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Quick guide: Asbestos hazards and risks

In good condition, and if it is not disturbed, asbestos does not pose an immediate hazard to building occupiers. However, when disturbed or damaged it carries serious health risks via fibre release into the air. In fact, the latest HSE figures indicate over 5,000 asbestos related deaths each year – this trend is expected to continue at current levels for the remainder of the decade.

In this brief guide, we’ll highlight the risks of asbestos exposure, provide a quick overview of the materials that are potentially most dangerous and suggest five key things you must do before embarking on any works or investigations.

1st – 7th April is Global Asbestos Awareness Week. If you’d like to take the opportunity to examine and address the risks across your business, contact our experts today.


The health risks of asbestos exposure

Every year thousands of people die in the UK from asbestos related diseases, because they have breathed in asbestos fibres. Asbestos has been the main cause of occupational ill-health from 1950 onwards and is still the greatest single work-related cause of death from ill-health.

The risk of exposure occurs wherever asbestos fibres are released into the air and breathed in. These fibres can become trapped in the lungs, and over time can lead to damage and inflammation which in turn leads to breathing difficulties as well as more serious problems. Cancer, Asbestosis, Mesothelionma and Pleural Thickening are perhaps the most common diseases caused through exposure to asbestos fibres.

High risk materials

The use of asbestos and ‘asbestos containing materials’ (ACMs) was widespread in building work from the 1930s to 1999. Asbestos has high resistance to fire and heat, and was a relatively affordable building material. However, since 1999 the United Kingdom has banned its use. The mere presence of asbestos does not present a risk – only when it is disturbed, and fibres are airborne that harm can be caused.

Asbestos itself is a series of naturally occurring fibrous silicates often referred to as Chrysotile (white), Amosite (brown), and Crocidolite (blue) which have been used singly or in combination in building materials. Asbestos can be found in a wide range of products – e.g. older materials such as textured walls coverings (e.g. artex), pipe lagging and fire-resistant materials, soundproofing materials, lift shaft linings, partition walls, panels below windows, soffits and fire-resistant materials etc.

The following materials could contain asbestos and need particular attention before any work, movement, demolition or removal or is carried out:

  1. Fire retardant panels – often used in ceiling voids, ducts, panels and partitions
  2. Insulation boards and panels – often used for thermal performance or duct casing
  3. Cement – asbestos compounds are sometimes used in roofing, pressed corrugated sheets or wall cladding
  4. Ceiling tiles – asbestos was often used in older buildings pre-2000

Important: You (or an expert partner) should regularly monitor these and other materials which may contain asbestos. Check for obvious signs of broken or scratched surfaces, make sure all coating is intact, and be aware of any dust that gathers around these materials.

Responsibility for risk management

The Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012) state that an employer has a duty not to allow its employees to be exposed to asbestos anywhere they work. In addition, they also state that responsible persons must meet the requirements outlined under these regulations.

Those responsible must identify the type, location, extent and the condition of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) within non-domestic premises, then following this, all ACMs must be removed or managed to prevent exposure to anyone.

5 things to ask yourself prior to works or investigations

  1. Have I been provided with an up to date asbestos survey report or register that was compiled in the last 12 months by a suitably qualified person?
  2. Is the information provided relevant to my work?
  3. Do I know of any existing asbestos containing materials?
  4. Could my work activity disturb any ACMs?
  5. Could my work activity create any dust from an ACM?

We understand that you and other stakeholders may not have the time or confidence to undertake full and proper checks. Our experts offer full consultation in reviewing your existing asbestos documents and asbestos management procedures, advising on conforming to the legal duties required under the Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012).

Risk-related regulations and guidance

The Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012) outlines the duty to manage asbestos, and the responsibility to protect anyone using or working in the premises from asbestos fibre exposure. This regulation is further supported by Approved Codes of Practice – L127 Management of asbestos in non-domestic premises and L143 Managing and Working with Asbestos.

Section 2, 3 & 4 of the Health & Safety at Work Act (1974) places duties on the employer (and premise duty holders to non-employees) to ensure the health, safety & welfare of its employees and others who could be affected by its activities.

Section 7 of the Health & Safety at Work Act (1974) places a duty on employees to ensure their own and their colleagues health & safety and to cooperate with the employer so as the general duty can be met.

The Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations (1999) provide a broad framework for controlling health & safety at work, including the need to assess and control significant or unusual risk, establish arrangements to manage risk and to provide access to competent advice.

Your trusted partners in asbestos risk management

At Sweco we have a structured process of making sure all employees have the appropriate asbestos awareness training, understanding the requirements of asbestos risk management. Our dedicated asbestos team provide asbestos consultation, asbestos management and surveys enabling those responsible to meet the requirements of the Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012).


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