20th September 2022
This report uses data from our recent survey to reveal the situation for tradespeople in 2022, including how often workers are exposed to the material, the impact this has on their health and which trades are particularly at-risk.
It also features advice from a variety of experts - health professionals explain what to do if you experience signs of asbestosis, or other similar conditions, and waste disposal experts reveal how to stay safe if you encounter asbestos at work.
According to the NHS, asbestos is “a fibre-like material that was once used in buildings for insulation, flooring and roofing”. In the UK, the three most common forms are blue (crocidolite), brown (amosite) and white (chrysolite).
The material had long been used in construction due to its attractive properties – it’s strong, cheap, heat resistant and a great insulator – and as such, was installed in buildings all over the world.
However, in 1999, the UK government banned the importation, supply and use of asbestos (of all varieties) after campaigns highlighted the significant health risks involved with prolonged exposure.
Sadly, despite asbestos being banned decades ago, its impact is still being felt, particularly in the trade industry.
People who work in old buildings still come face to face with the material on a regular basis, and those who encountered it in the past, especially from the 19070s to the 1990s, may only be registering symptoms now, years later.
Tragically, previous asbestos exposure still kills 20 UK tradespeople every week. Nationally, over 5,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
As these conditions all take many years to develop, the deaths are largely a result of past working conditions, but our recent research found that asbestos exposure is still a frequent occurrence in the industry.
· 72% of current tradespeople have encountered asbestos at some point in their careers
· 60% find it every year
· 25% come across it every week
· 8% have to deal with asbestos every single day
Sadly, these figures are even higher amongst younger tradespeople than the older generations – 86% of 18-24s say they’ve already been exposed to asbestos in their short careers – showing that it is still very much an issue for the industry today.
In fact, more than two in five (44%) UK tradespeople have either had symptoms of a related disease, or know a colleague who has, and one in 20 (5%) know someone who has died as a result.
Asbestos is generally not harmful if it’s undamaged, but if it is torn and people breathe in its fibres, that’s when there can be severe consequences.
A fine dust enters the lungs and embeds itself, and if exposure continues over a number of years, it can lead to very serious conditions.
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi, the digital healthcare provider, explains:
“Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by breathing in large amounts of asbestos dust for a long time. The asbestos gets lodged in the lungs causing scarring around the air sacs (alveoli), which means oxygen can't reach the bloodstream easily. The scarring leads to the lungs hardening, making it more difficult to breathe because the lungs cannot hold as much air as they used to.”
· Persistent cough
· Shortness of breath
· Pain in the chest or shoulder
· Swollen or 'clubbed' fingertips
“This is where the thin tissue (membrane) covering the lungs becomes thicker, making it harder to breathe and causing pain or discomfort in the chest.”
“This is a type of incurable cancer that affects the lining of the lungs or stomach.”
“This is a type of cancer that starts in the lungs.”
There is currently a lack of awareness in the industry of the warning signs to look out for, and our research found that the majority of tradespeople are unable to identify the main symptoms of asbestos-related diseases.
When asked about the signs of asbestosis, almost two-thirds (64%) failed to select a persistent cough, and over half (55%) didn’t pick out shortness of breath.
Most trades involve occasional exposure to asbestos, but some encounter the material more often than others, and are therefore at a greater risk.
Dr Rhianna says:
“It's essential to see a doctor if you're having any asbestosis symptoms, particularly if you think you've been exposed to asbestos.
“A GP will listen to your breathing using a stethoscope and ask about your work history. They may refer you to a specialist lung doctor if they think you may have asbestosis.
“If you have an asbestosis diagnosis, there's no cure, and there's no way to reverse the lungs' damage. But some treatments can help, such as pulmonary rehabilitation (PR), oxygen therapy and inhalers to help you breathe (for mild symptoms).”
Asbestos can be hard to identify, so we’ve partnered with William Hobbs, sustainability and recycling expert at MyJobQuote.co.uk, to provide advice.
“It's impossible to see asbestos fibres with the naked eye. In order to safely identify it, you'll first need to have a good understanding of what to look for when it comes to the various materials around the home, and where asbestos may be lurking.
“A quick way to determine if a product may contain asbestos is to check if the manufacturer, product name, and date are on the label and then do a quick Google search.”
It’s important that tradespeople educate themselves on the dangers of asbestos, including what to do if you come across it in a building.
To protect yourself from harm, William says:
“If asbestos is identified during a trade job, the tradesperson should avoid trying to tamper with or remove the materials themselves since there is such a high risk involved. Most asbestos removal jobs require a licensed professional, and some work may need to be notified.”
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) - Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety – also advises:
· Reducing dust levels by slightly wetting asbestos materials before working on them
· Cleaning up as you work, using rags to clear minor asbestos contamination from smooth, non-absorbent surfaces and equipment
· Wearing personal and respiratory protective equipment (PPE and RPE)
· Putting up warning signs if you unexpectedly discover asbestos, report the problem and ensure no-one enters the area
You can get more detailed advice on the HSE website.
William says: “In the majority of asbestos removal cases, a professional will need to come in and complete the job. There are many risks involved with moving asbestos. Just the slightest movement can be extremely dangerous and cause a risk to life. You should never touch asbestos unless you have experience with the substance and the relevant protective gear.”
If you are licensed to dispose of asbestos, he gives this advice:
· Any waste containing more than 0.1% asbestos is classified as hazardous or special waste.
· Any affected materials must be double-bagged and placed inside a covered, locked skip.
· You must never mix asbestos waste with any other types of waste.
· If there are any large asbestos sheets present, never break these up - instead, you should wrap them in polythene sheets and label them.
· All asbestos waste must be clearly labelled with an asbestos warning label.
· Any affected products must be stored and transported in a sealed container.
· You must comply with the Carriage of Dangerous Goods Regulations when transporting asbestos waste.
· Before transporting the waste, you must check that the facility or site receiving your waste is authorised to receive asbestos - they will need to have a waste management license or a pollution prevent and control permit (PPC).
You can get more information about asbestos, symptoms of related diseases and how to protect yourself from these sources:
1) HSE – asbestos advice for tradespeople
2) NHS – information about asbestosis
3) Gov.uk - general information about asbestos
4) Livi – expert medical advice from a GP about asbestos-related diseases
Survey of 500 UK tradespeople conducted by The Leadership Factor on behalf of ElectricalDirect in 2022