The dangers of asbestos in the construction industry

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© Arjan van de Logt

JMW Solicitors, a law firm that represents individuals affected by asbestos-related illnesses, details the dangers of asbestos in the workplace and how to identify and remove it, including the most common places it can be found

Although asbestos was banned over 20 years ago, it is still the leading killer of construction workers in the country. Due to the nature of construction, workers in the industry are far more likely to be exposed to asbestos than anyone else, as buildings constructed before the year 2000 now account for a large percentage of planned and ongoing construction projects.

As workers spend long periods of time in poorly ventilated spaces, inhaling even small amounts of asbestos fibers is becoming a serious health problem. Cancer and lung scarring are just two examples of how this dangerous substance can destroy lives and lead to lengthy and expensive treatments – something the average construction worker is likely to struggle financially.

For this reason, it is important to be able to identify asbestos before it becomes dangerous – which in itself is a challenge.

What is asbestos?

Discovered in the 19th century, asbestos is a naturally occurring group of minerals made up of microscopic fibers and became popular in the UK in the 1950’s when its various uses misrepresented it as a miracle building material.

However, many years later, health problems such as respiratory and cancer were linked to buildings and products made from asbestos, and it was discovered that the tiny fibers could be inhaled if disturbed, causing fatal diseases over a long period of time.

Once considered a ‘miracle material’, used for its affordability and strength, it has caused myriad problems since its introduction and the UK government branded its use illegal in 1999 and sought to phase it out entirely, condemning its discovery and its Urgent subsequent removal promoted.

The dangers of asbestos

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports that there are currently over 5,000 deaths a year from health problems directly caused by or related to asbestos – double the number from traffic accidents.

As if asbestos wasn’t difficult enough to detect due to its tiny fibers, the symptoms of asbestos exposure often take 30, 40 or even 60 years to become apparent

Years after I came into contact with it. While veteran construction workers find it easy to link these diagnosed symptoms to a point in their past, short-term workers may find it much more difficult, leading to problems with proper diagnosis and treatment.

Crocidolite (blue), considered the deadliest variety, has caused one in five asbestos miners to develop breast cancer (mesothelioma). In addition, the HSE estimates that over 50% of UK households still contain asbestos.

It is imperative to check for sources of asbestos before beginning construction.

How to identify asbestos

Asbestos is used in many building projects due to its low cost and effectiveness, takes a variety of forms, can be found in everything from boats to school buildings, and has been used in the form of standard wall and ceiling insulation and even spray coating.

Despite their different appearances, the types of asbestos are widely considered irrelevant as each of them is extremely dangerous and should be avoided. The most common types – chrysotile (white) and amosite (brown) – have both been linked to cancer.

While some sources of asbestos can be seen visually in large blocks of insulation, in other forms, such as B. on floor tiles, much more difficult to detect. Whether asbestos is actually present can only be proven in such cases by tests in specialist laboratories.

In most cases, you should never attempt to move asbestos without the help of a professional. In rare cases where the source of asbestos is small or in a more permanent form (not friable), construction workers could attempt to test it themselves, but only if it poses no risk and appropriate safety measures are in place, such as B. Proper wearing masks and suits, such as those mentioned above, which prevent fibers from snagging on clothing. Before attempting this, consult a specialist for advice.

The asbestos must first be moistened, which causes the fibers to stick together and not become airborne. The sample must then be carefully placed in a self-sealing plastic bag (preferably polyethylene), placed in a second bag and then clearly labelled. This is done to prevent improper disposal, which is a problem as the asbestos is then effectively “released back into the wild”; the danger will simply have been shifted from one place to another.

Before attempting to move asbestos yourself, please be sure to consult an expert, as even the slightest misdiagnosis of the situation can result in deadly fibers being released into the air and therefore into your system.

Asbestos can be found:

  • Most common in roofs and attics in the form of bulk insulation, in cement roofs/slabs and around cement water tanks as it was very useful for its warming and reinforcing properties.
  • On the outside of roofs in soffits, concrete gutters and downspouts.
  • In boiler systems, air conditioning and ventilation systems, which are particularly dangerous due to their frequent duty of inspection.
  • On walls, ceilings, beams and columns as textured, decorative coatings and sprays. These are the most dangerous forms of asbestos as they can be destroyed very easily.
  • In fire doors as insulating panels and any work undertaken to remove these should be reported to HSE.
  • In certain partition walls made of asbestos insulating board (AIB).
  • In toilet cisterns and seats, window sills and bathtub panels in the form of composite materials.
  • On boilers and pipes as a covering, insulation, rope seals, gaskets and paper.
  • In fuse boxes, old fire blankets and gloves can be made from asbestos textiles as their components.
  • Asbestos was used under carpets and in vinyl floor tiles, which were particularly popular at the time.

If you work around asbestos and have already notified your employer or the relevant authorities, you should wear proactive equipment, such as a mask. B. Effective face masks and suits that prevent fibers from getting on your clothes, skin and hair. You should also make sure you clean up any mess caused by the construction. This should be done in a well-ventilated area and very thoroughly to avoid further problems and hazards.

Washing before breaks and leaving work at the end of the day is essential to stop the spread of asbestos fibers and this should be done in special portable quarantine showers.

If you are an employer, it is your responsibility to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and train yourself and your employees to understand and use asbestos.

How to remove asbestos

Once asbestos has been identified, you should consult and engage a professional asbestos remediation specialist. They have the equipment needed to safely remove the hazardous materials and can advise you on actions you can take in the current situation and in the future.

Asbestos professionals wear PPE and respirators which are destroyed after use to prevent the dry asbestos fibers from being carried out of the contaminated zone.

Due to the nature of asbestos, once it is removed, significant work may need to be done to repair the areas where it was previously installed. Your business will need to source replacement insulation and repair damaged structures that may have been expanded to aid in the removal process.

Asbestos removal can be expensive and time-consuming, so you should conduct a thorough inspection of any building you plan to complete before signing leases or making any concrete plans. And it goes without saying, but don’t try to save money by using asbestos as insulation in your new buildings because even if you could get it, it’s illegal and will cause you more problems than it solves.

After the asbestos removal, contact your municipal administration, which will take care of the disposal. You should never put asbestos in a container or bin, and while it’s technically legal, you should avoid taking it to a landfill as it could still be dangerous.

JMW Solicitors understands that identifying asbestos and managing its effects can be challenging. Our Asbestos guide shows exactly where to expect it in a detailed infographic.

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