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Safety issue caused by burning asbestos sheets

Although extremely resistant to high temperatures, smoke from a fire where asbestos is involved still represents a significant health risk because of the tiny particles of dust and fibre that are dispersed.

Local environmental health officers were recently called to a fire in Witchford, Cambridgeshire, which had been burning for a week and had been lit to clear a piece of land for redevelopment. Prior to notifying the local authority, alarmed residents saw what looked like asbestos cement sheets on the fire.

The owner of the land had hired workers to clear an area of vegetation ready for development into stables and paddocks, but said they had not realised that asbestos may have been on-site.

The ‘duty to manage’

The Control of Asbestos Regulations, 2012, states that the land or building owner has the duty to manage potential asbestos issues. In the case of a building, this involves carrying out risk assessments and surveys to establish the whereabouts of asbestos, and keeping a register to record any changes in its condition.

In this case it’s possible that fly tippers may have dumped asbestos sheets on the site, with the owner and workers being unaware of its presence and the dangers it posed.

Knowing what asbestos looks like is the key to staying safe

Being aware of what asbestos looks like in its different forms is vital for all of us, but especially so for workers likely to come into contact with it on a regular basis. This is why it’s a legal requirement for employers to provide training on asbestos awareness to their employees.

This type of training includes the important message that asbestos should be left undisturbed if it’s uncovered, and licensed contractors called in immediately. Courses also help workers to identify asbestos in its many forms, from cement sheeting to lagging for pipes and fire-retardant clothing.

It’s often considered as a potential issue only when it’s found inside a building, but as the fire in Cambridgeshire suggests, fly tipping of asbestos waste is becoming a notable problem that threatens public health and safety.

There are designated sites around the UK for contaminated waste, but the fact that specialist contractors are not used to handle asbestos may be due to the high cost involved.

Residents afraid to go outside

After being concerned about the length of time the fire was burning, one local Witchford resident expressed their fears:

“I’ve been worried to go outside for the last few days. I certainly don’t want any of my family breathing in asbestos fumes.”

The cement sheets that were found on the fire are now being tested by environmental health officers to determine whether or not they contain asbestos. If they do, the ‘duty to manage’ may become an issue for the owner of the land. He commented:

“We’re as worried as the residents are. We certainly weren’t aware there were building materials on the land, let alone possible asbestos, else we would have never lit the fire.”