Asbestos is a white fibrous material used in the floors and roofs of buildings and houses. The health risks of the material were only discovered recently around the turn of the century, after which the material was not used to build new houses.
It was officially banned in 1999 after the discovery of serious health risks to employees handling it, as well as people in their homes. If a member of staff has a long exposure to these dangerous fibres and breathes them in often, it can lead to long-term health conditions such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and other forms of cancer including lung and stomach. These often don’t have many options for treatment and are a very serious threat to life.
This means that employers and organisations have a legal duty to members of staff to carry out risk assessments and design effective health and safety legislation to secure the well-being of all companies. Organisations may be liable under UK laws, including the 2006 Control of Asbestos Regulations Act.
Is Asbestos Safe when Undisturbed?
Asbestos material is absolutely safe when it is untouched and undamaged, and it is used as an effective insulator. It often takes the form of a solid whitish sheet, however it is often mixed with other materials and substances inside office buildings or homes, meaning it is quite hard to actually detect. Different types and states of the material are more dangerous and have different likelihoods of fibres being released. According to Bradley Environmental, types that have a high risk of fibre release include sprayed coatings, loose fibres found in fire doors and thermal insulation boards, but they are completely safe if they are untouched.
However, when the material is disturbed with, it can release small fibres which can be deadly later in life if they are inhaled. This can happen if it is drilled, cut, or hammered into. The white fibres may make their way into the lungs, scratching and causing permanent damage to them. These are so small that they are very hard to spot and can easily pass through a dust mask. Inhalation of fibres increases the likelihood of contracting mesothelioma, as they can stick to the outer surface of the lung causing shortness of breath and other symptoms. This causes irreparable damage, meaning options for treatment are very slim.
Of course, the longer you are exposed to fibres, the more likely you are to cause damage and contract a serious disease. Most occupations do not handle the material, so it poses an extremely low risk to health for office-based jobs. For those who work in practical jobs like builders, certain factors have to be considered. These include the age of an employee and whether they smoke.
Smokers have an increased susceptibility to mesothelioma of around 50-80% according to Framework Convention Alliance, as smoking weakens lung tissue meaning fibres can be more easily trapped in the organ. Furthermore, increased mucus from smoking means the body is unable to effectively clean the lungs of any foreign objects. Younger workers are less susceptible to the aforementioned serious diseases, as they can take decades to even notice. This means that diseases are most likely to crop-up in people of age 60 and above.
If an organisation has an office with asbestos inside, it might be worth trying to remove the material to avoid any future and potential problems. It is highly advisable to hire an external party to carry this out, as they have the necessary protective equipment to avoid inhaling any fibres. Official Health and Safety Executive (H&SE) statistics show that 11% of all mesothelioma deaths between 2002-2015 occurred of people who worked in school jobs, as well as 2% of salespeople. This means that although there is a low risk to members of staff that work in offices or school buildings, it can still affect people in a variety of occupations.