Asbestos is in my building, but to what extent should I panic?

Gregg Masters, Head of Client Services at 4site Consulting explains what you need to know.

The world is full of warnings and signage reminding us daily of the dangers of certain practices and substances that either cause immediate death or severe pain: I am sure we are all overly familiar with messages such as Caution Severe Drop, Mind Your Head, Danger: High Voltage etc.

Ultimately, these are all intended as helpful information deigned to either steer us away from danger or just give us a heads-up to be alert to a potentially risky situation, and regardless of whether we view their presence or quantities as excessive or not, they have become very much part of our daily lives.

Signage is not a barrier against risk however, and for it to be effective it requires an amount of input from the onlooker to take evasive action and, suffice to say, it’s almost impossible to legislate or protect those who simply refuse to take steps to protect themselves. To paraphrase: you can lead someone to mind their head, but you cannot make them duck.

Although, that’s all beside the point a little. This article, as you may have guessed from the title, is about one such particular warning sign that avoids the self-explanatory model: Warning Contains Asbestos.

Asbestos is quite an emotive word and quite rightly so; we are all aware of its potential to cause fatal respiratory illness and some of us may even be unfortunate enough to know of somebody who has suffered such a terrible fate. Most residential managers of common parts are aware of their legal responsibilities to bring in experts like us to survey and identify every area for asbestos…..but then what?

Countless times we’ve been asked the following question, in one way or another; ‘It’s all well and good, knowing there is asbestos in my communal areas, but to what degree do I worry about it and what’s the precautions I need to take to protect myself?’

The answer to that question varies considerably and is dependent upon the following factors:

What PRODUCT is the Asbestos contained within?

Asbestos was a fibrous additive to products to improve strength, durability, insulative qualities and in many cases, introduce fire proofing. Some of those materials it has been added too are more susceptible to releasing fibres than others: corrugated cement sheeting, bitumen adhesive, vinyl products such as floor tiles and stair nosing’s and other cement products will hold the fibres quite securely; whereas pipe lagging, insulation boarding and material based products hold their fibres quite loosely.

What CONDITION is the product in?

Products containing Asbestos are ordinarily safe providing that they are in a good condition and the asbestos fibres are sealed within. A damaged or unsealed item containing Asbestos could cause those fibres to become free and airborne, which is when they are likely to be inhaled and become dangerous. Damage could be anything from a small scuff at the corner of insulation board to a clean crack in roof sheet.

Which TYPE of Asbestos fibre is it?

Asbestos can be found in several fibre types with varying degrees of risk of causing Respiratory Diseases associated with each; a damaged Asbestos floor tile, for example, is likely to contain ‘Chrysotile’ Asbestos Fibres which are considered lower risk than Asbestos insulation boarding that is more likely to contain ‘Amosite’ Asbestos Fibres.

What is its LOCATION within the building?

Asbestos is a problem wherever it is, although location is a big factor on its potential to harm; Needless to say, a damaged Asbestos Roof tile is far less likely to be of immediate danger to those using the communal areas than crumbling asbestos pipe insulation within the communal electric meter cupboard. High transit areas, or areas where material is likely to be disturbed, knocked or be subject to quick changes in pressure (opening a door to a small cupboard, for example) are of particular risk.

So, in summary, whilst all asbestos containing material harbour the potential to kill, most products containing these fibres can be rendered safe through management providing they are sealed, kept in a good condition and are managed through regular inspection (this is legally required at minimum 12 month intervals). Consult your Asbestos Management Survey for the property to see what advice has been given for each item.

With that in mind, I don’t suggest at all that you individually take on the responsibility of carrying out asbestos surveys for your property – you must still instruct an experienced and qualified Asbestos surveying company for this – however, you can take this as a brief insight into asbestos management and how to recognise when the product may become a problem between surveys.

4site Consulting Limited is an independent Health & Safety Consultancy providing a 'one stop shop' range of specialist compliance services for owners, occupiers/tenants and managers of commercial property and residential blocks.