Workplace Asbestos – What You Need to Know

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Asbestos is still lurking inside 1.5 million buildings in the UK, and many of these properties will be workplaces where people gather every day. So, when it comes to workplace asbestos, whose responsibility is it to manage the risk? In this blog, we look at what employers should be doing and how tradespeople can protect themselves.

What is asbestos, and why was it used?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is made up of high-tensile strands or fibres. Before it was banned in 1999, it was a popular building material and was often used for insulation and fire-proofing.

Today, it's still being discovered in commercial, domestic, and public buildings, including houses, schools, hospitals, offices, and factories.

Asbestos is only dangerous when it's damaged or deteriorating, and its loose fibres can be inhaled. These fibres can affect the lungs, causing respiratory problems and other long-term health conditions.

If asbestos is in good condition and it isn't at risk of being disturbed, then it is safe for you to work alongside it without worrying about being exposed.

Where can you find asbestos in the workplace?

Workplace asbestos can be found in any commercial building that was constructed before the year 2000. It's hard to identify because it's often covered up, or it's just one component that has gone into making something else.

You can find it in places where insulation is required, such as pipe lagging or sprayed-on coatings around boilers. Asbestos insulation board (AIB) is also found in partition walls, fire doors, and ceiling tiles.

It was used to make cement products like water tanks, roof panels, downpipes, and guttering, and you might find it in decorative coatings like Artex.

Other places you might find workplace asbestos include:

  • Toilet seats and cisterns
  • Asbestos rope seals, gaskets, and paper
  • Fire blankets and other textiles
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Soffits – asbestos insulation board or cement
  • Sprayed coatings on beams, columns, floors, and ceilings
  • Asbestos cement flues

It's not always possible to identify asbestos by sight alone – the only tell-tale sign is the stray fibres that are sometimes visible when the material is damaged.

What to do if you think you've found asbestos

If you think you've discovered asbestos in your place of work, do not disturb it. Alert your line manager or another supervisor, and make sure your colleagues nearby are aware.

Depending on its condition, you might be asked to work elsewhere until the area has been confirmed as safe or the material has been repaired or removed.

Workplace asbestos – employer responsibilities

It is the responsibility of the duty holder to manage asbestos in the building where you work. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the duty holder is either:

  • The owner of the premises or,
  • The person/organisation that has clear responsibility for the maintenance or repair of the premises, e.g. through an explicit agreement

When it comes to workplace asbestos, it's up to the duty holder to find out if the property contains asbestos, often through an asbestos survey, and put a plan in place to manage the risk. This is called an asbestos management plan, and it is a legal requirement in the UK.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 states that all non-domestic buildings must have a plan. This rule also applies to the common areas of multi-occupancy domestic properties, such as the lift shaft or staircase.

The plan is designed to safeguard everyone in the workplace and any tradespeople or contractors who might work on the property.

Are you a tradesperson at risk of exposure?

If you're a tradesperson working on a non-domestic property that pre-dates the year 2000, then you should have access to the asbestos management plan. It's important that you know whether workplace asbestos is present, its location, and its condition before you start work.

If the information you need is lacking, you can either arrange to have the area surveyed and samples of relevant materials tested or assume that asbestos is present and take the appropriate precautions.

If it's not possible to carry out the building or maintenance work without disturbing asbestos, then you should identify who is at risk and determine the level of possible exposure. This will help you decide what work methods you'll need to put in place to control the risk.

Anyone who is likely to disturb asbestos must receive training to protect themselves and other people nearby. In some cases, you won't be able to do the work yourself, and you'll need the help of a licensed contractor.

When to call in a licensed asbestos contractor

Most high-risk work with asbestos can only be done by contractors who hold a license from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). If the control limit for exposure to asbestos is likely to be exceeded, then the work must be carried out by a professional.

There are certain types of asbestos that only a licensed contractor can handle:

  • All work with sprayed asbestos coatings and asbestos lagging (around pipes)
  • Some work with loose fill insulation and asbestos insulation board (AIB)

Even in cases where the work doesn't have to be done by a contractor, it may still be notifiable. This is known as notifiable non-licensed work (NNLW), and you can find out more about that on the HSE website.

Workplace asbestos – the key takeaway

It's the responsibility of the duty holder to manage the risk of asbestos in the workplace. They should have a record of where it is located and a plan to monitor its condition.

If you think you've found asbestos, you should not attempt to remove it yourself.

Asbestos repair and removal should only be carried out by people who have had the right training, and in some cases, only a licensed contractor can do the work.

Asbestos Gone has over ten years of experience in asbestos surveys and removals in the South-East of England. Our team of experts are here to help you manage the risk of workplace asbestos for the safety of everyone using the building.