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Asbestos: The Hidden Killer

Published: 10th Oct 2008


Every week 20 tradesmen die from asbestos related diseases - and the number is set to increase over the next few years. Steve Coldrick, Director of the Disease Reduction Programme with the Health and Safety Executive explains why a major campaign “Asbestos: The Hidden Killer” will be launched in October to raise awareness of the real risk that tradesmen face.

Asbestos related disease is the biggest single cause of work related deaths, with around 4,000 people a year dying from either mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis. A quarter of the deaths are tradesmen and the number will continue to rise and is expected to between 2011 and 2015. The reason for the increase is that many workers who have already been exposed to asbestos dust will develop the terminal disease mesothelioma which can have a 15-60 year latency period.

Thousands of families will lose a loved one due to this long latency disease. These people have worked hard all of their lives, many unaware that they are going to suffer a chest-crushing painful death. Sadly, for many who have been exposed to asbestos dust it’s too late, mesothelioma is a long latency illness and therefore where we can make a difference is creating awareness for the future.

Creating awareness for the future

The Health and Safety Executive campaign ‘Asbestos: The hidden killer’ aims to educate tradesmen on the relevance and risk that asbestos still has for them.

Our research shows that many workers, particularly tradesmen, think that they are not personally at risk of exposure to asbestos and the diseases it can cause. They think since asbestos was banned many years ago, the problem has been dealt with and it is not relevant to them. The reality is very different.

Even today asbestos presents a risk to plumbers, joiners, electricians and maintenance workers. Asbestos may be present in any building constructed or refurbished before the year 2000, and it is estimated that around 500,000 non domestic buildings could contain asbestos. These buildings all need repair and maintenance work from time to time and when the asbestos fibres are disturbed e.g. by drilling or cutting, they are likely to be inhaled.

Dutyholders (of a non-domestic building), have a responsibility to inform tradesmen if asbestos is present in a building they are working in and they could disturb it. Depending on the type of asbestos containing material, and providing they have been trained and the proper controls are in place, they may be able to work on the project. If the asbestos containing material is in good condition and in a position where it cannot be disturbed or damaged, it is safer to leave it where it is and ensure that the risks are managed. Asbestos sprayed coatings, board or lagging on pipes and boilers - should only be tackled by licenced workers.

We need to reduce and prevent the number of deaths from asbestos related diseases. Our campaign will seek to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos and will encourage tradesmen to call our infoline +44 (0)845 345 0055 or visit for further information. A free asbestos pack is available which provides information on the dangers of asbestos. The pack highlights where asbestos-containing materials may be present in buildings, what they look like and how they should be dealt with. I would urge all tradesmen to contact us to obtain a copy of the asbestos pack.

Advice on dealing with Asbestos

Don’t work if:

  • You’re unsure whether asbestos is present - the dutyholder or your employer should tell you
  • Asbestos is present but you have not been trained to work safely with it; or you do not have the appropriate protective equipment
  • The asbestos materials present are sprayed coatings, board or lagging on pipes and boilers - only a contractor with a licence should work on these

Only work with asbestos if:

  • You have had asbestos training, the work is properly planned and the right controls are in place (e.g. you have the right equipment)
  • The materials are asbestos cement, textured coatings containing asbestos or others which do not need a licence.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 came into force on 13 November 2006 (Asbestos Regulations - SI 2006/2739)

These Regulations bring together the three previous sets of Regulations covering the prohibition of asbestos, the control of asbestos at work and asbestos licensing.

The Regulations prohibit the importation, supply and use of all forms of asbestos. They continue the ban introduced for blue and brown asbestos in 1985 and for white asbestos in 1999. They also continue to ban the second-hand use of asbestos products such as asbestos cement sheets and asbestos boards and tiles; including panels which have been covered with paint or textured plaster containing asbestos.

REMEMBER: The ban applies to new use of asbestos. If existing asbestos containing materials are in good condition, they may be left in place, their condition monitored and managed to ensure they are not disturbed.

