Asbestos in Construction

Asbestos in Construction

Fast facts:

  • Asbestos can be found in any building built before 2000 including houses, offices, schools, factories and hospitals.¹
  • Asbestos kills almost 5,000 people every year, more than the number killed on the road.¹
  • Around 20 people die every week as a result of past exposure.¹
  • Those who smoke have a much higher risk of developing lung cancer from asbestos fibres.
  • Only 15% of workers know asbestos can still be found in buildings built up to 2000. ³
  • 27% of workers mistakenly believe that opening a window will help to keep them safe from the dangers of asbestos.³

Keeping asbestos top of mind

Asbestos is not just a problem of the past. It can be present today in any building built or refurbished before 2000 and the symptoms can take up to 60 years to develop. Asbestos fibres are invisible, which make it a particularly difficult hazard to manage.

Exposure to asbestos can cause a range of diseases, including asbestosis or fibrosis of the lungs, lung cancer and mesothelioma. These diseases are irreversible, disabling and in most cases fatal.

The challenges for Health and Safety professionals

During a nationwide campaign in October 2013, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) visited 2,607 sites where refurbishment or repair work was taking place. Inspectors found basic safety standards were not being met on 1,105 sites.  On 644 sites, practices were so poor (including asbestos-related problems) that enforcement action was necessary to protect workers – with 539 prohibition notices served ordering dangerous activities to stop immediately.² 

Assessing the risk

Before starting any work that is likely to disturb asbestos, a risk assessment must be prepared. This will establish the risk, who could be affected and how to eliminate or reduce the risk. You need to be particularly careful if you are working on an unfamiliar site and also if you have limited experience of working with asbestos.

The risk assessment should include details of the work to be done and how long it is expected to take. It should also include details of the type and amount of asbestos and the expected level of exposure, along with the proposed controls such as ventilation, controlled wetting or use of Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE).

Selecting appropriate RPE

HSE requires you to provide RPE that is adequate and suitable to protect the worker from any risk involved. This will take into account the type of work being carried out any any specific wearer requirements, such as other PPE or a need for spectacles.³ If wearing tight-fitting respirators (disposable and reusable half and full face masks), it is vital that workers are fit tested to make sure their RPE fits them properly before they start using it on an actual shift.

Most high risk work with asbestos must only be done by a licensed contractor. Licensable work includes situations where worker exposure to asbestos is not sporadic or of low intensity and where it cannot clearly be demonstrated that the asbestos control limit will not be exceeded. ⁴

Asbestos training

It is the employers’ legal responsibility to provide information and training to staff who are likely to be exposed to asbestos as part of their work. This includes awareness training for both licensable and non-licensable asbestos work.

HSE guidance says that refresher training should be given every year. This doesn’t need to be a full training course and can be included as part of other health and safety updates.

Download the ‘Beware Asbestos’ web app

A recent survey commissioned by HSE has identified that workers could come into contact with deadly asbestos on average more than 100 times a year. A worrying number did not know when they may actually face the danger, as only 15 per cent of those surveyed knew asbestos could still be found in buildings built up to the year 2000.

The survey also revealed some common myths believed by those at risk, with 14% mistakenly believing that drinking a glass of water will help protect them from the deadly dust and 27% thinking that opening a window will help to keep them safe.⁵

As a result, the HSE has launched a new, free Beware Asbestos web app (available at to help workers easily identify where they could come into contact with this deadly hazard as they go about their day-to-day work. The app also directs the user to HSE’s latest asbestos guidelines at

Alternatively, if you’d like to know more about the hazards of asbestos and how best to deal with them, call the 3M helpline on 0870 60 800 60 for an expert opinion.





⁵ Survey of 500 tradespeople in Great Britain carried out by Censuswide in Sept 2014

5 thoughts on “Asbestos in Construction”

  1. Interesting article–I didn’t realize that symptoms could take up to 60 years to develop. There’s really no excuse to forget about asbestos testing if you’re going to be undertaking a problem where it’s a risk. It’s an easy method of risk management that can prevent a lot of health issues in the future. That seems like something everyone should want.

  2. I don’t know very much about asbestos, but I’ve heard that it can be a real health hazard. It’s interesting that there is now a web app to help workers who may come in contact with the material. This must be a great tool for increasing safety.

  3. I worked within the steel industry for 20 years from 1970 to 1990. When I first worked in the industry health and safety was none existent, I was 18 when I started working with Asbestos regularly covered with Asbestos dust when handling Asbestos covered cables and when making up such cables, all our contactor arc shields were made of Asbestos which we scraped and cleaned daily, I worked in this atmosphere for 7 years and left for another department and again British Steel ignored the exposure to Asbestos even after the scares in the early 80’s promising us no more asbestos then in the mid 80’s the equipment turned up with labels “Asbestos” British Steel and GKN did not give a damn.

  4. I think that the idea of a risk assessment is really awesome when you plan to renovate. Not only does it give you a plan on dealing with asbestos, but I am sure that it would also make the renovation itself a lot more organized. It could help you determine how you’re going to tackle the project logically as well, so that you aren’t faced with an overwhelming amount of unexpected problems!

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