28 February 2017

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring fibrous rock that has insulative, fire protection and corrosive protection properties and was widely used within homes and commercial buildings from the 1950s to the mid-1980s.

Where can you find asbestos?

Asbestos can be found in residential and industrial buildings built before 2000 in a wide range of forms and products.

There are three main types - crocidolite (blue asbestos), amosite (brown asbestos), chrysotile (white asbestos) though given the multitude of potential applications the colour associated with each type of asbestos should not be relied upon for identification purposes.

Asbestos was often used loose as insulation in a floor or ceiling cavity or sprayed as a coating onto ceilings, walls or beams. Asbestos was also used in insulating boards and as lagging for pipes. The substance can also be found across a range of floor tiles, textiles and composites and textured coatings, in cement products, in roofing felt and in rope seals and gaskets used in gas and electric heating appliances.

View a gallery of asbestos-containing materials on the Health and Safety Executive website.

Who is at risk from asbestos exposure?

Workers involved in refurbishment and maintenance could be at risk of exposure to asbestos in the course of their work.

Asbestos causes a problem when the fibres within the material become airbourne. This can happen if you cut, drill through or somehow break through asbestos-containing material during construction work. Working near to asbestos that has been damaged in this kind of way can present exposure risk to breathing in high levels of asbestos fibres. The risk of developing an asbestos-related disease is related to the number of fibres that you breathe.

A key risk of developing an asbestos-related disease is the total number of these fibres you breathe. Even small jobs, done regularly, can expose you to the danger.

What are the potential health risks from asbestos?

Asbestos can cause two types of cancer; mesothelioma (cancer of the lung lining caused by exposure to asbestos. Always fatal), asbestos-related lung cancer (almost always fatal). Asbestos is also linked to other serious lung diseases - asbestosis (scarring of the lungs, not always fatal but greatly debilitating) and diffuse plueral thickening (a thickening of the membrane surrounding the lungs that can restrict lung expansion leading to breathlessness).

Asbestos exposure has a cumulative effect and repeated exposure will increase your risk of developing asbestos-related diseases in the future - though it can take between 15 and 60 years for symptoms to develop. Smokers stand a greater risk of developing lung cancer from asbestos exposure.

Asbestos is a Category 1 carcinogen and asbestos related diseases are responsible for around 5000 UK deaths every year. Health and Safety Executive research estimates that asbestos was responsible for the deaths of 2,500 construction workers in 2005 (more than two thirds of cancer deaths in the industry).

What regulations cover work with asbestos?

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 came into force on 6 April 2012 with updates to take account of the European Commission's view that the UK had not fully implemented the EU Directive on exposure to asbestos (Directive 2009/148/EC). The changes mean some types of non-licensed work with asbestos now have additional requirements – notification of work, medical surveillance and record keeping.

The general duties in Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act etc 1974 apply to protect householders from any risks from work activities being carried out in their homes. Where the work being done involves asbestos-containing materials then the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 also apply, particularly in relation to:

  • Prevention or reduction of exposure to asbestos (regulation 11)
  • Arrangements to deal with accidents, incidents and emergencies (regulation 15)
  • Duty to prevent or reduce the spread of asbestos (regulation 16)

In owner-occupied domestic properties, the owners themselves are not engaged in any work themselves and so are not legally responsible for risks to contractors from asbestos.

The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) has established a 'permissioning regime' in relation to work with asbestos such is the potential hazard, risk or public concern. Licensing is in addition to the general framework of health and safety law and builds on the fact that the legal duty to manage risk lies with the organisation that creates the risk. 

The approach taken will depend on whether the work is non-licensed, notifiable non-licensed work or licensed work. The Health and Safety Executive website contains more information on what kinds of work can be carried out in each of these categories.

An asbestos insulation panel.
By Gordon Joly. Reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 2.0 Generic licence

Who is responsible for dealing with asbestos?

The duty to manage asbestos is contained in regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.

The 'dutyholder' is the owner of the non-domestic premises or the person or organisation that has clear responsibility for the maintenance or repair of non-domestic premises (perhaps through an explicit agreement such as a tenancy agreement or contract).

The regulations require the person who has the duty to:

  • take reasonable steps to find out if there are materials containing asbestos in non-domestic premises, and if so, its amount, where it is and what condition it is in
  • presume materials contain asbestos unless there is strong evidence that they do not
  • make, and keep up-to-date, a record of the location and condition of the asbestos- containing materials - or materials which are presumed to contain asbestos
  • assess the risk of anyone being exposed to fibres from the materials identified
  • prepare a plan that sets out in detail how the risks from these materials will be managed
  • take the necessary steps to put the plan into action
  • periodically review and monitor the plan and the arrangements to act on it so that the plan remains relevant and up-to-date
  • provide information on the location and condition of the materials to anyone who is liable to work on or disturb them.

