Asbestos in the Workplace
Asbestos is a hazardous material that is found in a wide range of products and materials. Its widespread use throughout the UK and the world causes more than 100,000 deaths per annum, and many more disabilities. There are a number of diseases attributed to the dangerous fibres, and most cases result from exposure to asbestos in the workplace.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a natural mineral that is mined from the earth. There are 6 classifications of asbestos; chrysotile (white asbestos), amosite (brown asbestos), crocidolite (blue asbestos), tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite.
Asbestos has a number of properties that made it a favourable additive to a range of different products. Asbestos has a high heat and chemical resistance, as well as being strong and durable. Asbestos can be found in more than 3,500 different products and materials.
In the UK, asbestos kills more than 5,000 people each year, and the worldwide total is more than 107,000. Most people who develop asbestos-related diseases have experienced occupational exposure from working in industries where asbestos was common in the workplace.
Today, asbestos and asbestos containing products have been banned in more than 50 countries, such as the UK and Australia. However, many countries continue to use the hazardous material, notably the US and Canada.
What does asbestos look like?
Most asbestos is often mixed with other materials, which makes it extremely difficult to identify from visual inspection alone. In almost all cases, laboratory testing is required to confirm whether a material contains asbestos.
Harmful asbestos fibres are normally microscopic, which allows them to easily become airborne and then ingested or inhaled. This puts those who work in certain industries at risk of exposure whilst carrying out their job.
For a photo gallery and descriptions of common asbestos containing materials, please visit our ‘what does asbestos look like?’ page.
Where is asbestos found?
Asbestos can be found in a wide range of products. It is commonly used in materials that require added strength or resistance to heat and chemicals. Some of the most common places asbestos is found include:
- Pipe Lagging
- Decorative Ceiling Textures (eg. Artex)
- Asbestos Cement Water Tanks
- Asbestos Insulation Board (AIB)
- Roofing Felt
- Loose Fill Insulation
Asbestos is a hazardous material, and is linked to a number of disabling and often fatal diseases. Many related diseases regularly take 20-50 years between exposure and symptoms developing, however the onset of disease can also occur more rapidly. The main asbestos related diseases include Mesothelioma, Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer, Asbestosis and Pleural Diseases.
Also known as asbestos cancer, mesothelioma has the highest mortality rates of all asbestos related diseases. In most cases, the prognosis is less than one year from the time of diagnosis. This disease is named after mesothelium, the lining where tumours develop. Tumours can develop and grow within the lungs, stomach, heart and testicles.
Common Symptoms: Dry cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, pain in the chest or abdomen, fever, pleural effusions, anaemia, muscle weakness
Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer
This is a cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fibres, which lodge into the lung tissue. The risk of asbestos-related lung cancer is increased in smokers, and in many cases, this cancer is fatal.
Common Symptoms: Fatigue, persistent cough, trouble breathing, ongoing chest pain, weight loss, regular lung infections, coughing up blood
This disease normally results from heavy exposure to asbestos, such as in the workplace. The asbestos fibres cause heavy scarring on the lungs. It causes considerable discomfort and difficulty breathing.
Common Symptoms: Difficulty swallowing, swelling in neck/face, high blood pressure, blood in sputum, crackled breathing, loss of weight, finger deformity
This occurs after exposure to asbestos, normally over a prolonged period. It causes difficulty breathing and discomfort, and results from asbestos fibres lodging into the lining of the lungs, known as the pleura.
Common Symptoms: Progressive shortness of breath, chest pains, tightness in chest, persistent cough, reduced chest wall movement
What occupations are most at risk?
There are a number of industries that have had a significant reliance on asbestos to improve the durability of their materials and products. As the effects of asbestos were often not known, exposure to the harmful fibres was common in many workplaces. As a result, safety procedures and protective equipment was often overlooked.
Below are some of the occupations most at risk of developing asbestos related disease:
Thousands of construction products and materials contained asbestos before being banned. In some countries, asbestos is still used in construction. As asbestos materials remain in many buildings, there is an ongoing risk for construction workers, who may be exposed to the dangerous fibres whilst working on older properties. Those most at risk are demolition crews and home improvement specialists.
Fire can damage asbestos containing materials, and release the microscopic fibres into the air. Asbestos was also commonly used in fire protection clothing and equipment used by firefighters, such as helmets, boots, overalls and gloves.
The industrial workers who are most at risk in the workplace include mechanics, foreman, labourers and machinery operators. These workers were exposed to a range of potentially harmful asbestos materials, ranging from gaskets and insulation to textiles and brake pads.