The Asbestos Regulations also include the ‘duty to manage asbestos’ in non-domestic premises. Guidance on the duty to manage asbestos can be found in the Approved Code of Practice The Management of Asbestos in Non-Domestic Premises, L127, ISBN 9780 7176 6209 8 and on the duty to manage area of the HSE website.

The Regulations require mandatory training for anyone liable to be exposed to asbestos fibres at work. This includes maintenance workers and others who may come into contact with or who may disturb asbestos (eg cable installers) as well as those involved in asbestos removal work.

When work with asbestos or which may disturb asbestos is being carried out, the Asbestos Regulations require employers and the self-employed to prevent exposure to asbestos fibres. Where this is not reasonably practicable, they must make sure that exposure is kept as low as reasonably practicable by measures other than the use of respiratory protective equipment. The spread of asbestos must be prevented. The Regulations specify the work methods and controls that should be used to prevent exposure and spread.

Worker exposure must be below the airborne exposure limit (Control Limit). The Asbestos Regulations have a single Control Limit for all types of asbestos of 0.1 fibres per cm3. A Control Limit is a maximum concentration of asbestos fibres in the air (averaged over any continuous 4 hour period) that must not be exceeded.

In addition, short term exposures must be strictly controlled and worker exposure should not exceed 0.6 fibres per cm3 of air averaged over any continuous 10 minute period using respiratory protective equipment if exposure cannot be reduced sufficiently using other means.

Respiratory protective equipment is an important part of the control regime but it must not be the sole measure used to reduce exposure and should only be used to supplement other measures. Work methods that control the release of fibres such as those detailed in the Asbestos Essentials task sheets for non-licensed work (available from HSE website) should be used. Respiratory protective equipment must be suitable, must fit properly and must ensure that worker exposure is reduced as low as is reasonably practicable.

Most asbestos removal work must be undertaken by a licensed contractor but any decision on whether particular work is licensable is based on the risk. Work is only exempt from licensing if:

  • The exposure of employees to asbestos fibres is sporadic and of low intensity (but exposure cannot be considered to be sporadic and of low intensity if the concentration of asbestos in the air is liable to exceed 0.6 fibres per cm3 measured over 10 minutes)
  • It is clear from the risk assessment that the exposure of any employee to asbestos will not exceed the control limit; and
  • The work involves short, non-continuous maintenance activities. Work can only be considered as short, non-continuous maintenance activities if any one person carries out work with these materials for less than one hour in a seven-day period. The total time spent by all workers on the work should not exceed a total of two hours
  • Removal of materials in which the asbestos fibres are firmly linked in a matrix. Such materials include: asbestos cement; textured decorative coatings and paints which contain asbestos; articles of bitumen, plastic, resin or rubber which contain asbestos where their thermal or acoustic properties are incidental to their main purpose (eg vinyl floor tiles, electric cables, roofing felt) and other insulation products which may be used at high temperatures but have no insulation purposes, for example gaskets, washers, ropes and seals
  • Encapsulation or sealing of asbestos-containing materials which are in good condition
  • Air monitoring and control, and the collection and analysis of samples to find out if a specific material contains asbestos

Under the Asbestos Regulations, anyone carrying out work on asbestos insulation, asbestos coating or asbestos insulating board (AIB) needs a licence issued by HSE unless they meet one of the exemptions above.

REMEMBER: Although you may not need a licence to carry out a particular job, you still need to comply with the rest of the requirements of the Asbestos Regulations.

If the work is licensable you have a number of additional duties. You need to:

  • Notify the enforcing authority responsible for the site where you are working (for example the local authority)
  • Designate the work area
  • Prepare specific asbestos emergency procedures
  • Pay for your employees to undergo medical surveillance

The Asbestos Regulations require any analysis of the concentration of asbestos in the air to be measured in accordance with the 1997 WHO recommended method.

From 6 April 2007, a clearance certificate for re-occupation may only be issued by a body accredited to do so. At the moment, such accreditation can only be provided by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS).

