You don’t normally think of the combination of asbestos and heat as a concern. Asbestos is resistant to heat – that is one of the reasons it was used in building projects. However, in this blog, we are not talking about the use of asbestos, we are talking about asbestos removal projects and how heat can affect the operatives involved in those projects.
Examples of hot environments could be boiler rooms, ducts and confined spaces – these places can be hot at any time of the year and if they are not insulated they can become even hotter.
If the existing insulation does not fully cover the pipes in the area, the temperature can increase, especially in confined spaces. When there is no insulation on a pipe, you can feel the heat literally radiating from it. It doesn’t take much to heat up a small space.
Other environments which can get incredibly hot include attics in Spring and Summer. Most people only go up in their loft over the Christmas period when it can be freezing, but in the Summer, with the sun shining on the roof, an attic can be a heat trap.
Working outside in the Summer next to glazed panelling in offices can also be very hot work. Working outside with asbestos enclosures is another example. Basically, you have built a mini greenhouse! It can get really hot in there because it is essentially polythene sheets and radiates the sun.
Why is heat a problem for asbestos operatives?
Heat can make asbestos enclosures fail. The sun and heat affects the glue and the tapes that hold the enclosures up. Basically, the glue and tapes degrade, don’t bond well and essentially melt.
There are other risks, such as hot pipes, as we said earlier. You may come into contact with steam pipes which can cause burns. First degree burns affect the outer layer of skin – even a tiny burn on your hand can stay around for a few weeks and scar. Full degree burns go through all the layers of the skin, deeper tissue, muscle and can affect the bones which is really nasty.
The main concern is heat stress. This relates to the working temperature for the people doing the job. Body temperature is around 36 to 37 degrees. If it rises above 38 degrees up to 40 degrees that could be fatal. To be clear we are talking about body temperature here, not outside temperature.
Signs of heat stress
There are several things you should look out for related to heat stress, including an inability to concentrate. You can also get muscles cramps, heat rash and even a slight increase in body temperature.
Severe thirst is a late symptom. By the time you feel this way, it’s not too late but it is the onset of heat stress which can lead to more severe problems such as passing out/fainting. If a worker faints and hit their head in a confined space you would need to shut the project down and close the site.
Other signs include exhaustion, fatigue, nausea and headaches. Headaches are quite common – if you get really hot it can cause headaches and then your skin can go from sweating to clammy all over. The way your body cools down is by sweating but if you are working in a boiler room with steam pipes it makes it harder for your body to cool down as the steam in the air cannot evaporate.
Heatstroke may cause severe reactions and can be fatal. Without a quick response to lower body temperature, heatstroke can cause your brain, or other vital organs, to swell, possibly resulting in permanent damage. You could fit, go into convulsions, lose consciousness and, without a prompt response and adequate treatment, even die.
What is the impact of working with asbestos in such conditions?
We’ve spoken about the hot environments that we might face but we haven’t yet addressed what it means to work with asbestos in such conditions. You need to remember that the types of activities you are carrying out has a bearing on what you will be wearing too.
Full coveralls, designed to prevent asbestos fibres penetrating, can get sweaty, then add to this gloves and boots. Respirators, in some cases, can restrict the face and the position that the operative will stand in. The masks are made from rubber and plastic which are horrible to have on when it is hot.
In addition to this you need to remember that most of the time asbestos removal is hard and vigorous work. At the minimum, it’s active work. For example, when you are hoovering an area, you may have to get into some funny positions to get to where you need to be, and this means you are expending more energy.
How can you reduce the risk?
The first and foremost thing is turn off boilers and pipes and eliminate the heat source. However, there are occasions where that isn’t possible. For example, if you are working in a school and they need to keep the heating on to keep the children warm. In these instances, try to reduce the heat and allow more air flow through air conditioning units. If you have an asbestos enclosure, try to introduce negative pressure and air movement into the enclosure to pull in fresh air, which can reduce the temperature slightly.
Air conditioning units are good because the air flow is guaranteed. You can place them at intervals and introduce air flow at much cooler temperatures to instantly reduce the temperatures within the enclosures.
See if external works can be planned to take place in the cooler periods of Spring and Autumn. Winter isn’t ideal as the glue holding the enclosures together can be broken down in the colder temperatures.
Another thing to consider is working times. How long can operatives work in those areas? Introduce regular breaks to ensure no one dehydrates. Have cool water available and encourage the operatives to drink frequently. It may be that operatives work in an enclosure for 15 minutes and then take 15 minutes out. This may make the job longer but if it’s needed to protect the operative’s health it must happen.
How can I make sure the risks are managed?
To do this, you will need to plan, carry out a risk assessment and monitor temperatures. Look at what each operative needs and make sure they have the necessary training to identify the risks and heat stress symptoms.
Training is essential as you can easily forget if you don’t do this type of work, day in day out. They need to have this information in the front of their minds to look out for each other. Also make sure you have emergency procedures in place and that everyone knows what they are so they know what to do in the event of someone suffering from heat stress.
Each person is individual, so what might affect one person won’t necessarily affect another and that is the problem. You can put procedures in place, but emergencies can still happen. You need to think how to evacuate people and what needs to happen next.
If you are looking at a big project, you may consider acclimatising individuals to that particular heat to build up their tolerance. You could start by working in small timeframes to get them used to the heat and build up from there.