitating).
  • Diffuse pleural thickening (this is not fatal)
  • Pleural plaques (which are not fatal and may have no symptoms).

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.

How can asbestos exposure affect you?

Workers most likely to come into contact with materials containing asbestos are those who work in:

  • construction;
  • maintenance;
  • refurbishment;
  • trades contracting to the sectors listed above.

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.

What are employers' responsibilities?

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.

What help is available for employees?

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:

  • the circumstances under which a licensed contractor should be used;
  • what to do in case of accidental exposures to asbestos;
  • the use of protective equipment including suitable facemasks;
  • safe systems of work (e.g. double bagging of waste, using vacuum cleaners and wet rags rather than brooms and brushes, etc.);
  • where to go for further help and advice;
  • contacting specialist occupational health services for asbestos;
  • how to measure the amounts of asbestos in the air at work;
  • how to find an appointed specialist doctor.

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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