The use of asbestos in buildings has been banned in the UK for just over two decades but unfortunately the answer to the question of whether it still poses a danger is a definite YES.

Asbestos is commonly found in buildings constructed before the ban and according to the Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (IOSH), around 5000 people die as a direct result of this harmful material each year, mostly due to cancers such as mesothelioma and heart failure.

For anyone working in construction, its vital to have a good understanding of what asbestos is, the dangers it poses to health and what to do if you come across the substance in the course of your work.

Let’s look at some of the detail.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a term used to refer to a group of naturally occurring minerals made of microscopic fibres. It’s a flexible substance that can absorb sound and is highly resistant to fire and heat. With such qualities, it’s not hard to see why asbestos was widely for insulation purposes throughout the 20th century.

While the health implications of working with or being exposed to asbestos became obvious a long time ago (the first documented death related to asbestos occurred in 1906), the substance continued to be used in the UK until, following a directive by the European Union, it was banned in 1999.

As a result, it’s thought that asbestos might be found in at least half a million buildings constructed before this time in the UK, meaning there is a significant risk of encountering it within both a commercial context (posing a risk to construction workers) and the domestic environment (a risk to all the DIYers).

The dangers

So, we know that there are buildings everywhere around us which probably contain asbestos but that doesn’t mean they all represent an immediate danger. Problems arise when asbestos-containing materials are disturbed (e.g. through demolition/ conversion of older buildings or DIY projects) and the fibres are released into the air.

When inhaled, asbestos fibres can have serious health implications, damaging and scarring the lungs. Over time that can result in life-changing and/or fatal illnesses like cancer and heart failure.

The risks of prolonged exposure cannot be overstated but another problem is that the effects of working with asbestos often do not show up until decades after the exposure. That’s why now, even 21 years after the ban, people who were exposed before the ban (usually through mining or construction work) are still being diagnosed and dying due to cancers like mesothelioma. For them, the ban was too late.

While pre-ban activity goes some way towards explaining why there are still high numbers of asbestos-related deaths, it’s not the only culprit.

In 2019, the Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, published some shocking statistics about companies that were failing to manage exposure to asbestos. Their report showed that since the start of the previous year, 135 companies/individuals had been ordered to cease work activities because of non-compliance with asbestos regulations; 130 had been warned they must improve; and a further 31 had been prosecuted for breaches.

What to do in construction?

Current UK law states that those who work with asbestos (i.e. during construction works) must be appropriately trained and, in many cases, only contractors who are licensed by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive are able to carry out the work. This ensures that the risks are properly assessed, that any asbestos-containing products are handled correctly and therefore that any dangers to health are avoided.

With such safety measures in place, planned work with asbestos can be well managed but what about situations where it is found unexpectedly? Well remember the problem with asbestos really occurs when it’s disturbed so the key to dealing with surprise encounters comes down to the level of awareness/ knowledge of the dangers among site workers.

The HSE says that anyone who may come into contact with asbestos through their course of work should have at least some basic understanding and awareness of the risk, even if they’re not licensed for most of the tasks associated with it. At Sheriff Construction, we recognise the importance of this and ensure our team members receive regular training in asbestos awareness.

With asbestos still lurking in so many buildings, it’s going to be a long time before the chances of coming across it during a construction or DIY project are entirely eliminated. But, given the right training, the chance of construction workers disturbing it by accident can be vastly reduced and therefore lives will be saved.


Feature image: KPG_Payless/