31st October, 2022
It's Halloween, and lurking in thousands of buildings is a health and safety horror story. A killer so small you can't see it, so light you can't feel it, and so deadly you can't survive it. Killing around 5,000 people in the UK each year, it waits silently for its next victim. Don't let it be you.
You can't see it until it's too late. It hides in the dark behind walls, in lofts and basements. It hides in flooring and under your bed. It wraps around pipes and floats in the air.
It might sound like a ghost story, but this isn't a made-up tale for All Hallows' Eve. The hidden killer is real, and it's out to get anyone who falls into its deadly trap.
The hidden killer is responsible for around 5,000 deaths in the UK each year. And the hidden killer waits silently for its next victim.
Don't let it be you.
Let's unmask the hidden killer. Because the more we know about it, the more we can protect ourselves. If we ignore the hidden killer, it won't go away. It waits for years, decades. Always ready to claim another life.
Who is the hidden killer?
Yes, asbestos is the hidden killer we speak of. And it haunts the UK construction industry year after year, torturing and claiming the lives of people it has met in the past.
Asbestos was used as a building material for decades - most heavily from the 1950s to the 1980s. But asbestos wasn't completely banned in the UK until 1999, so you can find asbestos in any building built or refurbished before 2000.
Asbestos fibres are so tiny, that you can't see them as you breathe them in, and asbestos-containing materials cannot be visually identified. Materials that contain asbestos can look just like any other building material, cement sheets, partitions, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, and insulation. They may, or may not, contain asbestos.
Another reason asbestos is called the hidden killer is that you might not know you have been exposed for more than 30 years. Asbestos symptoms can take years, or even decades to develop. The people dying from asbestos-related diseases today may have been exposed in the 80s or 90s.
Asbestos doesn't really hunt for its victims. It's not a psychopath. It's a naturally occurring material, that was mined and manufactured into building materials because of its useful properties. Asbestos was used widely as a construction material because (like any good villain) it is as brilliant as it is lethal. Brilliant? What is so brilliant about one of the greatest health risks facing the construction industry?
As a building material, the properties of asbestos are brilliant. Great sound and heat insulation, strong, cheap and with fantastic fire resistance, virtually indestructible, asbestos was deemed as a fantastic product, and that is why it was used so much in construction.
And it was used A LOT.
Asbestos has been used in thousands of building products in the past. So much so, that you should expect any building constructed before the 1999 ban to contain asbestos.
Unfortunately, those asbestos properties, as great as they are for construction, are not so good for the human body. Asbestos gets its properties from lots of tiny fibres. Small and light, the fibres can enter the air around us and be breathed in. Strong and virtually indestructible, the fibres can't be broken down by the body. The sharp fibres attach to the lining of the lungs and cause incurable, fatal, asbestos diseases.
While asbestos has been banned for the last 20 years, the fact that can still be found in buildings that were constructed before the ban means that it is still claiming lives today.
There is some good news in this horror story. You can escape the hidden killer. You just need to know how to approach it. Asbestos will not harm you if it's in good condition and not disturbed. That means, the best way to escape it, is to leave it alone. To do this, first, you need to know where it hides.
Now you know that asbestos is the hidden killer, but you haven't escaped it yet! You need to find it first. To find this hidden killer, you don't need a detective. You need an asbestos surveyor!
An asbestos survey will help to uncover the hidden killer in your building. If you are having building work done, an asbestos survey is a legal requirement. It's also a requirement for the management of asbestos in most workplaces.
As long as asbestos is in good condition, you can monitor it, and leave it alone. If it does need removing, because of construction work or because it is in poor condition, specialist contractors can remove asbestos using special techniques and precautions.
There are three different types of asbestos used in the UK, white, blue and brown. But they all look the same. Without an asbestos survey, you can't know for sure if you have asbestos or what type.
Get the right type of asbestos survey, and you can unmask its location and save yourself (and others) from accidental exposure.
Asbestos may be known as the 'hidden killer' but it should be no secret that if you are in the construction industry, or do any work such as maintenance that can disturb building materials, you are at risk of exposure.
If you work in construction or any other profession where you may disturb asbestos you should be trained in asbestos awareness as a minimum, and this knowledge should be regularly refreshed. Find out more about our Asbestos Awareness Course, and download your certificate on successful completion.
Most importantly, stay aware and safe from the hidden killer. Use the free asbestos awareness toolbox talk to warn yourself and others about the dangers of asbestos.
This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.
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