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Asbestos is a mix of minerals made from microscopic fibres, traditionally used for insulation and used extensively in the construction and maintenance of buildings in Great Britain from the 1950s. The use of asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999 due to health risks, but it is still present in many buildings, meaning that construction workers and others could still be exposed to asbestos fibres today. Managing and working with asbestos in non-domestic buildings is regulated under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.
Asbestos is dangerous when not maintained in a safe condition or if physically disturbed without the right measures in place to avoid fibres being released into the air, so it is important that asbestos removal operatives know what health and safety issues to be aware of and how to observe and promote safety at work to ensure their own safety, as well as the safety of the area and people around them.
What is the role of an asbestos remover
Asbestos is a general name given to several naturally occurring minerals that have crystallised to form fibres. Asbestos fibres are strong, heat and chemical resistant and do not dissolve in water or evaporate.
There are two sub-groups of asbestos:
- Serpentine (white asbestos)
- Amphiboles (including blue and brown asbestos)
Serpentine was the more commonly used in many products including insulation material for buildings, boilers and pipes, car brakes and floor tiles prior to use being banned.
As renovations and demolitions are carried out on older buildings that contain asbestos, removal operatives perform an essential role in safely removing or making safe any materials found to contain asbestos to reduce people’s exposure to asbestos, and in so doing safeguarding people by reducing the incidence of asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos removal contractors must be licensed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to undertake work with asbestos in a tightly controlled environment, and asbestos removal operatives must either be licensed contractors themselves or work for one.
The role of an asbestos removal operative can involve:
- Working in a variety of environments including on industrial or construction sites, in shops and offices, and in people’s homes
- Building bespoke containment enclosures around the asbestos-containing material
- Safely removing, and disposing of, asbestos from ceilings, walls, boilers etc.
- Using a variety of specialist equipment including airless sprayers and injection equipment
- Preventing fibre release, exposure to themselves and others, and the spread of asbestos at all times
- Decontaminating any tools
- Keeping the work area, transit route and decontamination unit in a clean and safe condition
- Observing all health and safety requirements and instructions at the site
- Ensuring that all waste, including PPP/RPE Filters/NPU filters, is disposed of as Asbestos Waste
The above list is not exhaustive. Whatever the environment they work in, an asbestos removal operative will be responsible for ensuring the safety of asbestos to protect the safety of themselves and other people.
What are the main hazards of working with asbestos?
Asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has reported that there were over 5,000 asbestos-related deaths in 2019, including from cancers like mesothelioma, and around 20 trades workers die each week as a result of past exposure.
Asbestos might be present in any building built or refurbished before the year 2000. The mere physical presence of asbestos does not necessarily create a health risk. The risk arises from breathing microscopic asbestos fibres that are released through accidental disturbance, mishandling or in areas where the asbestos is subject to heavy wear.
When materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air. When these fibres are inhaled, they can cause serious diseases. These diseases will not affect you immediately as they often take a long time to develop, but once diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything.
Breathing in high concentrations of asbestos for a long period of time mainly affects the lungs, causing a disease called asbestosis where breathing becomes difficult and the heart enlarges. Asbestosis may take decades to develop. Asbestosis sufferers are at an increased risk of cancer. Exposure to lower concentrations of asbestos over time may result in a general (diffuse pleural thickening) or localised (pleural plaques) thickening of the lung lining. People with breathing problems such as asthma may be more sensitive to the effects of asbestos.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified all forms of asbestos as being carcinogenic, i.e. capable of causing cancer in humans. Asbestos causes mesothelioma, a type of cancer that forms on the protective tissue that covers the lungs or the abdomen, and cancer of the lung, larynx (voice box) and ovary.
Many cases of inadvertent, short-term exposure to asbestos will most likely have led to minimal exposure to fibres, with little likelihood of any long-term ill health effects. If you are concerned about possible exposure to asbestos from work activities, you are advised to consult your GP and ask for a note to be made in your personal record about possible exposure, including date(s), duration, type of asbestos and likely exposure levels, if known.
The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) places duties on employers, the self-employed and people in control of work premises (the responsible person) to report certain serious workplace accidents, occupational diseases and specified dangerous occurrences (near misses). Exposure to asbestos is reportable under RIDDOR when a work activity causes the accidental release or escape of asbestos fibres into the air in a quantity sufficient to cause damage to the health of any person. Such situations are likely to arise when work is carried out without suitable controls, or where those controls fail.
What precautions need to be taken when working with asbestos?
