What To Do If You Suspect, Discover Or Disturb Asbestos In The Workplace

If you discovered there was asbestos present in your place of work, would you know what action to take? Whose responsibility would it be to address the problem? Should you remove asbestos yourself?

HSE launched the Asbestos – Your Duty campaign in January, aiming to raise awareness of the legal duty of those involved to manage asbestos. Some recent cases have highlighted the need for clarification of what the law says regarding asbestos. A man in Hartlepool was prosecuted for removing asbestos without a licence after an investigation by the HSE. It was also noted that he falsified clearance documents, proving that he was aware of the legal requirements for asbestos removal. Not only did he break the law and incur an 18-month community order, but this person has also put himself and others at risk. So why is asbestos so dangerous?

The Dangers of Asbestos

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous silicate mineral substance, commonly used as a construction material worldwide. It is highly resistant to fire and is an excellent thermal and electrical insulator, making it a desirable building material. However, it became apparent in the early 1900s that people who worked closely with asbestos were becoming ill and dying prematurely, and post-mortem examinations revealed their lungs were filled with asbestos particles. 

Now we know that when asbestos is inhaled, it can cause serious health problems including asbestosis (scarring of the lungs) and a type of incurable cancer called mesothelioma. The use of asbestos has now been banned in many countries, including the UK since 1999. Asbestos is still used in some developing countries including top asbestos producer Russia, which mined an estimated 790,000 tons of it in 2020.

Asbestos Up close

Asbestos was a popular building material in the UK and its peak of use in the UK was between the 1950s & 1970s. This means any commercial or domestic building constructed before 2000 could contain asbestos material, including any public buildings such as schools and hospitals. Even though asbestos is no longer used in the UK, its presence in older buildings poses a risk to anyone disturbing asbestos in a building. This could occur due to demolition, refurbishment, installation of new fixtures, or general maintenance.

5000 people per year in the UK die of asbestos-related cancer caused by exposure at work. 

This is due to historic exposure, lack of knowledge about the presence or risks of asbestos, and in some cases, a lack of disclosure and proper management by an employer. 

So if you suspect that your building contains asbestos, what should you do?

Construction work

What you Should Do If You Suspect Asbestos In Your Building

Arrange an Asbestos Survey 

The Control of Asbestos At Work Regulations states that if your building was built pre-2000,  you must have an asbestos survey completed to ascertain if there are any asbestos-containing materials or ACMs present in the building.  

What Kind Of Asbestos Survey Is Required?

If you do not have any plans to demolish, renovate or refurbish the building, then a management survey is most appropriate. This will enable you to produce an asbestos register and asbestos management plan. 

If you plan to undertake any demolition or refurbishment of your premises then a refurbishment or demolition survey is needed. All ACMs discovered must be identified and removed safely by trained and competent asbestos removal specialists before any refurbishment or demolition can take place to ensure the safety of all involved.

The HSE strongly recommends that this be performed by surveyors accredited to BS EN ISO/IEC 17020 provided by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS).

Construction Workers

Does All Asbestos Need To Be Removed?

It could be the case that asbestos is present but does not present an immediate risk to people in the area. If the asbestos-containing material is in good condition and not likely to be disturbed or damaged, the risk is minimal and can be managed without removal. People working in the presence of asbestos should be trained in asbestos awareness and given information about its location in the building.  People trained in asbestos awareness will have the knowledge of what to do if it is accidentally damaged or disturbed and the procedure to follow. 

The asbestos must be highlighted on the asbestos register/management plan and inspected periodically to ensure there is no change to its condition.  If the asbestos never poses any risk it does not need to be removed, but if there is a risk of the asbestos becoming airborne, a change in building use meaning asbestos exposure is likely, etc. then the asbestos must be removed by a competent asbestos specialist.

Who Has A Legal Duty To Manage Asbestos?

The person who is responsible for managing asbestos in a building is known as the dutyholder. This could be the landlord, building owners, or a person or organisation who is responsible for the building’s maintenance and repair. If you discover or suspect asbestos is present, you should inform them immediately.

Asbestos Removal

This covers buildings including offices, factories, warehouses, and other places of work, as well as shops,  common areas of self-contained flats, places of worship, museums, schools, libraries, and indeed any other non-domestic premises. For more details on who the dutyholder is, see the HSE’s guidance on their website. 

According to the HSE, the dutyholder must:

  • Assess if there are asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) present, the amount, where they are and their condition
  • Presume materials contain asbestos unless there is strong evidence that they do not
  • Make, and keep up to date, a record or register of the location and condition of the ACMs or presumed ACMs
  • Assess the risk of anyone being exposed to airborne fibres from the ACMs
  • Write an asbestos management plan to manage the risk, put the plan into action, monitor it and review it every 12 months or sooner if necessary
  • Monitor the condition of any ACMs or suspected ACMs
  • Provide information on the location and condition of the ACMs to anyone who may work on or disturb them, including the emergency services

Source: https://www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos/duty/index.htm

Can I Remove Asbestos Myself?

No you cannot, for your safety and that of others in the workplace. The Control of Asbestos Regulations of 2012 states that only qualified and authorised personnel should handle the removal of asbestos.  

White (Chrysotile)  – removal must be undertaken by personnel who are trained in Category B Non-Licensed Asbestos Removal. 

Blue (Crocidolite) Brown (Amosite)  – removal must be undertaken by personnel who are trained in  Category C – Licensed Asbestos Removal.

What To Do If You Discover Asbestos

If you or someone else in your workplace discovers asbestos, then work in the area should cease immediately, and the area should be cleared. You must prevent anyone else from gaining access to the area.  

If you have been contaminated you must undertake emergency decontamination of any people affected. See example below:

  • If dust or debris gets onto your clothing, wipe down clothing with damp cloths, remove the outer clothing and place items in a sealed bag. Seal the bag, then bag it again. Place used damp cloths in a sealed bag and bag again. Using warm water and soap (if possible) or wipes, wash all exposed skin. Dispose of the used cloths or wipes in a bag and seal. 
  • If the test sample confirms the material contains asbestos, arrange for removed clothing and cloths to be disposed of at a contaminated asbestos waste. This must be via a licensed waste carrier and go to a licensed asbestos waste disposal point.

The dutyholder should be informed so they can arrange samples of the debris/asbestos. Work should only resume once the samples have come back clear. If it is asbestos, the remaining asbestos must be removed by appropriately trained asbestos removal specialists. All asbestos debris and clothing must be disposed of as asbestos waste. 

An asbestos survey of the rest of the building must be completed to ensure there is no other asbestos present before work can continue. The incident must be reported to the HSE and the company will have 15 days after the incident to report it.  

If an employee has been exposed to asbestos, this must be added to the employee’s health record. The health record must note the following: the date and time of exposure, how long the asbestos exposure was for, and the type of asbestos (if known). The health record must be kept for 40 years after the date of the last entry.

Hazmat Suit

Asbestos can be very dangerous, but if proper precautions are taken in any location where asbestos is suspected or present, there should be no risk to you or your team. For further guidance, asbestos surveys, or other health and safety requirements, get in touch with us here at Optimum Safety.

Published On: 26th February 2024 / Categories: Health and Safety / Tags: , , /

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