Asbestos guidance

The purpose of guidance is to provide information about the introduction of a new duty to manage asbestos in non-domestic premises, in order to help you to comply. The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 has been in force since August 2002, and Regulation 4 concerns the new duty to manage asbestos. There has been an eighteen-month lead in period relating to this Regulation, and by May 2004, all duty holders will need to comply.

So what is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral that is mined, and there are several types. It is fire resistant, stronger than steel, resilient and insoluble. These properties make it very useful to us, particularly as fire protection and insulation in buildings. But it can be deadly. The three best-known and most widely used types of asbestos are:

  • Chrysotile or white asbestos
  • Amosite or brown asbestos
  • Crocidolite or blue asbestos

Why is asbestos harmful?

Asbestos fibres are very narrow and are therefore easily breathed in. They do not dissolve and will remain in the lung for a very long time, perhaps indefinitely. All asbestos types are hazardous but some are more hazardous than others. Brown and blue asbestos have strong stiff fibres. They become easily lodged in the lungs, and our immune systems are unable to break them down. White asbestos has a different structure. This makes it softer and more flexible, making it less hazardous. It is rapidly cleared from the lungs but prolonged exposure does cause lung cancer and other conditions. Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause several conditions, but the three most well known and most problematic are asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Asbestosis is a disease of the lungs caused by relatively heavy and regular exposure. It is incurable and can result in death at an early age. It causes scarring of the spongy lung tissue, which restricts lung function, resulting in increasing shortness of breath and a dry cough. Asbestosis also increases the risk of lung cancer.

Lung cancer is most commonly known to be caused by tobacco smoke but can also be caused by asbestos. Smoking multiplies the risk of lung cancer to asbestosis sufferers. For example, someone who smokes 20 cigarettes a day is 15 times more likely to suffer from lung cancer than a non-smoker is. If the smoker also works with asbestos, this risk is tripled to 75 times more likely to suffer lung cancer than a non-smoking, non-asbestos worker.

Mesothelioma can be caused by all kinds of asbestos dust, but particularly blue asbestos. It is a cancer of the lining of the lung, or much less commonly the lining of the abdominal cavity, or of the heart. There is a high instance of this disease in asbestos workers, and a much smaller dose is required due to the fibre structure. It may also affect those who washed dust-laden clothing, or who lived close to an asbestos factory. It is incurable and causes a great deal of pain and suffering, with those affected dying approximately 2 years from diagnosis. There is a long latent period of around 20 to 40 years between exposure and development of the disease, hence the reason that new cases are still coming to light. The annual total number of mesothelioma deaths in Great Britain is estimated to peak at around 2500 deaths, some time between the years 2011 and 2015.

Why is it still a problem?

Asbestos was used extensively as a building material in Great Britain from 1950 to the mid 1980s, and continued to be used until 1999. Although some asbestos has been removed, it is likely that many thousands of tonnes are still present within buildings. It is estimated that over half a million non-domestic premises currently have some form of asbestos in them.

Where do you find it?

Asbestos containing materials can probably be found in any building constructed before the year 2000, such as shops, factories, offices, farms, hospitals, and in domestic premises

Why are people at risk?

Since asbestos is not dangerous unless fibres are released into the air, any asbestos present in buildings will pose no harm if it is in good condition, and can be left in place if it is unlikely to be disturbed. Therefore, we can stop the possibility of ill health by reducing the exposure of people to airborne respirable asbestos fibres.
However, any activity that causes fibres to be released will cause problems, for example cutting, using machinery, removal of asbestos, drilling or sawing, repair or replacement of ceiling tiles or unintentional damage. Often, the people carrying out these activities are unknowingly being exposed to asbestos. Previous legislation did not cover these people.

What has been done already?

Amendments were made to some existing asbestos legislation in an attempt to cover these people. However, a piece of the jigsaw was missing in that contractors could still be unaware that they were working on materials containing asbestos, and no one was managing the risk from asbestos in premises.

The new duty to manage asbestos.

The new duty has been introduced as a new regulation in the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002. It requires the duty holder to carry out and record an assessment to see if asbestos is, or is likely to be, present in the premises. If asbestos is shown to be, or likely to be, present, then the duty holder must determine the risk from the asbestos, and then take appropriate action to manage the risk. Compliance with the new duty is expected to result in 4700 fewer fatalities this century.

Who will have the duty?

Anyone with a contractual obligation in relation to maintenance and/or repair of premises, such as owners, occupiers, and managing agents will have the duty. Or, the person who is in control of the premises where no contract or tenancy agreement exists. In some cases, there may be joint control, and therefore, duties, assessments, information and costs etc. can be shared. Everyone must cooperate with duty holders to enable them to comply.

Where does the duty apply?

The duty applies to all non-domestic premises, and to the common parts of domestic premises, such as stairwells, but not the domestic premises themselves.

Assessing whether premises contain asbestos.

Duty holders need to take all reasonable steps to identify asbestos-containing materials, for example, by looking at building plans, consulting others for assistance, e.g. architects, or employees, and carrying out a thorough inspection of the premises.
The condition of the materials that have been found needs to be assessed, and the findings recorded. Duty holders can carry out the assessment themselves if they are competent, or they can arrange for a specialist surveyor to carry it out.

Identifying asbestos.

Duty holders should presume any unknown suspect material is asbestos, unless there is strong evidence that it is not. Or they can establish the material’s identity by sampling, or a combination of these.

Assessing the risk: Decisions.

If the asbestos is in good condition, and in a location where it is unlikely to be easily damaged, it can be left in place, and a management system introduced to protect contractors etc. If the asbestos is in poor condition, then it must be sealed, enclosed or removed. You should be aware that any damaged asbestos is likely to release fibres into the air, and therefore action must be taken to protect people in the premises. In addition, a licensed asbestos contractor must be employed to remove some forms of asbestos material.

Assessing the risk: Action.

Duty holders will then need to prepare and implement a detailed written plan on how to manage the risk. If materials are to remain in premises, make sure information of the location and condition is given to relevant people, e.g. contractors, and carry out regular checks on its condition. The plan must be reviewed and revised regularly.

What are the consequences of poor management?

  • Asbestos is very useful but also harmful if fibres are released.
  • 3000 people die each year from asbestos related diseases and 25% of these have worked in building trades.
  • A bad survey is potentially worse than no survey at all.
  • Enforcement action will be considered.

How are the regulations going to be implemented?

Compliance with the Regulations will be assessed and enforced by the relevant enforcement authority for your premises, that is, Environmental Health or the Health and Safety Executive.


To summarise

  • The duty is as a result of new regulations in August 2002
  • There has been an 18-month lead-in period for duty holders to comply.
  • Start now.
  • Don’t panic.
  • Health and Safety Executive is producing guidance.
  • And the aim is to reduce ill health in maintenance workers.