Working with Asbestos

Originally a staple material in the building industry, asbestos has been used in building work and other applications since the late 19th century due to various desirable physical characteristics, though its properties have been used in various applications by humans for the last 4500 years.

In the present day, the use of asbestos is limited or banned in most developed countries, though encountering the substance is still a significant risk for anyone in the United Kingdom working in buildings constructed before the year 2000 since the sale of second-hand asbestos goods was banned in 1999.

What is asbestos?

The most common type of asbestos used in the building industry is called Chrysotile asbestos (though there are five other types of asbestos which were also used, each carrying the same risks), and is a naturally occurring mineral.

Chrysotile asbestos forms long, thin fibres, the smallest of which can be a thousandth of the thickness of a human hair.

Chrysotile asbestos can be woven or spun into fabric and is highly resistant to damage from heat, electricity and chemicals. It is also sound-absorptive due to its fibrous nature, has reasonable tensile strength and was relatively affordable when it was being mined in mass.

In many asbestos-containing materials, the weak fibres have a low resistance to damage, resulting in products which can easily crumble and release fibrous particles.

Where can asbestos be found?

Due to its many desirable properties, asbestos was incorporated into hundreds of products, including corrugated cement sheets for roofing, insulation for buildings, hotplate panels, textured walls and ceilings, joint filler for use between drywall panels, vinyl flooring, mastic, cement board, concrete piping and even fake snow.

In the United Kingdom, only around ten percent of accommodation is new-build, with the majority of properties being pre-World War two.

Because of this, work on most UK homes comes with some degree of risk of asbestos contact, and care should be taken to minimize the risks associated with the material.

What are the risks associated with asbestos?

When broken down, a single asbestos fibre can form hundreds of thinner fibres, much smaller than the human eye can detect. When asbestos fibres are kicked into the air by crumbling, abrasion or vibration, they can be breathed in by anyone nearby, lodging in the lungs and throat.

Once in lung tissue, the tiny fibres can cause damage to delicate structures such as chromosomes by tangling with them, as well as triggering inflammation and tissue damage.

The result of this damage can express itself in the form of lung cancer due to chromosomal damage, lung fibrosis (known as asbestosis), warts and plaques caused by inflammation and engulfing of fibres by tissue, and thickening of the lung’s lining. These diseases are potentially fatal in the case of extended exposure to asbestos fibres.

How can asbestos risks be minimized?

When working with asbestos, it is important to follow safety precautions such as wearing a mask with an air filter, using gloves and keeping the material wet if cutting so as to avoid the release of asbestos fibres into the air.

In the United Kingdom, asbestos waste must be transported to specific landfill sites via specific vehicles, at certain times of the day so as to avoid contact with others.

Known areas of buildings where asbestos has been used must be monitored to ensure that the material is not damaged, and must be removed if this changes.

All instances of asbestos contact should be recorded and submitted to the relevant authorities.

Legal protection for workers in contact with asbestos

Since 1992, employers have been bound by the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations, which stipulate that full risk assessments regarding asbestos contact must be completed and a report prepared on details related to the contact.

Instances of staff working with asbestos should be minimized as much as practically viable, and to avoid litigation employers should hire an asbestos removal expert to carry out the work (though this is not mandatory).

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