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Asbestos at work


Asbestos fibres are present in the general environment throughout Great Britain. People are generally exposed to very low levels of fibres. However, a key factor in the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease is the total number of fibres breathed in.

Working on or near damaged asbestos-containing materials or breathing in high levels of asbestos fibres, which may be many hundreds of times that of environmental levels, could increase your chances of getting an asbestos-related disease. When these fibres are inhaled they can cause serious diseases which are responsible for around 4,000 deaths a year. There are four main diseases caused by asbestos: mesothelioma (which is always fatal), lung cancer (almost always fatal), asbestosis (not always fatal, but it can be very debilitating) and diffuse pleural thickening (not fatal). Asbestos is a hidden killer.

Currently 20 tradesmen a week are dying from asbestos-related disease. If you carry out work on a building that was built or refurbished before the year 2000, you could have been exposed to asbestos without even knowing it. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 requires that businesses must be aware of their duties to manage asbestos in the workplace.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material and has been used for about 150 years on a large scale. It is versatile, plentiful and ideal as a fire-proofing and insulation material. But it can be deadly!

The three main types of asbestos that have been used commercially are:  

  • Crocidolite (blue)
  • Amosite (brown)
  • Chrysotile (white)

Important: All types of asbestos are dangerous, but blue and brown asbestos are known to be more dangerous than white. You will need a laboratory to properly identify the different types of asbestos. You can not tell the difference just by looking at them.

Asbestos fibres are dangerous if you inhale them (they are long and thin) as they can become lodged in the tissue of your chest and your body's natural defences may not be able to easily break them down. This can lead to lung diseases (mainly cancers), particularly if you are repeatedly exposed to these fibres over a number of years.

Important: Generally, asbestos is only a risk if you disturb or damage it causing fibres to be released into the air. If asbestos containing materials are in good condition and in a position where they are not going to be disturbed or damaged, then it is safer to leave them where they are and ensure that the risks are managed.

The carcinogenic risk from Chrysotile (white asbestos) has been evaluated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and it is considered to be a category 1 human carcinogen. IHS' view is that there is sufficient evidence that Chrysotile causes cancer in humans but that there is some uncertainty as to the scale of the risk. There are also very good practical reasons for adopting a precautionary approach. In particular, even though the content of many materials that contain asbestos is predominantly Chrysotile, such materials often contain small quantities of other types of asbestos impurities.

Exposure to asbestos can cause four main diseases:

  • Asbestosis: irreversible scarring of the lungs
  • Lung cancer: increased incidence, particularly if you smoke
  • Mesothelioma: cancer of the lining of the lungs or stomach
  • Diffuse pleural thickening: may restrict expansion of the lungs, leading to breathlessness

All of these diseases have no cure - mesothelioma and lung cancer are fatal diseases. Typically, there can be a 15-60 years gap between first exposure and diagnosis. For more information please see the HSE website.

All notifications for asbestos removal for notifiable and non notifiable licensed work need to be completed on line, please complete the correct application on the HSE website, by clicking on one of the links below. 

Asbestos Removal and Disposal H&S Asbestos guidance Health and Safety Executive HSE Asbestos for a tradesperson HSE Managing asbestos in buildings guidance