What is asbestos?

Commonly used in the UK:

  • Chrysotile – white
  • Amosite – Brown
  • Crocidolite – Blue

Less commonly used in the UK:

  • Anthophyllite – grey, dull green or white
  • Tremolite – brown, white, green, grey or transparent
  • Actinolite – brown, white, green, grey or transparent

All types of asbestos are composed of long and thin fibrous crystals, each fibre being composed of many microscopic ‘fibrils’ that can be released into the atmosphere by abrasion and other processes.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

Asbestos fibres are present in the environment in Great Britain so everybody is exposed to very low levels of fibres. However, a key factor in the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease is the total number of fibres breathed in. Working on or near damaged asbestos-containing materials or breathing in high levels of asbestos fibres, which may be many hundreds of times that of environmental levels, could increase your chances of getting an asbestos-related disease.
When these fibres are inhaled they can cause serious diseases which are responsible for around 4000 deaths a year. There are four main diseases caused by asbestos:

  • Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops in the lining that covers the outer surface of some of the body’s organs
  • Lung cancer, also known as lung carcinoma, is a malignant lung tumour characterised by uncontrolled cell growth in tissues of the lung
  • Asbestosis, a serious long-term lung condition caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos
  • Pleural thickening, also known as diffuse pleural thickening (DPT), is a lung disease in which extensive scarring thickens the lining of the lungs

These diseases will not affect you immediately but later on in life they will. There is a need for you to protect yourself now to prevent you from contracting an asbestos-related disease in the future. It is also important to remember that people who smoke and are also exposed to asbestos fibres are at a much greater risk of developing lung cancer.

When am I at risk?

  • You are working on an unfamiliar site.
  • The building you are working on was built before the year 2000.
  • Asbestos-containing materials were not identified before the job was started.
  • Asbestos-containing materials were identified but this information was not passed on by the people in charge to the people doing the work.
  • You don’t know how to recognise and work safely with asbestos.
  • You know how to work safely with asbestos but you choose to put yourself at risk by not following proper precautions, perhaps to save time or because no one else is following proper procedures.

Remember- the asbestos management is down to risk assessment.

  • You can’t see or smell asbestos fibres in the air.
  • The effects of asbestos take many years to show up – avoid breathing it in now.
  • Smoking increases the risk many times.
  • Asbestos is only a danger when fibres are made airborne.

Where might I come into contact with asbestos?

If you work in any of the following occupations and are working on a building built or refurbished before 2000, you may come in to contact with asbestos:

  • Heating and ventilation engineers
  • Demolition workers
  • Carpenters and joiners
  • Plumbers
  • Roofing contractors
  • Painters and Decorators
  • Plasterers
  • Construction workers
  • Fire and burglar alarm installers
  • Shop fitters
  • Gas fitters
  • Computer installers
  • General maintenance staff eg caretakers
  • Telecommunications engineers
  • Building surveyors
  • Cable layers
  • Electricians

This list does not include all occupations where you may come in to contact with asbestos. It’s not easy to tell asbestos from how it looks, and it needs to be properly identified:

  • Asbestos used as packing between floors and in partition walls
  • Sprayed (‘limpet’) asbestos on structural beams and girders
  • Lagging on pipework, boilers, calorifiers, heat exchangers etc
  • Asbestos insulating board – ceiling tiles, partition walls, service duct covers, fire breaks, heater cupboards, door panels, lift shaft lining, fire surrounds, soffits etc
  • Asbestos cement products such as roof and wall cladding, bath panels, boiler and incinerator flues, fire surrounds, gutters, rainwater pipes, water tanks etc
  • Other products such as floor tiles, mastics, sealants, rope seals and gaskets (in pipework etc.), millboard, paper products, cloth (fire blankets, etc.) and bituminous products (roofing felt, etc)
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