Asbestos awareness – what to do in an asbestos emergency

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For tradespeople working on older buildings, whether it’s a one-off job or a long-term renovation project, it’s crucial to know what to do if asbestos dust and fibres are inadvertently released.

When considering the potential dangers of breathing in asbestos, awareness training is all about avoiding the substance, protecting yourself and those around you by leaving it undisturbed.

But there are bound to be instances where asbestos is released accidentally – a serious situation requiring quick, careful management.

So what should you do in these cases?

Here are the basic procedures to follow in an asbestos emergency, as described by the UK Asbestos Training Association (UKATA). They are not exhaustive, however, and various scenarios may need to be handled differently.

  • Stop work straight away. Prevent anyone from entering the emergency area and move those already there, making sure you keep them well away from other people.
  • Put up barriers and warning signs around the contamination area if possible, so that people know what has happened.
  • Those who were in the danger area should have their clothes checked for any asbestos dust or fibres. If debris or dust has contaminated work wear, the clothing needs to be removed and placed in a plastic bag if possible to prevent further contamination, and disposable overalls worn instead.
  • If this isn’t possible, clothes should be carefully wiped with a damp cloth to remove dust and fibres.
  • The employer or client should be notified regarding the incident.
  • Once all affected personnel have been checked for asbestos debris, and it has been dealt with, the employer or client needs to seek specialist advice on how to proceed.
  • All those who were within the danger area need to stay outdoors if possible, away from others until further advice has been received.
  • Samples should be taken of the fibres/debris, and swabs from clothing, by a trained person to determine if asbestos was present.
  • If the results are positive, specialist asbestos contractors will be needed to clean and decontaminate the area.
  • A note of the incident needs to be placed on the personnel files of all those involved, in case asbestos-related ill health is diagnosed at a later date.

Officially recording the incident is a vital part of the process

The after-effects of asbestos exposure do not generally take hold until years following an incident, sometimes several decades later. This is why it’s important to note what happened at the time, so that a claim for industrial illness can be made if necessary.

Possible asbestos-related illness includes asbestosis, mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer, pleural plaques and diffuse pleural thickening. Because asbestos-related diseases are often already at an advanced stage when a victim is diagnosed, the average survival time is only three years.

The issue of mesothelioma alone is a huge one, with 90,000 being the estimate of people dying from the disease by 2050.