It’s a sad and all-too familiar story. A former tradesman who directly handled asbestos materials during one period only in the early years of an entire working life is diagnosed with pleural plaques, an asbestosis disease, nearly forty years later.

The retired tradesman, who was employed at one building firm between 1968 and 1979, was exposed to asbestos when working on ladders, resurfacing asbestos gutters and soffits at face height. On other occasions, the tradesman was required to work in dust and debris-filled boiler rooms renovating pipes lagged with asbestos and also cut asbestos boards to size for use as insulation. The first time that the typical asbestosis symptoms of breathlessness emerged was in 2011.

An indication of exposure to asbestos

Around a half of all those who are exposed to asbestos will develop pleural plaques – a thickening of the inner surface of the lung linings (pleura). The presence of pleural plaques is non-cancerous or tumour forming but is almost always an indication of exposure to asbestos. However, typical symptoms are increasing difficulties with breathing and the condition can also be present in patients suffering with mesothelioma.

In the asbestos victim’s statement, it was recalled that at no time was he ever provided with any form of face mask or personal protective equipment (PPE). At the height of UK asbestos use from the 1950s to the 1970s, the lack of asbestos awareness by both employers and their workforce to the potential deadly health risks of breathing in the fibre dust was widespread across engineering, manufacturing and construction. Working in “clouds of asbestos dust” is a story that’s recounted by mesothelioma victims, time and time again.

Level of protection

Unfortunately, the confusion and misunderstanding over the potential risks and the prevention of exposure continue to this day, thirty years after the first asbestos ban in the UK. Much of the confusion is centred on the level of protection that is really required to prevent builders and demolition workers from breathing in the tiny fibre particles. As a result, there is still a failure or neglect to observe the most basic of safety rules.

Cases are repeatedly heard in court involving building renovations where workmen were issued with standard paper masks to wear while removing asbestos-containing materials. Despite all the efforts by the Health and Safety Executive and the professional building industry in their asbestos awareness campaigns and training programmes, firms still appear to not know the correct type of mask they should be wearing.

Designed to remove harmful substances

It is essential that a respirator (face mask) must be worn, which is designed to remove harmful substances by mechanical filtering, absorption, replacement of the atmosphere, or a combination of all three.

There are five types of respirator:

• Disposable
• Half mask
• Full face
• Powered air respirators
• Airline fed

Disposable masks and half masks cover the mouth and nose. Disposable masks are usually made of filtering material but some incorporate a one way valve designed to make breathing out easier. Half masks will be made of a non filtering material and have a cartridge fitted which may or may not be replaceable.

Asbestos safety masks

There are three suitable types of Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE), which conform to European Standards, according to HSE recommendations.

• Disposable respirator to standards EN149 (type FFP3)
• Half mask respirator (to standard EN140) with P3 filter.
• Semi disposable respirator (to EN405) with P3 filter.

FFP stands for Filtering Face Piece and the FFP 3 is the standard disposable mask approved for use against solid and liquid aerosols, and suitable for protection from high toxicity harmful materials in specified concentrations. This includes asbestos materials.

The FFP3 should be suitable for most short duration non-licensed work for the removal of asbestos. A size should be selected to correctly fit the contours of the face. The equipment is not suitable for people with beards or stubble, or for long periods of continuous use.