When asbestos materials are damaged they release tiny fibres which, if breathed in can cause serious and often fatal diseases. But what should you do if asbestos materials are disturbed and accidental asbestos exposure occurs on site?
You should always work with the correct surveys in place to prevent accidental disturbance of asbestos containing materials. A good procedure to follow is before disturbing any building materials as part of your work or other activity, is to ask yourself, could the material I am about to disturb contain asbestos?
If the answer is yes, or I don't know - you need a survey.
Once you know what you are dealing with you can put the appropriate control measures to prevent exposure - or get in a specialist where required.
Large amounts of asbestos were used in new and refurbished buildings before 2000 when all asbestos products were banned, therefore a large number of buildings still contain some form of asbestos.
Workers within the construction industry are highly likely to come across asbestos during the course of their work. Despite the rules and regulations in places surrounding asbestos, accidents do happen, and materials can be uncovered during demolition that were not picked up in the asbestos survey. What should you do in these instances?
If you are not licensed to work with asbestos, and you are worried that you have accidentally disturbed an asbestos containing material - you should stop work immediately and evacuate both yourself and anyone else working in the area.
You should evacuate the area as quickly as possible, providing it is safe to do so.
If there is dust or debris on your clothing, you should stay put, get help and put on respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to minimise the risk of breathing in dangerous fibres. RPE suitable for protection from asbestos fibres should be used, usual practice is a P3 filter.
You should take the necessary measures to prevent the spread of asbestos.
Wipe yourself down with damp rags (damping down dust prevents the fibres becoming airborne)
You will need to dispose of your clothes as asbestos waste or have them cleaned by a specialist laundry. The rags used should also be disposed of as asbestos waste. You should also shower and wash your hair, as fibres can attach to body hair.
You should take the necessary measures to prevent others being exposed to asbestos. The area should be cordoned off and a warning sign 'possible asbestos contamination' should be displayed.
The client should be notified and at this point, an asbestos surveyor or licensed contractor should be consulted, to sample the material and can then advise you on the type of asbestos and the risk level. For example, asbestos containing cement products are lower risk than asbestos insulation boards.
Once the asbestos that has been disturbed has been cleaned up, the asbestos containing material should either be sealed and labelled, so it is easily identified in the future, or removed.
If you are likely to be disturbing the asbestos again during the course of the building work, then it should be removed. You shouldn't carry out this work yourself if you are not trained to do so, you should have the correct asbestos training, even for non-licensed work.
Most work with asbestos, including lagging, insulation and insulation board must be done by a HSE licensed contractor.
After exposure has occurred and it is confirmed that asbestos fibres have been released and workers exposed to this in an uncontrolled manner, you should report the incident to the HSE under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences (RIDDOR) Regulations, as a dangerous occurrence.
Accidental asbestos exposure would be classed as an 'accidental release of any substance that may damage health'.
The employer also has a duty under the control of asbestos regulations where any employees were not wearing adequate RPE or have potentially been exposed to asbestos fibres in an incident. The duty is to make a note that the exposure has occurred on the employees health or personal record.
A copy of the note must also be given to the employee who should be told to keep the record indefinitely. This is because there is a significant delay between exposure and the development of asbestos related diseases, and the health effects may not occur until many years later.
If you are concerned that you may have been exposed to asbestos in an incident you should consult your GP, and ask for a note to be made on your health record detailing the incident.
You may be able to get more information on the exposure level and type of asbestos from sampling carried out by an asbestos surveyor after the incident, and this should be recorded along with the length of duration.
Unfortunately there are no tests that can determine if asbestos fibres have been inhaled, as it will take a number of years before damage may develop and show up on chest x-rays.
With asbestos, prevention is the only cure.
So if you are working in construction - plan ahead, get asbestos aware, ask to see the asbestos survey before starting work and have emergency procedures in place. Always follow any control measures in place and have the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) including RPE. Always proceed with caution.
These simple steps might save your life.