What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a durable fibre, used widely in materials where resistance to heat or chemical attack was important and to give strength to cement products such as insulation boards, corrugated roof sheets, cement guttering and pipework. Sprayed asbestos coatings have also been used to reduce noise. As a result, it is sensible to assume any building constructed or refurbished before the 1980s will contain asbestos-based materials and no work should be carried out which is likely to expose employees to asbestos unless an adequate assessment of exposure has been made.
The more asbestos dust inhaled, the greater the risk to health. Until recently it was thought those dying from asbestos-related diseases were regularly exposed to large amounts of asbestos, but it is now thought repeated low or occasional high exposure can lead to asbestos induced cancers. Therefore, precautions should always be taken to prevent exposure to asbestos, or where this is not practicable, to keep exposure to a minimum with stringent work practices followed.
For many jobs, building owners will already know where asbestos can be found and, in some cases, may have labelled it to warn others who may come into contact with it. However, often the presence of asbestos will not be obvious. In addition, workers e.g. plumbers, electricians and heating engineers may not think they work with asbestos, but they might regularly drill, cut and handle materials containing 'hidden' asbestos.
The most common materials containing asbestos are:
Boiler and pipework coatings and laggings.
Sprayed coatings providing fire or acoustic insulation.
Cement-based boards, sheets and formed products.
Ceiling (and some floor) tiles.
Gaskets and paper products used for thermal and electrical insulation.
Some textured surface coatings.
Generally, the softer the material the more easily it is damaged, resulting in the release of fibres e.g. boiler lagging. If the protective outer coating could be damaged during work, precautions should be taken to either protect it or to ensure any release of fibres will not create a risk. Work in which asbestos insulation, asbestos coating or asbestos insulating board is removed, repaired or disturbed will normally have to be carried out by a specialist contractor licensed under the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations.