If you’re an adult in the UK, you know about asbestos. You know it’s dangerous and shouldn’t be used anymore.
But despite being banned for use in construction for over two decades, asbestos is still a threat. Around 1.5 million buildings in the UK are thought to contain asbestos, putting thousands of people at risk of exposure daily.
Asbestos removal or management must be a priority if you’re a building owner or responsible for property maintenance.
In this guide, we’ll explain how to test for asbestos in your premises, including the information that’ll help you keep yourself and others safe while checking your property.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that’s both heat resistant and an electrical insulator. Its versatility meant that asbestos was used widely in construction before its ban in 1999.
Asbestos and asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were used in a variety of products, including:
- Roof tiles
- Heating systems
- Air conditioners
- Water pipes
There are two sub-groups of asbestos: serpentine and amphiboles. Serpentine asbestos is coloured white and made up of soft, flexible fibres.
Amphibole asbestos is usually brown and has more brittle, needle-like fibres, making it more hazardous than its white counterpart. Thankfully, if asbestos is present in your building, it will likely be the serpentine (white) type.
What are the Risks of Exposure?
Although one form of asbestos is more hazardous, exposure to any type is dangerous.
All forms of asbestos have dense, tightly packed fibres. When you damage or disturb asbestos, these fibres are released into the atmosphere. If you inhale them, they can cause significant harm.
Inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis (a respiratory disease) or, in some cases, cancer. These conditions can take decades to develop and are often the result of repeated exposure to asbestos over long periods, which reflects in the data available on asbestos fatalities.
Around 5,000 workers die from asbestos-related illnesses every year. And most victims are older construction workers who either worked with asbestos for years before its outright ban or were in lines of work such as demolition, where they were more likely to contact asbestos regularly.
But no one can ignore the threat of asbestos in their building or workplace. Any amount of exposure can be harmful. And due to the microscopic size of the fibres, you’d be unlikely to notice the harm they’re causing your lungs until it’s too late.
Who’s Responsible for Asbestos Testing?
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states that anyone responsible for maintaining or repairing premises must check for asbestos. It only applies to those who maintain non-domestic properties or the common spaces of domestic properties.
It can be more straightforward (and safer) to hire a professional surveyor to inspect your building for asbestos. Still, there are some checks you can do yourself.
Checks You Can Do Yourself
Following the HSE’s guidance, you can safely start checking for asbestos immediately without professional help. And it often makes more sense to do as much research as possible before approaching any asbestos professional.
Check the Year of Construction
If you can confirm that your building was constructed in or after 2000, it shouldn’t contain asbestos.
Although asbestos was banned in 1999, it’s safer to consider 2000 as the actual cut-off point for asbestos use.
You can’t use this same rule of thumb for refurbishments, however. Any works after the year 2000 might have either left existing asbestos in place or overlooked it.
There is also additional HSE guidance for properties built on brownfield sites. If this applies to you, you must read the guidance.
Check for Existing Information
Before inspecting your building, you should find as much information about previous asbestos checks as possible.
Check copies of any building plans or records available to you. They won’t necessarily list if asbestos is present but might indicate where you should look. The HSE also suggests using building plans to help record your findings.
On top of building plans, you should also check with previous duty holders or those involved in construction to see if they have any information regarding asbestos, including:
- Previous building owners
- The facilities management company (if you have one)
- Maintenance workers
- Relevant equipment suppliers
- The architect, designer or building company
This information could prove helpful but it’s not essential. You can continue your checks without any of the records listed above.
Inspect Your Building
The HSE recommends that duty holders for larger premises enlist professional surveyors to inspect for asbestos. It is not a statutory requirement, however. Provided you follow the relevant guidance, you should be able to check your building safely.
The HSE recommends you:
- Ask someone to help with the inspection (two pairs of eyes are more effective than one)
- Never disturb any materials you suspect to be asbestos or contain asbestos
- Always assume it’s asbestos if you’re unsure
- Never attempt to remove asbestos yourself
The HSE has also produced a checklist to give you an idea of the likely places asbestos will be found.
Your inspection should result in an asbestos register – a document highlighting where asbestos is confirmed (or suspected) on your premises.
Use an Asbestos Testing Kit
Suppose you find asbestos or suspected ACMs during your survey. In that case, asbestos testing kits are available that anyone can use to confirm the presence of asbestos.
Asbestos testing kits do vary depending on where you purchase them from. Still, they should give you the equipment to safely take a sample of the suspected ACM and then send it to a lab for analysis. This is usually more affordable than arranging for a professional survey and sometimes quicker, depending on the lab turnaround time.
If you use an asbestos testing kit, you must know how to test safely. Read our previous blog covering the safe use of asbestos testing kits here.
What to Do if You Find Asbestos
First, don’t panic. It’s vital to assess the state of the asbestos. Generally, asbestos in good condition is not an immediate concern as it’s unlikely to be hazardous. The HSE recommends you score asbestos based on its condition. This scoring system will help you prioritise your next steps and determine if you need expert help.
Whatever you do, do not attempt to remove the asbestos or start any other work. Put all the information in the asbestos register and consider your next steps. We offer a training course for duty holders to help them understand and plan their actions.
You may need to involve professional surveyors who can test for asbestos. This may make it necessary to have trained and accredited workers to sample materials and perform asbestos analysis. They will also know how negative samples are tested. Independent bodies such as the UK Asbestos Training Association (UKATA) can help you find a competent surveyor.
An asbestos surveyor should be able to determine the location and type of asbestos present in your building. And asbestos analysis can only be done conclusively in a lab.
Be warned, asbestos tests and sampling can release fibres, putting anyone in proximity at risk. Anyone testing asbestos must be sufficiently trained and competent to do so. It’s up to the duty holder to decide if the person performing the asbestos tests reaches this threshold.
There’s no standard qualification for asbestos surveying or sampling but independent bodies, such as UKATA or UKAS, maintain registers of accredited asbestos surveyors and labs capable of asbestos analysis. Accreditation is not a legal requirement but can help you decide who to enlist when seeking expert support.
How to Make Checks Easier
It’s a lot harder to find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Awareness of asbestos and where it usually appears will help you fulfil your duties in managing it. It can also help anyone who might come into contact with ACMs to understand and control the risks.
Our online Asbestos Awareness training course helps employees of any level to recognise asbestos and learn how to work with it safely. Fully accredited by the UKATA, trainees will develop the skills and knowledge to support inspections and minimise the ongoing risks of asbestos at work.