Before the start of any maintenance, refurbishment, demolition or any other type of construction work, employers must identify the presence of asbestos as part of their risk assessment. The owners or managers of non-domestic premises have a duty to manage asbestos. This involves identifying and recording the location and condition of any asbestos. This record must be made available to anyone carrying out work to help them to manage the risks of exposure to themselves, their employees and others.
Nobody should remove asbestos at work unless the presence of asbestos has been identified, a risk assessment has been carried out, a written plan of work prepared, and the individuals undertaking the work have been given sufficient information, instruction and training to undertake the work. Higher-risk work with asbestos, which generally means work with asbestos coating, asbestos insulation, or asbestos insulating board, requires the employer of those carrying out the work to be licensed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Carrying out work on licensed asbestos without a licence is against the law and anyone found guilty is liable to be prosecuted by the HSE and given a substantial fine.
Regulation 10 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012) requires employers 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, competently and without risk to themselves or others.
These precautions might include, but are not limited to:
- Wearing the correct PPE
- Always following risk assessments and the written plan of work
- Not using power tools, using hand tools only
- Always working in well-ventilated areas
- Not putting asbestos waste, including PPE, in a wheelie bin or taking it to the local authority civic amenities depot – asbestos disposal needs special measures of a Hazardous Waste Service
- Thoroughly washing bare skin on completion of the work
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), the minimum a business must do is:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards)
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk)
- Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn’t possible, control the risk
Risk assessment requires making a judgement on Risk Severity. Risk Severity = probability of risk materialising x impact of risk on, for example, a person or people, a business, a property etc.
Probability may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – a reasonably informed person would think it very unlikely this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- Medium (Level 2) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a significant possibility this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- High (Level 3) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a very significant or even likely possibility the risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
Impact may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – any impact that is minimal, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is isolated and short-lived.
- Medium (Level 2) – any impact that is significant, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is limited to one function or group, but there is a material operational impact and the effects may continue.
- High (Level 3) – any impact that is severe, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact impairs a critical function and/or has a systemic impact and the effects may be long-lasting or permanent.
Asbestos removal contractors/operatives must ensure an assessment has been made of any hazards, which covers:
- What the potential hazard is – the risk assessment should take into consideration the type of electrical equipment used, the way in which it is used and the environment it is used in
- Who, or what could be harmed by the hazard
- How the level of risk has been established
- The precautions taken to eliminate or control that risk
Managing risk is an ongoing process that is triggered when changes affect an asbestos removal operative’s work activity; changes such as, but not limited to:
- Changing work practices, procedures or the work environment
- Purchasing new or used equipment or using new substances
- Workforce changes
- Planning to improve efficiency or reduce costs
- New information about the workplace risks becomes available
Risk assessments should be recorded and records regularly reviewed and updated whenever necessary. Should an accident occur, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will request copies of the risk assessments.
The importance of asbestos removal
One of the top reasons why asbestos removal is so important is that this toxic substance is widely present in homes and buildings across the country and could present hazards to health.
These work-related health hazards can cause lung diseases including:
- Mesothelioma – A type of cancer that develops in the lining that covers the outer surface of some of the body’s organs. It is usually linked to asbestos exposure.
- Asbestos-related lung cancer – This includes lung cancer, laryngeal cancer and ovarian cancer as well as mesothelioma.
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – The name for a group of lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties, including emphysema, which is damage to the air sacs in the lungs, and chronic bronchitis, which is long-term inflammation of the airways.
In the UK, building owners have a specific legal duty to ensure the asbestos materials within their building stock are adequately managed to prevent any of the fibres from becoming airborne. It is often argued that a simple solution would be to remove all the asbestos present; however, the number of landfill sites around the globe that accept asbestos has been significantly reduced, meaning there would be challenges in disposing of all the extra removed material.
As previously mentioned, asbestos only poses a risk to health when the fibres become airborne and are inhaled; however, there is always a potential risk that asbestos products may become damaged or deteriorate through general wear and tear, releasing fibres into the air, so effective risk management must be in place.
What are the benefits of removing asbestos?
Asbestos is a highly dangerous substance which can cause cancer and other illnesses. Environmental and occupational exposure to asbestos is known to contribute to the high burden of cancer, causing many avoidable deaths. It is likely that a significant part of today’s UK building stock still contains asbestos.
A considerable number of renovations and demolitions are expected over the coming years and removing asbestos during these renovations and demolitions will lower the risk of accidental or deliberate damage to any asbestos materials in buildings. This will improve health and living conditions for many people and remove the potential health risks for anyone working on the building in the future.
What are the requirements for removing asbestos?
