To mark Mesothelioma Awareness Day, Mark Price of Daniel Connal Partnership examines the dangers of asbestos and offers advice to employers
Asbestos occurs naturally on every continent in the world. Once considered a valuable resource, it was widely used in a variety of applications. Now, we know it can lead to a number of deadly diseases.
Once upon a time asbestos was seen as a ‘magic mineral’ used by the Greeks and Romans who recognised its unique fire retardant properties. But in more recent times asbestos found a multitude of commercial and industrial applications especially when building materials were in short supply after the Second World War. It was used as insulation, roof tiles, fire resistant suits - even in cosmetics.
Today we recognise the dangers associated with its use. In the UK alone more than 5,000 people die every year from asbestos-related disease and the majority of these deaths occur as a result of workplace exposure, and most of these are in the construction industry.
Asbestos refers to a group of minerals made of long fibres. Although its use has been banned in many countries, it is still mined today, with Russian and China being two of the biggest producers.
There are three main types of asbestos which are usually referred to by their colour: crocidolite (blue), amosite (brown) and chrysotile (white) and they are all hazardous.
Unlike amosite and crocidolite, which were banned in 1985, the use of chrysotile continued in the UK until 1999. Therefore, in any building constructed or refurbished before the year 2000 asbestos is likely to be present – roofs, ceilings, walls and floors could all be contaminated.
Left undisturbed, asbestos poses no threat but during maintenance, alteration, removal or demolition of asbestos containing materials, asbestos fibres are released into the air and inhalation of these fibres can be fatal.
The four main diseases associated with asbestos exposure are all connected with the lungs, namely asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and pleural plaques, in which the membrane that covers the lungs is damaged by asbestos but the lungs themselves are unharmed.
Those who worked with asbestos during the latter half of the last century, could have inhaled asbestos fibres over an extended period of time resulting in asbestosis. Since regulations to restrict exposure were put in place over 40 years ago, it is now a relatively rare condition.
In sharp contrast to asbestosis, the number of cases of mesothelioma has recently increased.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the cells which make up the lining of the outer surface of organs including the lungs, heart and gut. Pleural mesothelioma – the most common type – can develop in the tissue covering the lungs while peritoneal mesothelioma develops in the lining of the abdomen. Mesothelioma can be caused by workers being exposed to small amounts of asbestos fibre over a short period of time, for instance during demolition work or maintenance work drilling or cutting into areas where asbestos might be present.
It can take over 20 years for symptoms of mesothelioma to materialise and sadly, the outlook for sufferers is poor because it is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage.
Around 2,500 of the 5,000 deaths from asbestos related diseases recorded annually are as a result of mesothelioma.
Duty to manage
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 requires employers to ensure that a risk assessment for the presence and condition of asbestos is undertaken which can be either intrusive or non-intrusive dependent on the work to be completed.
Anyone responsible for the maintenance of non-domestic premises has a ‘duty to manage’ the asbestos in them in order to protect anyone using or working in the premises from the risks to health that exposure to asbestos causes.
If existing asbestos containing materials are in good condition and are not likely to be damaged, they may be left in place with their condition monitored and managed to ensure they are not disturbed.
Training is mandatory for anyone liable to be exposed to asbestos at work. This includes maintenance workers and others who may come into contact with or disturb asbestos (eg.cable installers), as well as those involved in asbestos removal work.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has good advice and guidelines which include:
- Avoid working with asbestos wherever possible. If you’re not sure whether asbestos is present, don’t start work. Your boss or the customer should tell you whether or not asbestos is present.
- Don’t work if the asbestos material present is a sprayed coating, board, or lagging on pipes and boilers. Only a licensed contractor should work on these.
- Where asbestos is present, you can only continue to work if you’ve had asbestos training and you’re using the right equipment.
- To minimise asbestos dust, use hand tools instead of power tools, and keep materials damp but not wet. Clean up as you go, using a special (class H) vacuum cleaner (not a brush). Double-bag asbestos waste and label the bags properly.
When working with asbestos, always wear a proper mask. Ordinary dust masks are not effective. If there is any uncertainty about the presence of asbestos, work should stop while a competent specialist is consulted.