Who is at Risk of Asbestos Exposure?

who is at risk of asbestos

Any duty holder must know who is at risk of asbestos exposure on their premises. It’s an essential part of the legal duty to manage asbestos risks for all building owners, property managers and employers.

And it is all building owners, property managers and employers who have or suspect asbestos is present on their premises. Asbestos was used for decades before the consequences were fully understood. Now, it’s present in thousands of workplaces across the UK, including offices, schools and public buildings.

Our guide highlights who is most at risk of asbestos exposure and the laws in place to protect them. By understanding who is at risk, you can organise resources, training and control measures necessary to prevent exposure and comply with legislation.

Why is Asbestos Dangerous?

To identify who is at risk of asbestos exposure in your building, it’s necessary to understand what exposure involves.

Asbestos in good repair is generally safe to be around. It becomes hazardous when its fibres are released, which happens when the material is disturbed or damaged.

Asbestos fibres are microscopic, so can be unknowingly inhaled. Once inside the lungs, they become lodged in the soft tissues. Over time, this can lead to inflammation, scarring and irreversible genetic damage that can develop into fatal diseases like lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, a rare cancer almost exclusively linked to asbestos exposure. Most conditions are incurable, which is why fatalities are tragically common.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), asbestos exposure is the leading cause of work-related illness and death in the UK, claiming around 5,000 lives each year.

The majority of these fatalities are the result of past exposure when workers in construction and manufacturing regularly handled asbestos without protection before its ban in 1999.

However, there’s no minimum safe level of exposure. Any contact with asbestos can be harmful, and since asbestos-related diseases take a long time to develop, it can be years before the health effects are noticeable.

Asbestos Awareness Course

Our Asbestos Awareness course provides a thorough understanding of asbestos, its likely locations and associated dangers. It supports compliance with asbestos legislation and teaches participants how to stay safe around asbestos and what to do if they’re accidentally exposed.

Why is Asbestos so Widespread?

Asbestos doesn’t burn, doesn’t conduct heat and doesn’t conduct electricity. These qualities made it a highly sought-after construction material. For decades, asbestos was used in cement, roofing tiles, insulation and other fixtures.

However, the dangers of asbestos gradually became more widely recognised. In 1985, the UK made it illegal to use blue (crocidolite) and brown (amosite) asbestos because they’re highly likely to release fibres when handled. White (chrysotile) asbestos remained in use for another 14 years because it was considered less dangerous. It wasn’t until 1999 that all forms of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were fully banned.

Because of this delay, hundreds of thousands of properties across the UK contain asbestos. The HSE estimates that between 210,000 and 400,000 buildings may contain ACMs, a figure that might be below the actual number. A report by the think tank ResPublica suggests there could be asbestos in 1.5 million buildings in the UK.

Any building constructed or renovated before 2000 could contain ACMs. Consequently, building owners, property managers and employers have a legal duty to manage asbestos risks and protect occupants from exposure.

What Does the Law Say?

Asbestos is a recognised health hazard, so several pieces of legislation exist to prevent exposure in non-domestic premises.

Employers must comply with:

  • The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA): The HSWA requires all employers to safeguard the health and safety of their employees and anyone else impacted by their business activities.
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999: Building on the HSWA, these regulations require employers to conduct risk assessments to identify workplace hazards and establish control measures to eliminate or reduce risks to safe levels.

For the construction industry, where asbestos exposure risks are higher, you must also comply with the Construction and Design Management Regulations 2015 (CDM).

Under CDM, all construction projects must be planned and carried out safely, including demolition and renovation work. For work in buildings built or renovated before 1999, you must consider and plan for asbestos exposure risks.

Asbestos also has its own legislation, the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR).

CAR designates a “responsible person” who has specific duties to manage asbestos in non-domestic buildings, including:

  • Determining if asbestos is present on their property
  • Identifying who is at risk of asbestos exposure
  • Planning measures to manage and minimise exposure risks

This is only a summary of CAR duties. You can find more detailed advice on the HSE website.

