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As a result of its unique properties of temperature, chemical and fire resistance, asbestos was previously used for many applications including spray coating on steelwork, concrete walls and ceilings for fire protection and insulation; insulation lagging in pipework, boilers and ducts; wall partitioning board, fire doors and ceiling tiles; cement products including those for walls and roofs, tiles, cold water tanks, downpipes, gutters and in decorative plaster finishes; corrugated or flat sheeting used for walls and roofs; and in bituminous, plastic, resin and rubber products. 

The HSE’s estimate that 20 tradespeople on average each week die as a result of asbestos exposure as well as four plumbers, six electricians and eight joiners, shows that the construction and refurbishment trades are still suffering the effects of past failures to manage exposure.

A recent paper for the executive’s construction industry advisory group CONIAC flagged up worries about construction workers receiving awareness training only when they are likely to be working where the hazardous material has been identified. That suggests you can’t always rely on contractors to know the right thing to do if they come across asbestos-bearing materials unexpectedly.

Tasks where workers may come into contact with asbestos cement in buildings include:

  • Cleaning weathered roofing and exterior cladding
  • Repairing damaged asbestos cement
  • Removing sheets or gutters
  • Removing reinforced plastic products
  • Replacing flues or ducts
  • Drilling holes in highly bonded materials
  • Cleaning debris from roof guttering
  • Taking out panels beside or under windows

All together now

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 (CAR) bring together the three previous sets of regulations that restricted asbestos’s use and limited exposure to existing installations. In line with most UK health and safety legislation, the Regulations require employers to prevent exposure to asbestos wherever reasonably practicable.

In practice, this means anyone who owns, manages, occupies or has responsibly for a non-domestic building which may contain asbestos has a legal duty to manage the risk from this material, or at least a duty to cooperate with the person who manages the risk.
If you are fortunate, your building will already have a management survey report and/or asbestos register which identifies the location of asbestos.

If not, you need to organise them and keep the register updated and include drawings of the location of any materials which definitely or possibly contain asbestos.

As well as a thorough inspection, the register will be strengthened by any previous documentation about the building (such as building plans and invoices) which could contain history of previous asbestos work, enquiries to previous tenants or owners; and, where possible, discussions with the architects.

You should presume materials contain asbestos unless there is firm evidence to the contrary. For larger buildings or where you are planning extensive maintenance work, you should engage a suitably trained person to survey the premises, to take samples of any suspect material for analysis and to advise on action.

Once you are sure asbestos is present, a decision must be made as to whether the material is going to be removed or left in place. If it is in poor condition, or it’s likely to be damaged or disturbed by the work, it will need to be repaired, sealed, enclosed or removed by a licensed contractor. If the best course is to leave it in place, it must be recorded in the register and warning stickers fixed on all the containing materials.

Even where you are not responsible for specifying the RPE yourself, it is worth knowing enough to spot whether your contractors are suitably equipped.

The type of RPE needed will depend on the nature and duration of the work. The first point is whether the work with asbestos requires a licence or is considered “non-licensed” work.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides very clear guidance on what types of RPE can be considered for each type of work.

Workers with infrequent or short-term exposure to low-level contamination, such as plumbers, or electricians drilling through panels containing asbestos, can choose from a disposable FFP3 respirator, or half or full-face respirator fitted with a P3 filter.

All the above are classed as “tight fitting” respirators. These must be tested before use to check they fit each wearer’s face.