Dealing with the danger of asbestos

Asbestos is the greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with some 5000 related cancer deaths each year. With plumbing and heating engineers among the workers most at risk, Steve Sadley from the Asbestos Removal Contractors Association (ARCA) offers advice on how best to manage the risks.

Today, asbestos-containing materials can still be found in a huge number of commercial buildings throughout the UK, including shops, hospitals, schools, and factories, as well as domestic properties, even though the use of asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999.

Within a building, asbestos can be found in numerous materials, which can be found in a number of different places, such as lagging on boilers and pipes, insulation board, vinyl floor tiles and thermal insulation. 

Due to the nature of your work the risk of exposure to asbestos must be taken seriously.

Related diseases

The inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause a number of serious diseases, most of which affect the lungs or pleura (external lining of the lung). These include a number of cancers such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, and other serious lung diseases such as asbestosis and pleural thickening. All of these diseases have a long latency, meaning it typically takes a long time for symptoms to occur following exposure to asbestos. However, for cancers such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, cases are often rapidly fatal following diagnosis.

To safeguard people’s health and safety at work there is overarching legislation – the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. 1974. This places a duty on every employer to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work for all employees and non-employees who may be affected by the employer’s activities.

Raising awareness

Managing and working with asbestos is covered by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012).  Within this, regulation 10 states that employers need to make sure that anyone liable to disturb asbestos during their work, or who supervises such employees, receives the correct level of information, instruction and training to enable them to carry out their work safely and competently, and without risk to themselves or others.

Plumbers are specifically identified as requiring asbestos awareness training, as this should be given to those employees whose work could foreseeably disturb the fabric of the building and expose them to asbestos.

Also, regulation 5 states that employers must not undertake work which exposes or is liable to expose employees to asbestos in any premises unless a suitable and sufficient assessment as to whether asbestos is present and in what condition, e.g. asbestos survey.

Managing risks

Regulation 4 of the CAR 2012 covers non-domestic premises (e.g. shops, factories, hospitals and schools) and the common parts of domestic premises such as corridors, garages, boiler rooms, and guest accommodations, such as hotels and halls of residence. 

The duty holder needs to create an asbestos register. This is a record of the location of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) and the condition, including a drawing of the premises. It should be dated, as periodic reviews should be carried out, so an up-to-date record is available on the location and condition of all ACMs.

Work at a premises should only start once the duty holder is satisfied that the information in the asbestos register is known and understood by the workers who are doing the work on-site and is easily accessible for anyone who needs to use it.

Worker training

Plumbers and heating installers should undertake asbestos awareness training and receive good communication from employers/duty holders of premises as to where ACM is in a building. 

When armed with all this information they should know not to disturb or remove asbestos-containing material. For example, do not drill into asbestos insulation board and do not remove asbestos pipe lagging.

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