Asbestos: the key to breathing easy
25 January 2017
Of all the airborne hazards to be found in the workplace, asbestos remains one of the most insidious. With around 5000 people in the UK each year dying of asbestos-related illnesses (more than the number of people killed in Britain’s roads) the reputation of asbestos as the hidden killer remains intact and will do so until as many people as possible receive the correct training in how to identify and protect themselves and others.
At least half a million commercial properties in the UK alone contain some form of asbestos, so it is highly likely that workers will come into contact with the substance in some form. If asbestos is disturbed it is at this point that the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE) becomes a lifesaver.
PPE and RPE are essential for those working with, safe removal and disposal of asbestos, yet these tools should always be regarded as last line of defence and not a solution. Before commencing work, steps must already have been taken to avoid asbestos fibres being released in the work environment.
It is not possible here to provide more than an overview of the PPE and RPE required to comply with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. UK legislation dictates that employers must ensure all staff receive adequate information, instruction and training where an employee is liable to be exposed to asbestos.
If you could penetrate the fabric of a building as part of your work, you will need as a minimum, asbestos awareness training to identify asbestos in its various forms, however, asbestos awareness training does not train you to work with asbestos containing materials.
The UK Asbestos Training Association (UKATA) includes members who can offer training in awareness of asbestos and at higher levels, the correct and safe use of PPE and RPE.
No work on asbestos should be undertaken unless you have been properly and fully trained by a competent training provider. UKATA approved Licensable and non-licensable courses, will train you in the correct use of the equipment required to work with the substance safely. In all cases, risk assessments should be undertaken to determine in advance the level of training and protection likely to be required on any given project.
There are three categories of asbestos training. Asbestos awareness training should be taken by employees whose activities could foreseeably disturb the fabric of a building and expose them to asbestos or by those who supervise or influence such work. In particular, training should be given to those workers in the refurbishment, maintenance and allied trades where it is foreseeable that ACMs may become exposed during their work.
If you have no intention of working with asbestos but work on buildings built or refurbished before the year 2000, asbestos could be present, so you will need awareness training so you know how to avoid the risks.
Non-licensable work requires a higher level of training for those planning to carry out work that will disturb ACMs. This should take account of whether the work is non-licensed; notifiable non-licensed work (NNLW); or licensed work and should be job specific.
This will depend on the type of work you are going to do, the type of material you are going to work on and its condition. Identifying the type of asbestos-containing material (ACM) to be worked on and assessing its condition are important parts of your risk assessment, which needs to be completed before you start work.
Finally, there is the high level training required for those carrying out licensable work with asbestos. In all categories, workers should be taking responsibility for their own kit and may be able carry out simple maintenance (e.g. cleaning), but more intricate repairs should be carried out by a competent person.
As asbestos causes respiratory illnesses like mesothelioma, suitable RPE is essential and the use of a standard dust mask totally inadequate. Reports of untrained people ‘doubling up’ such dust masks, thinking this gives double protection, when in fact they afford no protection whatsoever from asbestos fibres are always worrying. When in asbestos environments, only a suitable respirator will suffice.
There are several types of RPE available and the one needed will very much depend on the task and the work involved. Disposable respirators, half mask respirators and semi disposable respirators may be fine for non-licenced work of short duration. EN149 is the basic disposable model. For anything requiring continuous use, powered non disposable RPE equipment is a must, but situations requiring such a powered respirator are likely to involve licenced work, so only fully trained specialists should be involved.
Under no circumstances should anyone attempt to take on work untrained and fit testing to ensure RPE fits correctly must be arranged prior to work being undertaken. Recent cases where prosecutions have been brought involved buildings found to contain friable asbestos in insulation, spray coatings and insulating board - removed by innocent trades’ people through ignorance and lack of understanding.
Anyone using RPE and PPE must be fully trained in its proper use, as it is all too easy to make mistakes when using the equipment untrained that could cost you your life. A common mistake seen in untrained users is leaving the respirator dangling around their neck before leaving the contaminated area. In this case, the respirator can collect contaminated dust, making its protection ineffective. Respirators must be a tight fit and glasses should be put on after the respirator, as it is essential no gap is created between mask and face and the overall hood must go over the straps.
Employees must check their equipment and clothing is fit for purpose, is working correctly, how to identify and replace worn or defective parts and for certain types of RPE, how and when to change the filters and ensure all seals and valves are in working order. If anyone suspects their RPE is not working correctly, they must stop work immediately and leave the area.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website has a full rundown of steps to take when coming into contact with asbestos, while UKATA can advise on approved training providers throughout the UK. Everyone needs to appreciate the essential importance and life-saving value of training in the correct use of PPE and RPE when it comes to asbestos.
UKATA exists to set and verify standards and to emphasise the importance of best practice in training when it comes to the safe handling, removal and disposal of asbestos. Tasked by the HSE in 2008 for taking-on, managing and developing the list of training providers for licensed asbestos work in the UK, UKATA is now the leading authority in all levels of asbestos training in the UK.
For further information on UKATA, visit www.ukata.org.uk