Power Plant Workers
Asbestos containing materials were common in power plants due to the high heat and chemical resistance they provided. They were used in fireproofing spray and pipe insulation, amongst many other products. Working on older pipes and materials still poses a threat for current employees at power plants.
A large number of shipyard workers have been exposed to asbestos in both military and private sectors. This industry has some of the highest rates of mesothelioma, as asbestos materials were used for a wide range of products, such as engine boiler room insulation.
In the earlier days of asbestos mining, there was little widespread knowledge of the dangers this mineral would have on our health. Mining asbestos was dangerous not only for those who worked in the industry, but also for nearby towns and the family members of miners, who experienced high levels of exposure due to airborne fibres.
Insulators primarily deal with the installation, repair, maintenance and removal of insulating materials and products. Asbestos was commonly used in insulated materials due to its ability to retain heat. Asbestos insulation can be found in a number of places, including attics, pipes, walls, and in a sprayed form.
Military & Armed Forces
Army veterans were exposed to asbestos in military bases and during service. Mesothelioma, and other asbestos related diseases, are common within many military roles. There is still an ongoing risk of exposure for those working in countries that still import and use asbestos in construction.
The veterans who are most at risk are navy personnel, as naval vessels contained substantial amounts of asbestos products and materials. Asbestos was widely used in the armed forces due to its heat resistance and fireproofing abilities. It was used in all types of military buildings, as well as machinery, including ships, tanks, jeeps and aircraft.
Some other occupations that have a moderate risk of asbestos exposure include:
- Plumbers – asbestos was regularly used for pipe lagging.
- Carpenters – asbestos can be found in a wide range of building materials.
- Electricians – Cable insulation was often made from asbestos containing materials.
- Railroad Workers – Many train and locomotive components were made with asbestos.
- Metal Workers – These workers were often exposed in both military and private roles.
- Cement Plant Workers – Asbestos was regularly added to concrete to add strength and durability.
Am I at risk of exposure?
Workers involved in trades and industries that deal with repairs, demolition, refurbishment and maintenance could be at risk of asbestos exposure at work. You are most at risk when:
- You are working on a building built before 1999
- ACMs were not identified before commencing work
- A risk assessment has not been conducted
- ACMs were identified, but the information was not passed on to you
- You are not familiar working with or identifying asbestos
- You do not follow correct procedures or don’t wear personal protective equipment
Is asbestos still a problem in the workplace?
Although asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1999, there are still hundreds-of-thousands of tonnes left in homes and commercial buildings throughout the nation. Exposure can still occur in the workplace, especially in industries that frequently work with older properties, such as demolition and construction workers, as well as plumbers, electricians, heating engineers, and many more.
There are now rules and regulations in place to protect employees from potential asbestos exposure. The ‘duty to manage asbestos’ is part of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, and sets out rules and responsibilities for the person who has the duty (building owner or managing person/organisation for repairs, demolition and maintenance). The rules include:
- Take reasonable steps to identify asbestos containing materials (ACMs)
- Presume suspected items contain asbestos, unless strong evidence proves they do not
- Create and update records (location, condition, amount, etc.) for ACMs and suspected ACMs
- Assess the risk of exposure to ACMs
- Create a detailed plan of how the ACMs will be managed
- Provide information on the condition and location of ACMs to anyone liable to work or disturb them
Where can you get help?
There are a number of places and organisations who provide help, advice and guidance for asbestos victims and families. Below are a few highly recommended resources and organisations that you may want to check out if you have experienced asbestos in the workplace:
If you, or a relative, have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace, there may compensation and help available. Different countries have differing rules and regulations regarding liability for exposure, so below we have highlighted some of the most frequently mentioned nations:
In the UK, there is a compensation scheme that sets the rate of compensation for asbestos victims at £123,000. This is available to victims who can’t trace a liable employer or employers’ liability insurer. If the liable employer (or their insurer) can be found, a case against them directly will be required.
United States of America
In the US, job-related cancer (such as mesothelioma) is one of the leading causes of occupational deaths. There are compensation schemes available, however these often result in modest amounts of financial compensation, and it is often recommended to use a qualified asbestos attorney.
In Australia, the Fatal Accidents Amendment Act of 2008 grants compensation to victims and surviving family members. Compensation is awarded for pain and suffering, loss of life expectancy, loss of income, medical expenses.
Asbestos Legal Advice
As every case is different, we have compiled a great list of asbestos legal professionals who can help you with legal matters. These experts will be able to provide the qualified advice and representation you require for asbestos related legal matters, including exposure, disease, death, disability and much more.