More details on identifying the dutyholder and their responsibilities are available on the HSE website.

What do I need to do before starting work with asbestos?

Any worker who is likely to disturb asbestos during their day-to-day work should have received appropriate training to help protect themselves and others.

Typically the following steps should be followed:

Step One - Find out if asbestos is present

Step Two - Assess the condition of any asbestos-containing materials

Before starting work in any building that might contain asbestos you should take steps to identify whether the substance is present and determine its type and condition. Those responsible for maintenance of non-domestic premises have a duty to manage the asbestos within them and should provide information as to where asbestos is located and its condition.

Step Three - Survey and sample for asbestos

Where information is lacking you should undertake a survey and take representative samples of the material(s) to be analysed. Alternatively, it is always possible to assume materials disturbed will contain asbestos and take the highest risk precautions.

Step Four - Keep a written record or register

Step Five - Act on your findings

Determine whether it is possible to avoid the risk of exposure entirely or who is likely to be at risk (and to what level) from any work. Select appropriate work methods to ensure effective control of the risks. Determine whether the work requires a licensed contractor. If the work is not licensable you can carry out maintenance work on or around asbestos-containing materials providing you have established appropriate controls. You should determine whether non-licensed work is notifiable or not as has additional requirements such as notification of work, medical surveillance and record keeping.

Step Six - Keep records up to date

Absestos exposure has a cumulative effect and repeated exposure will increase your risk of developing asbestos-related diseases in the future

What types of asbestos survey are there?

An Asbestos Management Survey (formerly known as a Type 2 Asbestos Survey) is the core survey to locate, as far as reasonably practicable, the presence and extent of any known and presumed asbestos-containing materials, in order to assess their condition. This kind of survey is minimally intrusive.

Conversely, the Refurbishment and Demolition Survey (formerly known as a Type 3 Asbestos survey will be intrusive and involve a degree of intrusive inspection, as necessary, to gain access to all areas, including those that may be difficult to reach.This kind of survey is necessary prior to any work which alters the internal structure of any area, known (via the asbestos management survey) to contain asbestos-containing materials. The purpose is to locate and describe, as far as reasonably practicable, all asbestos-containing materials within the building or area which can or may be affected during the proposed works.

What general precautions should I take when dealing with asbestos?

Be aware and stop works if in any doubt, speaking to your employer or the building owner if you suspect something may be asbestos or need to be carried out by a licensed contractor.

The Health and Safety Executive produce a range of equipment and method sheets that cover in more detail how to deal with various scenarios involving asbestos. Don't forget to factor in other risk factors (for example, risks associated with working at height) when dealing with asbestos.

Be sure to use appropriate personal protective equipment and adopt a systematic and thorough approach to clean-up and try and avoid methods that create dust and debris.

What training is available when working with asbestos-containing materials?

Employers have a duty to ensure that anyone liable to disturb asbestos during their work (or who supervises employees who do) is equipped with relevant information, instruction and training to allow them to work without risk to themselves or others. Employees may require competence in any or all of the following areas - general asbestos awareness, non-licensable work with asbestos (including notifiable non-licensed) and licensable work with asbestos.

General asbestos awareness will equip workers and supervisors with the information they need to avoid work that may disturb asbestos. It won't prepare someone to carry out work with asbestos-containing materials. Knowledge will include understanding of the material's properties, effects on health, types, uses and likely occurrences, emergency procedures and advice on how to avoid the risk of exposure.

Workers carrying out non-licensable work (including notifiable non-licensed work) who might be expected to disturb asbestos-containing materials by drilling holes, laying cables or removing or repairing materials. Knowledge in this are will include how to make suitable assessments of exposure risk, safe work practices and control measures (including PPE and work methods), emergency procedures, legal requirements and identification of circumstances where non-licensed work may be notifiable.

Higher risk work with asbestos-containing materials is licensable work and therefore must be carried out by licensed contractors. HSG247 'The licensed contractors guide' contains more information and should be read in conjunction with L143 the Approved Code of Practice - Managing and working with asbestos.

More information on information, instruction and training can be found on the Health and Safety Executive website.

Related information

Managing asbestos
In this video from 2011 Sarah Mallagh, head of the Health and Safety Executive's Asbestos Unit, runs through the different types of asbestos, where it can be found, and the diseases (such as mesothelioma and lung cancer) that are caused by breathing in asbestos fibres.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2016
This programme is a studio-based discussion with HSE asbestos Gillian Birkby of law firm Fladgate. Gillian explains how the updated requirements will affect the day-to-day practice of all those working in the construction industry who may come into contact with asbestos.