6th July, 2022
If asbestos is so dangerous, why was it used in so many building products? Why did the construction industry make such a fatal mistake? Well... several properties make asbestos brilliant for building materials, it's strong, cheap, insulating and widely available.
Claiming around 5,000 deaths per year in the UK, asbestos is construction's biggest killer and one of its biggest mistakes.
Known as the hidden killer, it should be no secret that if you are in the construction industry, you are at increased risk of asbestos exposure.
Asbestos kills around 40 tradesmen a week. And this number has been rising for decades.
But it's not just construction workers who are at risk. Because asbestos was used heavily in building products, it can also harm others that come into contact with it in their homes or workplaces.
Asbestos is known as (thanks to the HSE campaign) the hidden killer. You can't see it, but it is hidden in thousands of buildings and hundreds of building products.
If asbestos is so dangerous, why was it used in so many building products? Why did the construction industry make such a fatal mistake?
Asbestos was used because, as a construction material, it's brilliant. Brilliant? What is so brilliant about one of the greatest health risks facing the industry?
Several properties make asbestos brilliant for building materials:
Great sound and heat insulation, strong, cheap and with fantastic fire resistance. Perfect properties for construction, which is why it was used so much. So brilliant, that asbestos is present in many commercial and domestic buildings across the UK.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring material found throughout the world, and it has been mined and used for thousands of years. Asbestos products go as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Asbestos became popular in the UK following the industrial revolution (starting in the late 1800s). During this period, asbestos was commercialised and imported in huge quantities for manufacturing.
At its peak in the 1950s - 70s, the UK was importing 170,000 tonnes of asbestos a year!
Although the health risks were known much earlier, asbestos wasn't fully banned until 1999.
Too many to list! Asbestos is in hundreds of commercial products. Advertised and promoted as a wonder product by suppliers, it was sought after by builders and property owners.
Some examples of building products that contained asbestos include:
Now asbestos is banned in the UK, no new building products contain asbestos. But asbestos is still present in hundreds of thousands of buildings.
Asbestos-containing products are in all types of buildings. Schools, hospitals, offices, hotels, homes, and every other type of structure. Mixed into the fabric of the building, or within previously installed products. And, because it was used in so many building products in the past, it is hard to know which materials contain asbestos.
It's not in any new building products. But it is still in the asbestos-containing products installed in buildings in the past. And there are lots of them, in lots of buildings.
As popularity peaked in the 50s-70s, public awareness of the health hazards grew. Asbestos diseases can take decades to develop, and people exposed years before were getting ill and dying.
In 1985 the UK prevented some asbestos use, and by 1999 all types of asbestos-containing materials were banned in the UK.
Turns out, the properties of asbestos that are so good for construction, are not so great for human health. The fibres are so strong they cannot be broken down by the body, and so sharp they slice into lung tissue.
Even though asbestos is no longer allowed, the number of people dying each year in the UK from asbestos-related diseases continues to rise. If asbestos is no longer used, why are the death rates still rising?
One reason is that symptoms can take years, or even decades to develop. Asbestos-related diseases are slow and painful. Those who are dying today may have been exposed in the 70s or 80s.
Another reason is that asbestos materials are still disturbed today. Asbestos hasn't gone away. People are still getting exposed.
Many everyday and seemingly harmless building products can contain asbestos, but you can't tell just from looking at them. Asbestos fibres are so tiny you can’t see them as you breathe them in.
When you start to knock a building about, you disturb materials. Creating dust and releasing fibres. This is how you could accidentally come into contact with asbestos-containing materials.
Drilling, sawing, cutting, demolishing. Anything that creates dust could release deadly asbestos fibres if the material or product you are disturbing contains asbestos.
If a building was originally built before 2000, you need an asbestos survey. That's the only way to know for sure if a suspicious building product or material contains asbestos.
The type of asbestos survey you will need depends on the type of work you are doing. If you're just working in a building, then you'll need a management survey. If you're carrying out construction work, then a more thorough refurbishment and demolition asbestos survey is needed.
If asbestos-containing materials are likely to get disturbed extra work is needed. They need to be protected from disturbance, or removed as per the Control of Asbestos Regulations.
No one should be put at risk from asbestos.
Despite all the knowledge surrounding the dangers, and the tight regulations, asbestos exposure is not a problem of the past. HSE site inspections often highlight problems with asbestos management on construction sites. There are usually at least a few high profile asbestos prosecutions each year.
If you work in construction, or any other work likely to be at risk from asbestos, you should have asbestos awareness training. Being aware of this hidden killer helps to keep people protected.
Take the asbestos awareness course, and get your certificate today.
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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