Last reviewed on 20/04/2016 11:20

Asbestos can be found in many buildings and products, and is usually safe if left undisturbed. However, if asbestos particles are inhaled it can cause fatal diseases.

This page outlines the problems associated with asbestos, and the legal obligations and regulations relating to the handling and disposal of it.

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What is asbestos?

Asbestos is the name for a group of naturally occurring silicate minerals that can be separated into fibres. The fibres are strong, durable, and resistant to heat and fire. They are also long, thin and flexible, so that they can even be woven into cloth.

Asbestos has been used in consumer, industrial, maritime, automotive, scientific and building products. This includes uses in commercial and industrial buildings, schools and hospitals.

There are three main types of asbestos, all of which are potentially dangerous:

  • Brown - amosite.
  • Blue - crocidolite.
  • White - chrysotile.


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What are the health risks of asbestos?

Asbestos fibres can pass into the lungs where they can stay for many years. These tiny fibres can remain in the lungs for so long that they can lead to the development of asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis (breathing difficulty) and mesothelioma (a type of cancer). There is no way to remove the fibres once they have reached the lungs and no cure for the diseases they cause.

Asbestos has been identified as one of the primary causes of occupational ill health in the second half of the twentieth century. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that asbestos-related diseases account for around 4,000 deaths a year in the UK.

As asbestos in buildings will be with us for many years, it is vital that we manage the risks from exposure.


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Where can asbestos be found and who is at risk?

Asbestos is more likely to be found in buildings built or refurbished before the year 2000. Anyone who is involved in building maintenance is potentially at risk if they disturb asbestos. The danger lies in any activity that disturbs the asbestos fibres, including removal, drilling, sanding and cutting.

Asbestos can be found in many parts of a building including:

  • fire protection of structural steel
  • thermal and acoustic insulation
  • some paints and textured coatings
  • insulating boards used as fire protection on doors, around structural steel, wallboards and ceiling tiles
  • asbestos cement used as corrugated roof panels
  • flat asbestos sheets used in partitioning
  • water tanks, pipes and gutters.


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Legal obligations and regulations relating to asbestos

As well as the moral duty of employers to protect employees and members of the public, General Health and Safety Legislation covers all employers and workplaces.

In addition, there are two sets of regulations dealing specifically with asbestos:

The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002

These regulations place an obligation on employers to prevent exposure to asbestos. If this is not reasonably practicable, exposure should be reduced to the lowest level reasonably practicable.

They require employers to carry out a risk assessment before any work with asbestos is carried out.

More specifically, these regulations also require duty holders, (who can be building owners, facilities managers, tenants and others who have legal responsibilities for premises) to:

  • take reasonable steps to find asbestos in the premises
  • assess the condition of these materials
  • presume that materials do contain asbestos unless there is strong evidence that they do not
  • prepare a record of the location and condition of these materials
  • assess the risk from these materials
  • prepare and implement a plan to manage those risks
  • provide information on the location and condition of the material to anyone who is likely to disturb it.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006

Changes introduced by this legislation include:

  • work with textured coatings will generally not need to be done by a licensed contractor. However, only trained competent people working to the appropriate standards may carry out such work
  • a lower control limit of 0.1 fibres per millilitre of air measured over four hours
  • employers can no longer carry out work in their own premises with their own workers without a licence if the work would otherwise require a licence
  • suitable training is required for anyone who is, or may be exposed to asbestos.

To view the full text of the above legislation online, please follow the links under Legislation.


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Reducing risks from asbestos

Take a safety first approach to any maintenance work. Before any work takes place, assess the area for the possible presence of asbestos.

If the task could disturb asbestos fibres, special precautions will be required to protect workers. Carry out a basic survey to assess the condition of any material that may contain asbestos.

Any materials that are in poor or deteriorating condition may require you to take action, so check if it is asbestos, and if so, repair, seal or remove the material in order to control the risk.

Assess and manage the risks of any asbestos found on the premises by taking the following steps:

  • decide how to prevent disturbance of asbestos in the premises
  • develop safe systems of work if there is a likelihood of asbestos being present
  • decide what type of survey will be required, whether it can be carried out in-house, or whether specialist advice will be required.

The results of these steps will determine how you manage the risks on your premises.


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Good practices for managing asbestos risks

The duty to manage asbestos requires the preparation of a plan on how you intend to manage the risks from asbestos on the premises.

The plan should include how you intend to assess the potential risks from asbestos.

Gather as much information as possible on the amount, location and condition of the asbestos. Is it likely to be disturbed or is it in an area close to where people are working? Also consider whether any work is likely to be carried out in that area in the future.

The condition of the asbestos will influence whether it should be removed or left in place. If it is in good condition and unlikely to be damaged or disturbed the best option is probably to leave it where it is.

If it is in poor condition, or likely to be damaged or disturbed, you may need to consult with a specialist contractor to decide what action to take.

A list of Asbestos Contractors can be found on the Health and Safety Executive's Asbestos pages (external site).

If you decide to leave it in place, record where it is present and monitor its condition regularly.

The information gathered from this exercise must be held in a register for the premises, and must be made available to anyone who is likely to be involved in carrying out work in areas where there is asbestos.


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Your questions on asbestos

Do I have to remove all asbestos?

What should 'duty holders' do immediately about asbestos in our building?

How do I engage the services of an asbestos contractor?

We're refurbishing a factory. What information should I look for about disturbing asbestos?

What kind of work creates asbestos dust?


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Further information on asbestos issues

Free resources from Healthy Working Lives Links below are to publications pages giving options to download these resources:

Free guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)

The HSE provides extensive information on asbestos, including factsheets for workers and guides for safety representatives. All are available to download free from the HSE Asbestos Information page (external site).

Priced asbestos guidance from the Health and Safety Executive

Note – all links are to external pages on the HSE website giving options to order these resources:


→ View The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 (external site)

→ View The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 (external site)


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View this webpage in other Languages

POLISH-Asbestos Guide RUSSIAN-Asbestos Guide PORTUGUESE-Asbestos Guide