You can find more details of how to undertake work with asbestos-containing materials, the type of controls necessary, what training is required and analytical methods in the following HSE publications

Approved Code of Practice Work with Materials containing Asbestos, L143, ISBN 978 0 7176 6206 7

Asbestos: the Licensed Contractors Guide, HSG247, ISBN 978 0 7176 2874 2

Asbestos: The analysts’ guide for sampling, analysis and clearance procedures, HSG248, ISBN 978 0 7176 2875 9

Asbestos Essentials, HSG 210, ISBN 978 0 7176 6263 0 (Asbestos Essentials task sheets are available on the Asbestos Essentials area of the HSE website).

REMEMBER: You must also comply with other health and safety legislation.

Asbestos essentials PPE

PPE and RPE are your last lines of defence against asbestos fibres. Remember: Asbestos fibres can cause lung cancer and lung diseases. You must be trained to work safely with asbestos materials. You must be trained to use PPE and RPE properly.


  • Disposable overalls. Type 5 (BS EN ISO 13982-1) are suitable. Cotton overalls hold dust and need specialist laundering
  • You may need waterproof overalls for outdoor work
  • Wear one size too big - this will help to prevent ripping at the seams
  • If the cuffs are loose, seal them with tape
  • Avoid wearing a long-sleeved shirt - these are difficult to cover properly
  • Wear the overall legs over footwear. Tucking them in lets dust into footwear
  • Wear the hood over the RPE straps
  • Dispose of used overalls as asbestos waste

Caution: Never take used overalls home.


  • If you wear protective gloves, use single-use disposable gloves. If you must use latex gloves, use only ‘low protein powder-free’ gloves
  • Dispose of used gloves as asbestos waste


  • Boots are preferable to disposable overshoes which cause a slipping risk

Caution: Never use laced boots, these are very difficult to clean properly.

Respiratory protective equipment (RPE)

  • Use suitable RPE with an Assigned Protection Factor of 20 or more
  • This equipment should be suitable for most short duration non-licensed work. Workers should select a make and size that fits them
  • This equipment is not suitable for people with beards or stubble, or for long periods of continuous use; you need powered equipment for such situations
  • More information on the selection of suitable RPE can be obtained from suppliers

Planning and preparation

  • Plan for and practice emergency procedures
  • Workers need to be fit tested to make sure that the RPE fits them properly
  • Arrange fit testing and training before the work starts, ask the supplier for help or contact BOHS ( or +44 (0)1332 298101)

Using RPE

  • Workers must be medically fit to wear RPE - seek medical advice if you are not sure
  • All types of RPE restrict what the wearer can do. It is uncomfortable to wear for long periods
  • The RPE has to be worn all the time and until the worker is away from the contaminated air
  • Fit and wear the respirator in accordance with the manufacturers instructions
  • Place the straps firmly around the top and back of the head. The respirator should be tight against the face
  • When using disposable RPE, pinch the top of the respirator over the nose
  • Carry out a fit check in accordance with the manufacturers instructions
  • If the worker wears spectacles, they should put them on now. They must not create a gap between the mask and face
  • At the end of the shift, take off RPE last and, if it is disposable, put it in the asbestos waste. If it is any other type decontaminate, clean and store it properly for the next use
  • With half-mask type change filters regularly - your supplier may be able to advise you how often. Dispose of used filters as asbestos waste

Caution: Never leave the respirator lying around where it can collect dust. Never dangle the respirator round your neck.

Maintenance of non disposable equipment

  • Keep RPE clean and in good working order - follow the manufacturers’ instructions
  • Inspect and check RPE for damage every time. Carry out thorough checks monthly (or every three months if used infrequently). Inspect all parts including valves and seals. Replace the respirator as appropriate
  • Clean RPE after use and store in a safe place away from contamination

Caution: Make sure the correct filter is fitted.


  • Make sure that RPE users know:
    • how to check their equipment is working properly before they put it on;
    • how to check that it fits;
    • how to identify and replace worn or defective parts; and
    • that they know about the limitations of the RPE they are using
  • Instruct users to throw away disposable RPE/PPE as asbestos waste after one use
  • Tell workers to stop work and leave the area if they think their RPE is not working properly

Published: 10th Oct 2008 in Health and Safety International

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