Care needed when working with asbestos cement
In asbestos cement, the asbestos is tightly contained by the cement so that if it is broken, not many asbestos fibres are released. However, it can be dangerous if it is sawn or drilled because it releases many more fibres this way.
Asbestos cement may sometimes be used alongside other asbestos products which can be more dangerous. In particular, asbestos cement may resemble asbestos insulation board which is much softer and therefore more likely to release fibres.
It is the fibres of asbestos which are dangerous because they can cause cancer if they are inhaled. A case study on the HSE website tells the story of a carpenter who worked using asbestos materials including ‘soft board’ and asbestos cement. He often cut asbestos sheets with a handsaw but he had received no training or breathing equipment. Now, aged 64, the carpenter has been diagnosed with terminal Mesothelioma and has said “I didn’t know anything about these diseases, and it did happen to me – learn from my example.”
Working with asbestos cement is an activity for which you don’t need a licence but it is important that contractors follow advice because any form of asbestos can pose health risks. The HSE has produced a range of guidance sheets to assist safe working. Before any work, assessment needs to be undertaken to decide whether the work will need a license and what the risk posed is. Then an experienced asbestos contractor should be able to carry out the work safely.
Earlier this year, the BBC reported that a local Council has passed an application for the building of 123 homes on the site of an old asbestos cement works. Asbestos cement was produced at the site from 1916 up until its closure in 1999. Campaigners protested against the proposed building works because they were concerned that dormant asbestos would be dislodged. Extensive assessments have been carried out on the site and the building company and the Council have stated that they are confident that there is no danger posed to local residents or workers.
Although the health risks posed by asbestos cement are less than some other forms of asbestos, care must be taken when working with it, as with any form of asbestos. Proper risk assessment is essential, as is ensuring that workers have the proper equipment, including respiratory protective equipment and the correct type of vacuum, particularly for more high risk work such as drilling asbestos cement. Asbestos materials also need to be disposed of in a safe, approved manner.