Here’s an obvious question- if it’s so dangerous, why might there be asbestos in your commercial property? Asbestos, if you forget about the life threatening side effects of exposure, is actually a pretty impressive material. Derived from naturally forming silica, it has some really useful properties such as brilliant thermal insulation, resistance to fire and chemical and biological breakdown, plus it helps maintain structural integrity of various substances like cement and resin.
Because of these properties, it was specified in the construction of hundreds of thousands of domestic and commercial property builds, as well as utilised extensively in equipment and machinery until it was banned by law in 1999.
What this means for us today, however, is that if you’re working on a building, or equipment manufactured before 2000, the chances are that you’re going to run into the stuff.
The aim of this blog is to give you an idea of where you may find asbestos in your commercial property, so that you can continue to work safely and fulfil your employers’ legal duties too.
When it comes to commercial buildings, the potential Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs) are largely the same as those prevalent within residential buildings.
So, this may include:
Due to the characteristics outlined earlier in this blog, asbestos in your commercial property can often be found in areas or equipment which experience high temperatures. Not only do ACMs offer great insultation from heat, but they don’t degrade in the same way due to the fibrous composition of the materials which hold together more effectively.
Therefore, common places that you may find asbestos in your commercial property are:
This is an insulation applied to hot water pipes to maintain water temperature and also prevent burns should someone touch the pipe. Due to different asbestos types and application methods, this type of asbestos has many different appearances (compare this to a cement sheet or roof tile which look very similar to each other).
Generally speaking, it is a fibrous material which flakes and powders easily (highly friable) meaning airborne fibres are spread and inhaled easily too. Because of this, it is one of the most dangerous types of asbestos.
When applied to pipes it is often covered in a protective coating or painted. This lack of uniformity of finish makes it difficult to identify.
Do not attempt to remove or work on this type of insulation. Engage with a licensed contractor.
Joints between pipework were often sealed with a flat asbestos gasket; boilers were regularly sealed with an asbestos rope. Both types can degrade over time and particularly if disturbed, for example if the joint is taken apart.
These seals present a lower level of risk to health and if can be removed without disturbance are not notifiable to the HSE.
As asbestos can be woven into materials it was often used in applications where protection from heat was anticipated, for example:
These are low risk and can be handled by a trained contractor without HSE notification or licensing.
Those black plastic looking toilet cisterns we had in our schools in the seventies and eighties- yep, they had asbestos in them to reinforce the moulding. When left intact these present a very low risk and can be removed by a trained contractor without HSE notification or licensing.
Sprayed coatings were used to insulate the undersides of roofs, sides of buildings, and warehouses. It was also used to protect steel and reinforced concrete beams/columns from fire, and on the underside of floors.
If this is present, you’ll often see debris around the sprayed area as it was very easy to overspray or get a ‘splash back’ during application. These coatings are often white or grey in colour, however, may have been painted after application.
You are very likely to find asbestos in your commercial property if you examine the exterior fittings. Warehouses, sheds, outbuildings, barns - just about any kind of building may have cement roof tiles infused with asbestos to give it heat resistance and increased structural integrity. These are grey with a corrugated profile, often with a dimpled finish. Due to their age, they’re often spotted with moss and lichen.
Walls on these buildings may also be finished in similar looking sheets of asbestos cement cladding. These are often held in place with metal fixings which have since rusted so are very difficult to remove without disturbing the asbestos (they can’t be ground off due to the risk of grinding the asbestos).
Some buildings may have flues and drainpipes made of asbestos cement too. Again, look for grey coloured pipes.
In their undisturbed state these present a low level of risk particularly as the cement materials retain their matrix (medium in which they are bound) over time and so do not release the asbestos fibres in the same way that pipe lagging (highly friable) or window putty (intumescent material which expands when heated, leading to degradation and release of fibres) does.
A lot of the time, due to the cost and safety risks associated with safe removal, this type of asbestos in your commercial property is best left in situ with the risk managed by the property manager.
Asbestos may not only be within the fabric of your commercial property. Because of its’ resistance to heat, and various other properties, it was frequently added to fixed and mobile equipment - for example, brake linings on motorised vehicles and machinery, ovens, ironing boards, and even sound insulation.
If you intend to use and maintain old equipment, (manufactured before 2000) you should find out if it contains asbestos. A good way to do this is to ask the equipment manufacturer or service engineer if possible, or have it surveyed by a professional. If you can’t be sure, presume the equipment contains asbestos and mark it with an asbestos warning sticker.
As you will have now gathered, asbestos was used incredibly extensively while it was still legal to do so- after all, it had its’ merits as a construction material. Unfortunately, though there is no such thing as safe asbestos, and working with or around it will always carry a level of risk - so it’s very important to be aware of where you might find it- especially if you’re looking at taking over a building, or carrying out maintenance, refurbishment, or demolition.
The bottom line as always though is that if you think you may have asbestos in your commercial property, have the premises surveyed, get the potential ACMs analysed and determine the safest way to work around any asbestos that is present. If we can help with the survey or removal, just get in touch today.