On the 23rd September, the British Lung Foundation (BLF) launched their latest campaign, ‘Take 5 and Stay Alive,’ aimed at raising asbestos awareness of the ever present health dangers that exposure to the mineral fibres can still present to the building and related trades industry.

The ‘Take 5 and Stay Alive,’ campaign focuses on the five most basic questions …  which need to be asked before any work begins on any premises built or refurbished up until the end of the 1990s:

 Do you suspect there’s asbestos on site?
 Can you be sure it’s asbestos?
3   What’s the level of risk and how do you handle it safely?
4   Have you had the right type of training?
5   Are you taking precautions to minimise the risks?

In 2012, a BLF survey revealed that two thirds of the UK population were unable to conclusively identify asbestos if they discovered the material in their home.

Lack of asbestos awareness

While a general lack of asbestos awareness is not unexpected, however, it is of grave concern to find that around a quarter of builders and related trade skill workers are unaware of when they have come into direct contact with asbestos, and just one in eight say they have a good working knowledge or qualifications in identifying and handling asbestos (The Great British Asbestos in Buildings Survey 2011)

Organisations such as the BLF, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and various building trade associations have continued their efforts to bring asbestos awareness and training to their workforce. However, still week after week, many firms find themselves in court for failing to observe the legal safety requirements and duties related to possible asbestos exposure, handling and disposal.

Despite the first ban of the most dangerous asbestos types in the mid 1980s, white chrysotile asbestos continued to be used in building materials, most commonly insulating board, ceiling panels, partitioning, roofing and tiles, and its import only stopped in 1999. It is estimated that four million properties, including around three quarters of all schools, still contain significant quantities of asbestos materials and more than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos in the UK.

Most at risk from exposure

Today, the most at-risk from exposure to asbestos building materials are those employed in the construction, demolition, building and related trade occupations, particularly plumbers, electricians, painters and decorators. According to HSE, an average of 20 tradesmen, of which 8 are joiners, 6 are electricians and 4 are plumbers – lose their lives to asbestosis diseases including, the fatal incurable mesothelioma cancer.

Trade workers still underestimate the deadly risk of exposure. White chrysotile is confirmed as a Class 1 carcinogenic substance and no level of exposure is safe. The fibre particles are unlike other dust contaminants and require special protective masks and clothing to prevent penetration by the invisible fibres.

Any handling of asbestos-containing materials is likely to cause a high volume of fibre release and will require a licensed contractor. HSE are regularly called to a site renovation where high risk materials, such as asbestos insulating board (AIB) is simply ripped out, broken into small pieces and deposited on a skip by a small building contractor without the correct equipment and safety procedures in place.

Always suspect asbestos

Any private property, commercial or public premises built or renovated up until the 1990s should always be suspected of containing asbestos materials and require an asbestos survey prior to undertaking any work to the fabric of the building. The level of risk is so high that any doubt should be sufficient to always halt work and undertake a laboratory analysis of material or air samples.

Communication between all contractors is vital at all times. In many cases, the court hears that essential information regarding the presence of asbestos has failed to be passed on to the relevant contractors by a property owner or duty holder.

Click here to read more vital information about the ‘Take 5 and Stay Alive,’ campaign.