Asbestos can be dangerous - it can cause serious diseases and even fatal diseases if you come across it and breathe in the fibres. But what exactly is asbestos? What damage can it do? Where is it found? And more importantly, what do you do if you find asbestos in the workplace? Read on to learn more about asbestos and what you should do if you think you’ve found it in the workplace, and what to do if you think you’ve been exposed to asbestos.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of six silicate minerals that naturally occur, made up of microscopic fibres. These fibres are strong - being chemically resistant and heat resistant.
It was frequently used in buildings before the year 2000 (mostly in the 70s and 80s) and was thought to be a great material due to its heat and chemical resistant properties. It was used to fireproof buildings and made great insulation in buildings. It was a common additive in a wide range of products - but little was known about the harmful long-term effects of asbestos exposure. We’ll go into more detail about the dangers of asbestos in the next section.
The six types of asbestos are amosite (brown asbestos), tremolite, crocidolite (blue asbestos), chrysotile (white asbestos), and actinolite, belonging to the amphibole and serpentine groups.
Why Is Asbestos Dangerous?
Asbestos can cause damage when breathed in - leading to long-term asbestos-related diseases such as cancers of the lungs and chest. The risk can be difficult to identify as it can take anything from 15 years to develop an asbestos-related disease.
However, as long as the asbestos is handled correctly and the ACM (asbestos-containing materials) haven’t been disturbed or damaged, the fibres won’t be released and there won’t be a health risk.
If left alone, it isn’t considered dangerous. However, if the material containing asbestos gets damaged or disturbed, then fine dust gets released. If this dust is breathed in, the asbestos fibres enter the lungs, causing prolonged damage to them.
You’d need long-term exposure to ACM to develop asbestosis, typically over the span of a few years. Asbestosis is pulmonary fibrosis or scarring of the lungs. Due to its high risk factor, it was fully banned in the UK in 1999.
Where Is Asbestos Found?
Asbestos can be found in any building that was built or refurbished before asbestos was banned in 1999.
Before 1999, particularly in the 70s and 80s, asbestos was used in a wide range of construction materials for many reasons - for example, ceiling, floors, roofs, and insulation.
However, in 2022, you’ll only have a chance of coming across asbestos if your work entails damaging materials. This could be construction, demolition, plumbers, electricians, and heating or ventilation engineers. This is one of the reasons why health and safety is so important on construction sites.
What To Do If You Find Asbestos in the Workplace
First of all, if you think you’ve come across and disturbed asbestos and you’re not licensed to work with it, then you should stop working immediately - and take steps to evacuate the area, including yourself and anybody working in the area.
However, if you have debris or dust on your clothes, then stay put to avoid spreading the fibres. Put on RPE (respiratory protective equipment) as quickly as possible to prevent you from breathing in the fibres.
Place a warning sign in the area saying something along the lines of ‘possible asbestos contamination - or if you have to stay put, have somebody else do so.
Report the problem and notify the client. Speak to an asbestos surveyor or somebody who is licensed to deal with asbestos, so they can sample the material and inform you of the risk level. This is an important step as some asbestos products have a lower risk than others - e.g cement products pose less of a risk than insulation boards.
Once the asbestos has been cleared, the ACM should be sealed and labelled so it’s easily identifiable.
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If You Think You’ve Been Exposed
If you think you’ve been exposed to asbestos, then contact your GP and ensure a note has been made on your record with information about the incident.
Contact the asbestos surveyor or licensed asbestos handler to find out information about the asbestos.
It can take several years before any signs will appear on x-rays, but be sure to notify your GP if you notice any symptoms such as chest pains, a dry cough, or breathing difficulties.