Download Prospect's factcard "Asbestos: the hidden killer".
Asbestos is a term for a group of naturally occurring minerals, which all share the same fibrous structure. The three main types are Crocidolite (blue), Amosite (brown) and Chrysotile (white). Because asbestos is resistant to heat, is very durable and is a good thermal insulator, it was used extensively as a building material in the 20th century, and was found in a range of other products such as machinery and vehicle brakes.
However, its fibrous structure means that if asbestos is damaged or disturbed, tiny fibres can be released into the air. These fibres are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and can cause serious, often fatal, damage. All types of asbestos are classified as human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). For this reason, the law requires that asbestos is managed and maintained in a good condition.
It wasn’t until 1999 that all forms of asbestos were banned in the UK, so any building – houses, factories, offices, schools, hospitals – that was constructed or refurbished before this date could contain asbestos.
Those involved in refurbishment, maintenance and building trades, such as electricians, plumbers, joiners, engineers and construction workers, are at most significant risk. The HSE has estimated that 1.3 million tradespeople are at risk of asbestos exposure, and that they could come into contact with asbestos on average more than 100 times a year.
Asbestos exposure can cause a number of diseases, including mesothelioma (a form of cancer), cancers of the larynx, ovary, pharynx and stomach, and asbestosis. Exposure to asbestos causes over 5,000 deaths in the UK a year, making it the biggest cause of workplace death.
Asbestos-related diseases do not develop immediately, but can take between 15 and 60 years to develop. Many of the people dying today were exposed to asbestos many years ago. However, people are still exposed to asbestos due to its prevalence in the built environment.
In 2002, the HSE estimated that asbestos was present in 500,000 commercial and public buildings. Though many of these buildings will have since been demolished or refurbished, it is likely that hundreds of thousands of workplaces still contain the material.
It can be found in all manner of places in a building, and in a number of different forms, which can make it hard to identify. Examples include:
- Sprayed coatings on ceilings, walls, beams and columns
- Water tanks
- Toilet seats and cisterns
- Loose fill insulation
- Lagging on boilers and pipes
- Asbestos insulating board (AIB) – partition walls, fireproofing panels in fire doors, ceiling tiles, soffits and panels below windows
- Vinyl floor tiles
- Textiles such as fire blankets
- Textured decorative coating on walls and ceilings, such as Artex
- Asbestos cement roofs, panels, flues, gutters and downpipes
Often, asbestos can be hard to identify, partly because it was often mixed with other materials – something known as an asbestos-containing material (ACM).
When materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air. It is therefore vital that asbestos is managed and maintained in a good condition.
What your employer should do
The main law governing the management of asbestos in the workplace is the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. The regulations apply to all non-domestic premises; the common parts of domestic premises, such as lift shafts and out buildings; and any equipment that may contain asbestos. The regulations place a “duty to manage” asbestos on all who are responsible for the maintenance or repair of premises.
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 require these duty-holders to survey their buildings and produce an asbestos register, which details where asbestos is, or might be, located. Building managers must presume materials contain asbestos unless there is strong evidence that they do not.
If the building was constructed after 2000, it is unlikely to contain asbestos. However, if it was built on land which was previously brownfield, or contains old equipment, it could still contain asbestos.
For each entry in the register, the building manager needs to score it based on the type of asbestos it is and its priority for action. This priority score depends on factors such as its location and condition.
If any asbestos-containing materials are in good condition and are not likely to be disturbed, the dutyholder may leave them in place, but must monitor and manage their condition. If they are in a poor condition, they should be sealed or enclosed. If this cannot be done safely, or would fail to sufficiently reduce the risk because they are likely to be disturbed, the dutyholder should remove the asbestos-containing materials.
Based on the findings of the survey and the register, building managers need to produce an asbestos management plan, which details things like who is responsible for managing asbestos, plans for work on asbestos materials and the schedule for monitoring the materials' condition.
If the survey and register indicate that the asbestos needs to be removed or repaired, then the building manager will need to hire a contractor that is suitably competent to carry out work with asbestos. Higher risk repair or removal work must only be done by a contractor which holds a licence from the HSE. Any decision on whether particular work is licensable is based on the risk.
When asbestos that is in a good condition is left in place, dutyholders must ensure that everyone who needs to know about the asbestos is told about it. One of the easiest ways to doing this is to label it.
Prospect pursues compensation claims for asbestos-related illness every year. We sometimes need help from members' former colleagues to help prove that asbestos is involved. But many sufferers have lost touch with former colleagues by the time their condition comes to light.
We have set up a register to record details of members' workplace exposure to asbestos. So far, more than 1600 people have volunteered this information.
If you have worked with asbestos, please add your details to the register. The register will be used if you ever need to make a claim on your own behalf, or to help pursue claims on behalf of your colleagues or former colleagues.
Prospect lawyers will search the register for witnesses who worked for the same employer or in the same workplace and so provide evidence in support of members' claims. This will help them succeed in claims for Prospect members or their bereaved families and can bring financial peace of mind and justice to those affected by asbestos diseases.
If you are suffering from an asbestos-related disease and want to submit a claim for compensation, you can find more information in the legal services area of our site.
What you can do
- As with any other health and safety risk, you should co-operate with your employer to help everyone meet their legal requirements to keep you safe
- If you come across what you think might be asbestos, stop work immediately, and inform your health safety rep and employer.
- If you are concerned about possible exposure to asbestos from work activities, you are advised to consult your GP and ask for a note to be made in your personal record about possible exposure.
- If you’re a health and safety rep, check whether you employer:
- Has an asbestos management plan
- has carried out an asbestos survey
- has labelled all areas that may contain asbestos
- regularly inspects asbestos-containing materials for damage/deterioration
- has trained employees on asbestos risks and precautions, and given them information on its location
- has procedures to record any exposure and inform any employees who may have been exposed
- For more information on the “duty to manage” asbestos, visit the HSE’s website
- The HSE has produced guidance to the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012
- The TUC also has guidance aimed at health and safety reps on the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012
- The HSE has information on common forms of asbestos