ASBESTOS QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
Q. Why is asbestos dangerous?
A. Breathing in air containing asbestos fibres can lead to asbestos-related diseases, mainly cancers of the lungs and chest lining. Asbestos is only a risk to health if asbestos fibres are released into the air and breathed in. Past exposure to asbestos currently kills up to 4000 people a year in Great Britain. This number is expected to go on rising for the next and the onset of disease. This can vary from 15 to 60 years. Only by preventing or minimising these exposures now will asbestos-related disease eventually be wiped out.
There are three main types of asbestos still found in premises. These are commonly called ‘blue asbestos’ (crocidolite), ‘brown asbestos’ (amosite) and ‘white asbestos’ (chrysotile). All of them are dangerous, but blue and brown asbestos are more hazardous than white. You cannot identify them just by their colour. Although it is now illegal to use asbestos in the construction or refurbishment of any premises, many thousands of tonnes of it were used in the past and much of it is still in place. As long as it is in good condition and is not being or going to be disturbed or damaged there is no risk. But if it is disturbed or damaged, it can become a danger to health, because asbestos fibres are released into the air and people can breathe them in.
Q. Where is asbestos found in buildings?
A. Some Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs) are more vulnerable to damage and more likely to give off fibres than others. In general, the materials which contain a high percentage of asbestos are more easily damaged. The list below is roughly in order of ease of fibre release (with the highest potential fibre release first). Sprayed coatings, lagging and insulating board are more likely to contain blue or brown asbestos. Asbestos insulation and lagging can contain up to 85% asbestos and are most likely to give off fibres. Work with asbestos insulating board can result in equally high fibre release if power tools are used. On the other hand, asbestos cement contains only 10%-15% asbestos. The asbestos is tightly bound into the cement and the material will only give off fibres if it is badly damaged or broken.
You are most likely to come across asbestos in these materials:
- Sprayed asbestos and asbestos loose packing - generally used as fire breaks in ceiling voids
- Moulded or preformed lagging - generally used in thermal insulation of pipes and boilers
- Sprayed asbestos - generally used as fire protection in ducts, firebreaks, panels, partitions, soffit boards, ceiling panels and around structural steel work
- Insulating boards used for fire protection, thermal insulation, partitioning and ducts;
- Some ceiling tiles
- Millboard, paper and paper products used for insulation of electrical equipment. Asbestos paper has also been used as a fire-proof facing on wood fibreboard
- Asbestos cement products, which can be fully or semi-compressed into flat or corrugated sheets. Corrugated sheets are largely used as roofing and wall cladding. Other asbestos cement products include gutters, rainwater pipes and water tanks
- Certain textured coatings
- Bitumen roofing material
- Vinyl or thermoplastic floor tiles
Q. Why is the duty to manage asbestos needed?
A. Much has been done to control the risk from asbestos. The use, supply and importation of asbestos and asbestos products are controlled by strict Regulations. The control of any work with, on or around asbestos is well controlled, with many types of work requiring a licence. There is no cure for asbestos-related diseases. There is usually a long delay between first exposure to asbestos workers and when the presence of asbestos is known.
At least a quarter of those dying from asbestos-related diseases have worked in the maintenance or building trades.
It is those people who may be unknowingly exposed to asbestos fibres during their day to day work, those such as plumbers, electricians, cable layers, gas fitters, painters and decorators, that the duty to manage has been introduced to protect. The duty seeks to ensure that asbestos in premises will be located, recorded and managed. Then those who may disturb it are informed of its location so they can take suitable precautions.
Q. Who will be the duty holder?
A. All those who have responsibility for the maintenance and/or repair of non-domestic premises have duties under this regulation. The extent of the legal duty is determined by the terms of the tenancy agreement or contract that applies, and in the absence of any such agreement, on the degree of control the party has over the premises.
The duty holder may well be the landlord or tenant depending on the circumstances of the case. In some cases responsibility could be shared between two or more parties.
The regulation also includes a duty to co-operate, which applies widely. This will, for example, require a landlord to pass information on asbestos to a new tenant. Similarly a tenant must co-operate by allowing a landlord to gain access to a building for example, to carry out a survey. Also a building surveyor or architect who had plans which show information on the whereabouts of asbestos would be expected to make these available to the duty holder at a reasonable cost.
Q. Do I have to remove all asbestos?
A. No, asbestos is only a risk to health when in a poor condition or it is disturbed so that it releases fibres. Examples of poor condition would be where asbestos lagging is hanging off pipe work or where asbestos-insulating board is broken and debris is on the floor. Two main ways disturbance could occur is through maintenance work or workplace activities that repeatedly damage the material e.g. a trolley or a forklift truck that scrapes against asbestos-insulating board.
Where damage to the asbestos is minor, e.g. a crack in the material, it may be practical to repair or seal it and leave it in place if it is not going to be disturbed.
Asbestos that is in a good condition and in a location where it will not be disturbed should be left in place and correctly managed. Anyone who would be likely to come into contact with the material must be notified of its presence.
It should be remembered that removal of asbestos in good condition that is not going to be disturbed would give rise to unnecessary risk and expense.
Q. Do I need to carry out a survey of all premises covered by the regulation?
A. Not necessarily. The regulation requires you to take ‘reasonable steps’ to find asbestos in your premises. There are different types of inspection/survey that could be undertaken. The regulation calls for a proportionate approach and will only require a substantial survey where the risk warrants it. In many cases, for example a small shop where there is very little maintenance work, a simple walk through inspection will be suitable. Presuming any material, unless it can be proved otherwise, contains asbestos, noting its location and condition will be enough. If the situation changed and work that would disturb the material needed to be carried out then testing would need to be undertaken.
In other situations a full survey may be needed testing any suspect materials and then managing the risk as required. For example in a factory where forklifts etc. bumping into walls means that certain areas, if they were to contain asbestos, would release fibres daily. A laboratory test to determine any asbestos material in that area is likely to be required in such a case.
For most premises it will be a combination of these that will be most suitable. A hospital for example has buildings with all sorts of uses, a ward for example would need a thorough survey with testing, whereas a store cupboard with limited access would only need a walk through inspection.
The regulation is not a duty to survey. Any survey will only be a step towards managing any asbestos, and a poor or inappropriate survey could prove to be worse than no survey at all.
Q. Who needs to know where asbestos is?
A. The duty requires that you make information on the location and condition of the asbestos available to anyone liable to work on it or disturb it. Any employees involved in building maintenance work and any contractors working on the premises should know if the building contains or may contain asbestos. They should also be told where it is and that there are potential risks to their health if they disturb it. It may be necessary to inform anyone installing cables, computer equipment, telephones etc. as they could disturb asbestos during their work. They should also be informed of the possibility of coming across any hidden asbestos containing materials which might not have been recorded.
Q. Where do I get advice if I have to remove asbestos?
A. If it is necessary to remove asbestos then for most work with asbestos insulation, asbestos coating and asbestos insulating board it will need to be carried out by an HSE licensed contractor.