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There’s a serious killer under your feet!

ABESTOS causes 4000 deaths each year, according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Many of these are current or former floorlayers. And, overall, the numbers of lives taken by this lethal product are increasing.

These figures alone should act as a stark wake-up call to anyone who doesn’t take the dangers of asbestos seriously.

As asbestos was such a popular building material in the UK from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, and asbestos cement products were still in use until 1999, it can be found in any building built or refurbished before 2000.

Tradesmen working on sites predating the millennium are likely to encounter this lethal material in pretty much every nook and cranny, with the more obvious areas including under flooring, wall cladding, textured coatings, insulation board, or loose fibres in a loft.

The less obvious places include floor tiles hidden under carpets, cement flues around boilers, textiles found in fuse boxes and also lagging, amongst others.

Flooring contractors are more likely to encounter loose fill asbestos, which was used to insulate industrial and domestic premises so is prominent under floorboards. This is a loose, fluffy insulation material, which the HSE describes as being similar to candyfloss.

Unfortunately loose fill asbestos is regarded as the most dangerous, as it is made up of pure asbestos and if disturbed can release large amounts of fibres in to the air, where they can be breathed in.

Renowned for its exceptional fireproofing and insulation properties it’s easy to see why asbestos was so popular, both during the 20th Century and 3000 years earlier. Prevalent with the Ancient Greeks, who used it in the wicks in their lamps as it never burnt away, they valued its flame resistant properties and named it asbestos – translation; inextinguishable.

Asbestos was also woven into the clothes worn by slaves who soon recognised asbestos’ harmful effects when many suffered from sickness in the lungs.

Back to the 21st Century, asbestos is Britain’s biggest workplace killer and with 1.8m tradesmen in the UK it is vital they know the dangers they face when working with such a debilitating product.

Inhalation of asbestos fibres is the main cause for concern – as the material breaks down, the fibres split lengthways creating thinner fibrils of the same length. These sharp fibres become lodged in the lung tissue and can unfortunately never be removed.

Asbestos related diseases can take 15 – 60 years to develop and because of this some tradesmen think asbestos is a health risk of times past. This ignorance could be deadly.

All types of asbestos – Chrysotile (white), Amosite (brown) and Crocidolite (blue) – cause cancer and frighteningly, there are four main diseases caused by the toxic substance:

  • Asbestosis – scarring of lung tissue resulting in reduced lung capacity and an increased risk of lung cancer.
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma – cancerous cells form on the membrane covering internal organs and sadly those diagnosed have a life expectancy of just 6-24 months.
  • Pleural Plaques – fibres lodged in the lung tissue push through and scratch the inside of the pleural membrane causing inflammation and scarring.

Avoiding risk: Under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, both employers and employees have a legal duty to ensure the safety of themselves and colleagues whilst working on site. More specifically to asbestos, the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 dictates that major refurbishment works must not start without a type 3 (fully intrusive) survey to determine the presence of asbestos.

This type of survey is used to find and describe all asbestos containing materials (ACMs) and could mean pulling up floors to gain access to hard to reach areas, ultimately disturbing the asbestos.

It’s important for flooring contractors’ own safety to be aware that the type 3 survey is used only as a basis for tendering for the removal of ACMs prior to demolition or major refurbishment, and does not assess the condition of the asbestos. It is only intended to highlight the areas of damage or where additional asbestos debris may be hidden.

Failure to undertake the type 3 survey will result at best in a fine and at worse; the possibility of a charge of Corporate Manslaughter should an employee die as a result of negligence. If the survey reveals asbestos is present in the work area it should be carefully removed by a licensed contractor only.

For added peace of mind check the site’s asbestos registers – look at them or ask the supervisor where the asbestos is before starting work so that you can protect yourself accordingly.

If you’re working somewhere where asbestos may be discovered always wear disposable overalls and a disposable respirator mask with an FFP3 filter as a precaution.

It can’t be stressed enough how very dangerous asbestos is, so if you discover or disturb asbestos whilst on site stop work immediately! Prevent your colleagues accessing the area and report the discovery to your supervisor.

The contamination needs to be cleared away instantly and thoroughly in order to minimise the spread of contamination to other areas and flooring contractors. The HSE offers an Asbestos Essentials Sheet that gives clear directions on how to handle such an issue.

Education about the dangers of asbestos and the management of this deadly substance is essential. The Safety Group works closely with a variety of contractors, from smaller one- man bands right up to the larger multinationals, to educate them on every aspect of affective Health & Safety practices.

More specifically The Safety Group helps contractors understand the perils of asbestos and the steps they should, and are legally obliged, to take to protect themselves and others when working in an environment plagued by asbestos.

Prevention is the only step, as there is no cure for asbestos related diseases. Even when asbestos is only suspected on site, it’s dangers should never be ignored.
When starting on any job:

  • ensure you know your legal obligations; I assess the site; I pinpoint the dangers; I contain any contamination;
  • minimise risk; and
  • take all precautionary measures to keep you and your colleagues safe from the silent killer that is asbestos.

Further information from The Safety Group which offers a free consultation.

T: 0845 224 7013 I
email: Stuart Beaumont is co-director at The Safety Group

The Safety Group is a health, safety, employment law and risk management consultancy offering expert advice and guidance to businesses in the public and private sectors. It works with organisations, both large and small, to ensure compliance with complex legal requirements. Based in Altrincham and operating on a national level, it provides services to clients in sectors such as construction, housing, leisure, healthcare, property, engineering, manufacturing, transport, warehousing and private education.

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