Asbestos emergencies – what to do?

Asbestos Emergencies

In this blog we will discuss asbestos and emergency situations. We will look at what can go wrong, who can be affected and how to control and minimise risks from those situations.

Who is at risk?

To begin with we need to consider who is at risk of coming into contact with asbestos. It comes down to a list of people working with it. That could include general maintenance staff, electricians, plumbers, gas fitters, painters, carpenters, roofers, plasterers, demolition workers, heating engineers, telecoms, fire and burglar alarms, the list is endless. Basically, anyone working in and on buildings.

What is the actual risk from asbestos?

In 2016, there were 2,595 mesothelioma deaths caused by past exposure to asbestos. This is a large figure and if you marry that to lung cancers as well, it is roughly the same. The numbers are still increasing year on year.

When Acorn Analytical Services entered the asbestos industry in early 2000, it was thought the peak for asbestos-related mesothelioma deaths would be in 2010 and the figures would begin to drop. In reality, the figures have actually increased and the peak is now expected to be in 2022 although it may rise again.

When we talk to people about asbestos-related disease, most people are aware of the term asbestosis, which is an asbestos-related disease which now causes around 500 deaths per year. Lots of people think this is the main disease, but it isn’t. To contract asbestosis, you have to be exposed to a lot of asbestos fibre and we’re not really getting those exposures these days. Those sorts of exposure come from the old-fashioned exposure of working with raw fibres and using it on a daily basis rather than secondary exposures where you are not working with it all the while but coming across it in your work.

The death rate of mesothelioma, however, is still increasing as individuals are still accidentally exposing themselves to asbestos within buildings because people aren’t following the regulations or carrying out surveys.

In total, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates around 5,000 people in the UK die every year from asbestos-caused cancers – that is more than double the number of people who die each year in the UK as a result of road accidents.

On average every week four plumbers, six electricians and eight carpenters die as a result of the hidden killer. As a result, asbestos is the single biggest industrial killer of tradespeople in this country.

How do you prevent exposure to asbestos?

Asbestos is not always an immediate hazard. If asbestos is in a good, sealed condition, it will not harm anyone. It is only when it is damaged or disturbed that it becomes hazardous and releases its fibres.

To manage asbestos you need to identify it and check the condition it is in. If it is in good condition it needs to be maintained. If it is in poor condition, you may have to stop people coming in to contact with it or make it safer by sealing it, remediating it and bringing it into a good state of repair.

If you can reduce accidental disturbances of asbestos, you reduce the risk of being exposed to it. If you can ensure people know where it is so they don’t disturb it, that will reduce the risk of you coming into contact with it.

By reducing the risk of accidentally damaging asbestos you also reduce the risk of airborne fibres. To do this, you need to know where the asbestos is and what type of properties it has. This is a basic requirement of the asbestos regulations which are in place to minimise expose to asbestos.

In non-domestic premises, the duty to provide information on asbestos, falls to the dutyholder who is usually responsible for maintenance and repair of the premises. They must provide everyone working in the building with the information about where the asbestos is and what condition it is in.

If you are a contractor who has undertaken works, or a manager who has organised works, you need this information before you start works or you need to undertake a suitable assessment before you undertake the works.

If you are working in domestic properties, you should ask the property owner for information. Often, they will not have this information so you will need to make an assessment to see whether you are likely to come across asbestos within your planned works.

Before you start works, you need to ask the client or the employer if there is an asbestos register or if they have asbestos information relating to the areas of proposed work. If there is no information, or not enough to carry out the works, you will need to get a refurbishment survey to determine whether those works will disturb any asbestos. You also need to review the refurbishment survey to make sure the area is still safe and that it is safe to access.

Be prepared because almost always the previous information is insufficient, and you will need a new asbestos refurbishment survey in line with the planned refurbishment scope of works.

If the key works identify asbestos in the area you are looking to work in, you may need to either get it removed, get it remediated or you may need to revise your proposed works.

However, it should be noted when these assessments have been carried out, things can still go wrong and create an emergency situation.

What happens if you find an unidentified material?

Below is an example of the type of situation you may encounter and what you should do.

Having checked the register, you go into a ceiling void and discover a previously unidentified suspect panel or material. You have completed your asbestos awareness training and have a good idea of what asbestos is but you are not sure about this material. What should you do?

Let’s go back to the beginning. There is nothing in the register –  these situations can happen. Possibly the asbestos surveyor hasn’t seen it or the register is based on the wrong type of survey. We see no end of contractors start work on the back of a survey report yet when you look at the report, it was only a management survey report which doesn’t include the information you need. You need to make sure you have the correct type of survey and that you check the no access areas.

What should you do when the asbestos is discovered? Firstly, you need to stop work and that includes stopping everyone working around the area.

The immediate area should be sealed or closed off, this could be as simple as closing a door to the room. If the area is in a big open plan area, you can cordon it off. If it is in a ceiling void, close it off.

The supervisor should be made aware of the situation immediately so they can start looking into getting it sorted.

You need to identify whether the material is asbestos and this should be done by a suitable and competent surveyor who can collect a sample of the material. Most surveying companies will help you out in an emergency so that they can quickly collect a sample, analyse it and then report on their findings.

Once it has been identified, you need to consider what you are going to do next. If it’s not asbestos, you can continue with the works. If it asbestos, you should seek advice from a competent person, to see what you need to do with the asbestos. This could range from having it removed, working around it or remedial works depending on the condition of the material.

What do you do with damaged asbestos?

Next, we’ll look at what you should do if you damage asbestos or come across asbestos that has been damaged. This can happen in so many ways. Perhaps, burglars have broken in and damaged the asbestos or someone has put up scaffolding and damaged a wall? In the worst case scenario, you put your hammer through something or drill through something – that is everyone’s worst nightmare.

If you have accidentally drilled or broken asbestos materials, you need to stop work immediately! You must minimise the exposure to everyone in the area.

Don’t take your tools with you. Don’t start trying to clean up – this is the worst thing you can do. Just sound the alarm to let other trades or occupants know and evacuate immediately.

You need to isolate the area as much as possible. If it’s in a designated room, close the door. Close the windows and turn off any ventilation equipment. We need to reduce air movement within the area because when asbestos is disturbed it releases fibres. These fibres are so small they become airborne – we need to do is try to stop them from being blown around the room if we can.

Knowing these key emergency procedures is vital. They will keep you safe and minimise the risk of being exposed to significant asbestos fibre in those situations.

We’re a professional asbestos consultancy helping businesses deal with asbestos compliance using asbestos surveysasbestos testing, and asbestos removal. Please call one of the team, or use the online form to obtain your free quotation. If you would like further information or advice on asbestos and asbestos training, contact the team on 0844 818 0895 or email info@acorn-as.com

Neil Munro

I work in a dual role at Acorn Analytical Services focused primarily on growing and leading the business from our Northampton office base. My focus is on overseeing all sales, marketing and financial activities from Northampton. I assist clients with high-level asbestos management strategies and training. Together with Ian Stone I host our weekly podcast – Asbestos Knowledge Empire and I'm Co-author of Asbestos The Dark Arts and Fear and Loathing of Health and Safety.

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