The answer is not always straightforward. Today, there are clear guidelines set out by the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, which limit exposure time according to a measured level of asbestos fibre dust present in the air, even when wearing the correct masks and protective clothing. Medical research has also found that some individuals have inherited genes with a potentially greater risk of mesothelioma cancer developing.
Regularly handled asbestos materials
The majority of exposures, which were widespread across most of British industry from the 1940s to the 1970s – the peak years of asbestos use – occurred to men who frequently and regularly handled asbestos materials throughout most of their working lives. For most of the period, there was a lack of asbestos awareness and safety information on the long term fatal health risks among the hundreds of thousands of men working in asbestos-using industries, such as shipbuilding and building construction.
Direct occupational exposure has continued to be a primary cause of mesothelioma fatalities thirty years after the most harmful blue and brown asbestos types were banned, followed by white asbestos fifteen years later. Rarely does a week pass when there’s not a tragic story of mesothelioma caused by direct handling of asbestos insulation. In most cases, it may take 15 to 50 years or more before asbestosis symptoms first appear and the disease to be recognised and diagnosed.
A couple of exposures were enough
In one recent example, it was reported that an exposure to asbestos occurred in an isolated incident over just a couple of days – and was never to be repeated. Unfortunately, a couple of exposures were enough to eventually trigger the onset of the fatal incurable cancer more than forty years later.
The story concerns a ‘handyman’ employed at a hospital in the Midlands between 1970-71. Aged in his late 20s, the handyman spent one day removing and replacing old asbestos-based insulation padding from a boiler and pipes and then from a pump on the following day. As was common practice, new asbestos linings were made by mixing powdered asbestos with water by hand yet no dust masks, gloves or personal protective equipment were issued to safeguard the young man from breathing in the fibre dust.
Once the task was complete, the handyman walked along the hospital corridors making a close physical inspection of the asbestos-covered pipes to check for damage. Since that time, the handyman, now in his early 70s, is sure that he had no further occupational contact with asbestos at any other workplace.
The issue of a potential risk whenever asbestos is momentarily uncovered at a building under renovation, such as a school, housing estate, offices or factory unit continues to cause confusion and misunderstanding.
Dangers cannot be discounted or under-estimated
Undisturbed asbestos containing materials are unlikely to cause an immediate risk, unless it has been accidentally drilled or partially damaged. An asbestos survey should have been carried out prior to works proceeding if the repairs were taking place in a commercial, public or local authority property. Once discovered, all works must halt and the local authorities notified to arrange for an authorised asbestos contractor to seal the contaminated area.
The mixing of asbestos powder by hand is no longer practised in the constructions trades. While the potential health risk of a temporary exposure are today considered slight, nevertheless, the dangers cannot be discounted or under-estimated. The problem of unmanaged asbestos building materials in school premises and the periods of potential regular exposure still remains a major unresolved issue.