There are very strict HSE guidelines surrounding the subject of asbestos removal. Lower-risk asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) do not require a contractor to have a licence to conduct asbestos removal. The reason being that any exposure to asbestos fibres from this type of work is not expected to present a significant risk, provided that the correct precautions are taken.
With regards to asbestos removal in general, in accordance with the HSE guidance and under regulation 11 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012), employers are supposed to have a policy in place where areas are checked for asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) before carrying out any work that may disturb or damage the fabric of a building which may contain asbestos. The HSE advise that asbestos removal work should be carried out using the best method(s) possible in order to minimise the release of asbestos fibres, reducing exposure as much as possible; only trained asbestos removal operatives should carry out any non-licensable asbestos work and they should also wear the correct respiratory protective equipment (RPE) and protective clothing when working with asbestos.
When it comes to licensable asbestos removal work, however, the guidance is much more comprehensive. This is due to the fact that removal of higher-risk asbestos-containing materials such as sprayed asbestos coatings, asbestos insulation, asbestos lagging and most work involving asbestos insulating board, is more likely to release larger quantities of asbestos fibres when being removed than lower-risk materials such as asbestos cement.
Asbestos removal operatives who are employed in removing higher-risk ACMs require specific training and should follow specific working practices. Asbestos removal operatives should also use sophisticated RPE and are legally required to be under regular medical surveillance.
Why is PPE important
Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects workers from hazards such as trips, exposure to dangerous substances, electrocution, and falls. While there is some PPE that is universal to many trades, asbestos removal operatives have certain PPE which is specific to their job.
Asbestos removal operatives are exposed to a variety of risks associated with their work and it is more than evident that asbestos can cause cancer and other health conditions, which is why it is imperative that only correctly trained operatives handle it and it is imperative that they are using the correct PPE.
- Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) – This is a type of PPE which is specifically designed to protect the wearer from airborne hazards in the form of dust, fumes, gas and vapour. There are two types of RPE: respirators and breathing apparatus. Respirators use filters to remove contaminants from the air being breathed in. Respirators come in two types: non-powered respirators and powered respirators. Breathing apparatus is linked up to an air cylinder or air compressor to supply breathing-quality air from an independent source. Reusable masks RPE should be cleaned thoroughly and dried. An inspection should be made to ensure there is no damage or defects and masks should be stored in a clean, dry container.
- Overalls – Disposable protective overalls should be made from a material which protects against particle penetration; if working outdoors, waterproof overalls may be required. Disposable overalls and masks should be removed carefully following HSE guidance and disposed of as asbestos waste.
- Footwear – Safety boots are preferable when working with asbestos. Choose boots without laces because they are easier to clean; asbestos fibres can stick to boot laces. Disposable overshoes can be worn; however, this is not advised due to them being a slipping risk. Boots should be decontaminated by vacuuming with a H-Vac and then wiped with a disposable damp cloth. The cloth and H-Vac bag should be disposed of as asbestos waste.
- Gloves – Single-use disposable gloves and dispose of these as asbestos waste.
What training should asbestos removers take?
While there are no set qualifications required to become an asbestos removal operative, asbestos awareness training is a requirement of regulation 10 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012), and the supporting Approved Code of Practice L143 Managing and Working with Asbestos. Workers must be able to recognise asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) and know what to do if they come across them in order to protect themselves and others.
Training for asbestos awareness is intended to give workers the information they need to avoid work that may disturb asbestos during any normal work which could disturb the fabric of a building, or other item which might contain asbestos. If a worker is planning to carry out work that will definitely disturb ACMs, further specific information, instruction and training will be needed.
When asbestos removal operatives are trained to work safely, they should be able to anticipate and avoid injury from job-related hazards. Safety training is essential for all asbestos removal operatives appropriate to their role, and training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained.
This training for highway workers might include, but is not limited to:
- Health and Safety for Employees
- Health and Safety for Managers
- Asbestos Awareness
- Working at height
- Ladder safety
- Assessing Risk
- Confined Spaces
- Manual Handling
- Workplace First Aid
- RIDDOR Awareness
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Asbestos removal operatives should at a minimum refresh their safety training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).
Get started on a course suitable for asbestos removers
Manual Handling£20 + VAT View course
Assessing Risk (Risk Assessment Course)£20 + VAT View course
Ladder safety£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Managers£49 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Employees£20 + VAT View course
Working at height£20 + VAT View course
Workplace First Aid£20 + VAT View course
RIDDOR Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Confined Spaces£20 + VAT View course
Asbestos Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)£20 + VAT View course