Understanding Who is at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Anyone disturbing the fabric of a building could be exposed to asbestos without knowing. Generally, this means workers involved in construction, demolition and maintenance.

Although it’s not an exhaustive list, the most at-risk professions include:

  • Tradespeople
  • Small builders
  • Demolition workers
  • Maintenance personnel

These groups face heightened risks because their work is most likely to disturb ACMs, releasing harmful fibres into the air. Without adequate protection, these fibres can be inhaled.

Inexperienced or untrained workers are especially at risk, as asbestos can be hard to identify without the right knowledge or information. Similarly, if duty holders provide incomplete or inaccurate asbestos records, the chances of exposure rise significantly.

Even with forewarning, accidental exposure can still happen.

Without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), such as respirators or protective suits, workers can unknowingly inhale asbestos fibres or transfer them to their skin and clothing.

Workers can also make costly mistakes. Not following prescribed working practices can result in ACMs being disturbed or mishandled. Even with caution, workers can slip up. Overconfidence, lack of training, or miscommunication can lead to accidental exposure, particularly in environments with inadequate asbestos risk assessments or unreliable information about ACM locations.

understanding who can be exposed to asbestos

Other Industries

Although construction and maintenance workers are at the highest risk, asbestos can also threaten people in other industries. Asbestos was used in a range of different building materials and appliances, so any property built or renovated before the ban could contain ACMs.

Over time, ACMs can break down and release fibres without being disturbed. This gradual degradation makes older buildings with asbestos particularly hazardous, as occupants may be unaware that fibres are being released.

Workers not familiar with asbestos might also unknowingly disturb ACMs if they don’t know the material’s appearance or location. For instance, drilling a hole or hammering a nail could lead to asbestos exposure if ACMs are present.

In recent years, multiple fatal exposure incidents have been documented in schools, hospitals, and other public buildings. According to the Office of National Statistics, a little under 150 education and health professionals have been killed by asbestos-related cancers since 2017.

It’s likely the teachers, nurses, midwives and other public sector workers who died had little to no awareness of the asbestos risks present in their workplaces or protections against them.

other industries at risk of ACMs

What if I Suspect Asbestos in the Workplace?

Always assume asbestos is present until proven otherwise. To confirm its presence and assess its condition, arrange for a professional asbestos survey. This survey will identify the location of ACMs and check their state.

Whatever the condition of the asbestos, you’ll need to complete a risk assessment and write a management plan for preventing exposure.

Generally, asbestos that’s in a good state of repair and unlikely to be disturbed is considered safer. In these cases, it’s typically best to plan how you can prevent ACMs from being damaged and releasing fibres. Providing asbestos awareness training is necessary for this. It helps staff recognise asbestos, avoid contact and know what to do if they’re accidentally exposed.

If asbestos is found to be deteriorating, you’ll need to arrange for its removal or encapsulation. This type of work is highly hazardous and often requires a license. Refer to the HSE website for more information.

Key Takeaways

  • If you’re an employer or responsible for a non-domestic property, you have a duty to manage asbestos on your premises.
  • Part of your duties involves determining who is at risk of asbestos exposure and planning how to prevent it.
  • You can help prevent exposure by providing asbestos awareness training to all workers at risk.
  • Always assume asbestos is present in your property until you’ve confirmed it isn’t.

Asbestos Risk Assessment Training

If you’re responsible for a workplace or non-domestic property, you need to understand who is at risk of asbestos exposure and effective prevention strategies.

Our online Asbestos Risk Assessment Training course covers these points and explains the fundamentals of identifying and managing asbestos hazards.

In this course, you’ll learn the stages of an asbestos risk assessment. The training will also introduce various control measures to support you in implementing the necessary precautions. Lastly, it covers reviewing, updating and improving assessments to keep your safety measures compliant and relevant.

About the author(s)

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Jonathan Goby
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