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Asbestos friability: What does it mean?

“Easily crumbled or reduced to powder”

From the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) definition of friability, it’s easy to see why the condition of asbestos-containing materials is one of the most important issues when assessing their risk.

The most dangerous are characterised by high friability levels. These include sprayed asbestos coatings and loose-fill insulation, but even materials described as ‘non-friable’ – those bonded within cement, for example – can become friable over time.

As these products weather and age, even minimal contact such as brushing past them can cause crumbling and fibre release. If these tiny fibres are subsequently breathed in, the potential for serious respiratory disease, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis, is very high.

Friability and asbestos training

All forms of asbestos training include the topic of friability, whether asbestos awareness, training for non-licensed, or licensed work. Although the purpose of awareness training is to allow workers to avoid coming into contact with the substance, it’s crucial to understand the implications of high friability and what happens when materials breaks up.

Knowing how easily certain ACMs disintegrate determines the next step for those qualified to handle asbestos. Stringent precautionary measures must be taken prior to starting work on asbestos, using procedures laid down in legislation.

The damage caused by asbestos is cumulative, however, so even if you are not in regular contact with highly friable ACMs, common occurrences of low-risk exposure can result in health problems in later life.

Friable materials

You may already be aware of the meaning of ‘friable’ from your asbestos training or general work with the substance, but the fact that asbestos is mixed with other materials can make it difficult to establish whether asbestos is even present.

Loose-fill asbestos insulation, sprayed asbestos coatings, and pipe/boiler lagging are among the most friable forms of ACM, with floor tiles, textured coatings, and asbestos cement products being the least friable.

Some products such as pipe lagging and sprayed coatings may even release fibres when work is being carried out nearby, particularly if power tools are being used. This and other types of asbestos such as the loose fill insulation historically used in roof and wall cavities must be handled/removed by licensed contractors.

Asbestos training vital to stay safe

If there is a chance that you’ll come across asbestos during your normal working day, friability will be one of the main considerations when assessing the level of risk to yourself and others.

Undertaking the correct level of training and instruction is vital to understand the dangers of asbestos, whatever your work in an older building entails. The provision of asbestos awareness training is a legal obligation for employers whose workers may come across the substance, but for self-employed tradespeople it is also a vital element in staying safe.

Friability is not a term that is widely used, but serves to describe the underlying potential for fibre release, and therefore the risk of exposure for everyone in a building.