A recent survey found that nearly one in four construction workers in the UK may be exposed to asbestos, which places them at a higher risk of contracting terminal illnesses later in life, despite the fact that asbestos has been banned since 1999. The survey's findings plus the fact that there are potentially half a million buildings around the country still containing asbestos fibres adds to the trend that Britons have the world's highest chance of dying from mesothelioma, an extremely deadly form of cancer.
Crocidolite and amosite, also known as blue and brown asbestos, are the two most dangerous forms and their use was banned in 1985. Chrysotile, also known as white asbestos, was banned in 1999 except for a small number of specialised uses.
Why was Asbestos Banned?
Asbestos was banned after research found it was responsible for several fatal diseases, including:
- Fibrosis of the lungs - scarring which can cause progressive shortness of breath and can be fatal in severe cases.
- Lung cancer.
- Pleural thickening - the lining of the lungs (pleura) swells, which can squeeze the lungs and cause shortness of breath and discomfort in the chest.
- Mesothelioma - cancer of the tissue that covers many organs. The most common area affected is the lining of the lungs and chest cavity.
IMPORTANT TO NOTE: Just being near or inside a building containing asbestos in its structure does NOT put you at immediate risk of the above problems. You need to be in a position to inhale asbestos dust fibres. See more on who is at risk further down the page.
In particular, mesothelioma is an incurable disease. Although catching cancer before it reaches an advanced stage can improve the life expectancy of a mesothelioma patient, long-term survival is extremely rare. The average life expectancy is between 12 and 21 months, with approximately 40 percent of patients living past one year and only nine percent living beyond five years.
The UK is said to possess one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world - a statistic which has generally been attributed to the fact that the UK government banned asbestos usage long after other countries did.
Who is At Risk?
Asbestos can still be found in any building built or refurbished before 2000, meaning that although it's been banned for decades, it's still affecting people today. In fact, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has estimated asbestos has killed around 5,000 people each year and 20 tradesman die each week due to past exposure.
Construction workers and people who worked with ships prior to the 1980s, whether it's in the shipbuilding industry or served aboard one, are at the highest risk because of asbestos being so prevalent in older buildings and ships. Other occupations at high risk include:
- HVAC engineers
- Roofing contractors
- Demolition crews
- Painters and Decorators
- Pipe fitters
- Teachers (particularly those who work in old or renovated buildings)
According to the HSE, there has also been a general increase in the number of deaths from mesothelioma in most of the country's regions. This just goes to show how important it is that you take precautions to protect your workers as much as possible.
How to Protect Your Workers From Asbestos Exposure
Although asbestos has been banned since 1999, experts have estimated that around 90,000 people will have died between 1970 and 2050, which is when the UK's asbestos epidemic is said to have played itself out. That's why you need to take action to protect your workers.
1. conduct risk assessments
You'll already know how important it is to conduct risk assessments and key safety checks before you start work, but ensure that you always consider asbestos as part of the possible health risks. Those responsible for the building, for example, are legally required to provide you with information on the location and the materials.
If there are any asbestos-containing materials, they need to be identified before the work starts. You then need to decide whether these materials need to be handled by a specialist asbestos removal team or to consult the health and safety representative, if there is one, about the appropriate control measures that should be taken.
If you're not sure about any materials, ensure they are tested as soon as possible by a specialist laboratory.
2. train workers to know the risks and precautions they need to take
Ensure you train your workers on the risks of asbestos and instruct them on what to do if they encounter asbestos-containing materials. For example, they should:
- Keep the material damp while they work on them.
- Use hand tools, not power tools which create more dust.
- Use personal protective equipment (PPE) such as respirators, which we'll discuss here.
- Clean up as they do to prevent waste piling up.
- Clear up asbestos dust using "Type H" vacuum cleaners or damp cloths.
- Wash their hands and face when they're taking a break from work or have finished.
- Placing asbestos waste in a sealed, labelled container before disposing of the debris.
If your team encounter any hidden materials which may contain asbestos, ensure that they stop work immediately and get advice. Identifying asbestos-containing materials isn't easy and you may need to get it sent off to specialist laboratories.
These steps will help to reduce, control and prevent asbestos exposure to the lowest levels possible.
Make sure that you provide your workers with the appropriate protective clothing and equipment before they start work. For example, respirators and protective gloves can reduce exposure to asbestos. Make sure that you keep on top of PPE maintenance by regularly inspecting them for signs of damage and replacing them when necessary. As well as providing PPE, ensure that your staff are trained on how to use equipment and clothing in the safest way possible.
We recommend speaking to your PPE supplier to make sure the items you provide meet required safety standards.
Asbestos might have been banned for nearly 20 years, but it's known as the killer that still surrounds us. With many buildings still containing traces of asbestos, it's important that you and your team are always alert when it comes to working with materials that may contain the mineral.
And Asbestos isn't Your Only PPE Concern...
It's not just asbestos that you and your workers need to watch out for. Download a FREE copy of our Summer Workwear eBook for more tips on seasonal risks and hazards and how best to protect your workers from them.