Asbestos is the name given to material containing one of six naturally occurring silicate minerals with long, thin fibrous crystals, which are:

  • Chrysotile
  • Tremolite
  • Amosite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Crocidolite
  • Actinolite

The word asbestos is borrowed from the Greek adjective meaning inextinguishable. It has been used for thousands of years in a diverse range of applications. The Greeks termed asbestos ‘the miracle mineral’ due to its amazing properties. The hazards related to the mineral were recognised by the Greeks and by the Romans. The Greek geographer, Strabo and the Roman Naturalist, Pliny the Elder noted that asbestos damaged the lungs of the slaves who wove it into cloth.

The Persians wove asbestos into napkins and amazed their guests by throwing them into the fire to clean them at the end of the dinner. Some believed that the fibres came from the fur of an animal that lived in fire and died when exposed to water.

Asbestos is made up of fibres, some of which are 700 times thinner than a human hair. They are virtually indestructible and resistant to chemicals and heat. The fibres do not break down in the atmosphere or in water and once they are airborne the can remain suspended in the air for hours or even days.

Here in the UK only three of the six asbestos minerals were widely used:

Chrysotile – White Asbestos

Unlike other types of asbestos, Chrysotile is made up of curly fibres. It was once thought to be harmless but is now known to be hazardous. White asbestos is the most commonly encountered and was widely used in sheet products and it was woven into fabrics such as fire blankets.

Amosite – Brown Asbestos

Amosite is a trade name for Amphiboles and, most prominently, it derives from Africa. It is named as an acronym from Asbestos Mines of South Africa. It was commonly used as a fire retardant.

Crocidolite – Blue Asbestos

This, the strongest and most lethal of the 3 more common types of asbestos, was widely used in yarn and rope lagging as well as in spray applications.

A few interesting facts about asbestos

  • The first modern commercial asbestos mine was opened in 1879 in the Appalachian foothills of Quebec
  • Kent, the first filtered cigarette on the market, used Crocidolite asbestos in its filter from 1952 to 1956
  • The first documented asbestos related death was in 1906
  • The first diagnosis of asbestosis in England was made in 1924
  • Asbestos can occur naturally in the air, in drinking water and even in water from natural sources in various areas throughout the world
  • In 2000, tests in a certified asbestos testing laboratory found the Tremolite form of amphibole asbestos in 3 out of 8 major brands of children’s crayons

Asbestos and the law

Working with asbestos is subject to the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 but there is a Regulation, which gives more specific guidance for controlling the hazards and risks associated with asbestos work – the Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR) 2006.

CAR tells us that the Dutyholder must assess the likelihood of asbestos being present and if it is likely to be present, appropriate controls must be implemented. Although a license is required to undertake most asbestos work there are many, low risk tasks, that can be undertaken by non-licensed workers such as work of a sporadic and low intensity nature; where the risk assessment shows that exposure limits are not likely to be exceeded; work of a short duration and non-continuous in nature; removal of materials where the fibres are firmly linked in a matrix and encapsulating or sealing asbestos which is in good condition.

It is important for Dutyholders to remember that whether the work requires a license or not CAR applies. When assessing if work is of a ‘short duration’ Dutyholders must include setting up and packing up time. Anyone who undertakes asbestos work, whether licensed or not, must be trained to do so.

Why, where and when asbestos was used

The Greek name, miracle mineral, was an apt description for asbestos. It is an excellent electrical insulation, an excellent fire insulation, the fibres provide excellent binding qualities, it is fire and acid resistant, it is light in weight and it resists decay.

Due to its diverse nature it lent itself to a wide range of applications including (to name just a few) in floor and ceiling tiles, in bituminous damp courses, in textured wall and ceiling finishes and even toilet cisterns.

Asbestos has been used for thousands of years. There is evidence that asbestos use goes back to around 2500 years before Christ. Asbestos wasn’t an attractive solution just because of its diverse qualities, it was also very affordable. Consequently, it would be fair to presume that any building that was constructed before its use was outlawed may contain asbestos. Crocidolite and Amosite (blue and brown asbestos) was outlawed in the mid eighties. Chrysotile (white asbestos) became prohibited in the year 2000. It is widely accepted that builds between the 50’s and 80’s are most likely to contain asbestos and its use peaked in the 60’s and 70’s.

The problem with asbestos

On average 4000 people die in the UK from asbestos related illnesses each year. That is more people than are killed on our roads each year. When asbestos gets into our bodies it can create significant harm and cause a number of illnesses including Asbestosis, Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma. These often result in death.

How to manage your asbestos

Dutyholders have a responsibility to manage asbestos in their workplaces. Safe Systems of Work must be developed for asbestos related tasks, workers must be trained and they must be provided with the right equipment such as Personal Protection Equipment or PPE. When dealing with asbestos related hazards it is important not to overlook other hazards such as those posed by working in confined spaces or working at height. There is a 12 step checklist to help Dutyholders with managing asbestos:

  1. Introduction – an overview of the scheme, checklist.
  2. Are you responsible for maintenance or repair? – does the duty to manage apply to you and your premises?
  3. When was it built? – was it built before 2000, are you on a brownfield site or do you use old equipment?
  4. What information do you have already? – Look at building plans, previous asbestos surveys etc.
  5. Inspect your building – Create and asbestos register to list where asbestos may be present.
  6. Determine priorities for action – Use a scoring tool to work out what needs doing first.
  7. Decide how to deal with the different types of asbestos – See the decision making tool on the HSE website.
  8. Write your asbestos management plan – the plan brings together your asbestos register, plans of work and schedule.
  9. Testing for asbestos – If work is required you need to test for asbestos first.
  10. Tell people what you are doing – employees, contractors and maintenance workers need to be informed about your findings.
  11. Getting work done – Does the work need a licensed contractor?
  12. Keep your records up to date – Record any changes and significant events