Asbestos is a dangerous material if disturbed. When asbestos materials are damaged they release tiny fibres which, if breathed in can cause serious and often fatal asbestos diseases. Without the proper controls in place, removing or disturbing asbestos materials is very high risk. So high risk, that asbestos claimed the number one spot on our top 5 health risks. But what should you do if asbestos materials are disturbed and accidental asbestos exposure occurs?
You should always work with the correct type of asbestos survey 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.
Unfortunately, accidental asbestos disturbance does still happen. Either because the person isn't aware of the presence of asbestos, or doesn't realise the danger. Acting fast is crucial to prevent the spread of deadly asbestos fibres, and make the area safe.
Asbestos disturbance is more common than you might think. Because asbestos materials can be anywhere, it was used in thousands of building products. In walls, ceilings, floors, doors, insulation, cladding, partitions, voids and panels. On tanks, boilers, pipework and structural elements. Asbestos was a highly popular material before it was banned in the UK in 1999. Any building built before this date is likely to contain asbestos in some form.
Large amounts of asbestos were used in new and refurbished buildings before 2000, 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. Around 40 trades people a week die from past asbestos exposure. 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. Don't move around if you are contaminated. This will spread asbestos fibres and put yourself and others at further danger.
You should take the necessary measures to prevent the spread of asbestos.
Wipe yourself down with damp rags (damping down dust prevents the fibres from becoming airborne). Never dry brush or rub down with your hands, this will put the light asbestos fibres back into the air and means more chance of breathing them in.
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. Asbestos fibres can remain in the air for days. And any fibres that have settled could become airborne again if there is movement. Stay out of the area until it has been made safe.
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.
Finding out you may have been exposed to asbestos can be extremely worrying. We sometimes get asked for legal advice following asbestos exposure. As an online service, we can't provide health and safety or legal advice, as we don't act as consultants or solicitors. We haven't inspected your workplace, procedures or tested the asbestos materials.
The same procedures don't apply to every asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a deadly and dangerous material, but the risk increases depending on the number of fibres you have been exposed. For example, you are at lower risk if you have a short one-time exposure to a small number of fibres in an external environment. You are at higher risk if you were exposed to a large number of asbestos fibres in an enclosed space with little ventilation.
So where can you go for help if you are worried following an asbestos exposure event?
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 on your medical records along with the length of duration. Asbestos surveyors and consultants are asbestos experts that should be able to advise you on the risk level and what to do next. You can also consult your GP for advice and a note on your medical record.
Check that the correct reporting procedure is followed. Significant release of asbestos fibres can be reportable under RIDDOR.
Exposure to asbestos is reportable under RIDDOR when a work activity causes the accidental release or escape of asbestos fibres into the air in a quantity sufficient to cause damage to the health of any person.
RIDDOR reports are made by your employer, not employees. If you are worried that health and safety laws have been broken and you are at risk of serious harm, you can contact the HSE yourself.
Find out more about how to report health and safety concerns.
If you have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, you can get further advice from:
With asbestos, prevention is the only cure. Asbestos diseases take years to develop from the point of exposure, but once they do, the consequences are often fatal. The best way to stay safe is to avoid exposure in the first place.
So, especially if you are working in construction, know that asbestos is a hazard on nearly every project that involves an existing building. Plan ahead. Don't put yourself in a situation where asbestos exposure could occur. Get asbestos aware. Before every job, know that asbestos could be present. 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.
Avoiding asbestos exposure is the only way to reduce the risks, and this is especially important for those who carry out construction or maintenance work in buildings where asbestos is often present and at risk of being disturbed.
Get the free asbestos awareness toolbox talk, and keep your team aware of this killer dust.