Construction workers and the continuing asbestos legacy

17 August 2017

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was used extensively in the construction industry in the 1950s – 1970s because of its fireproof qualities and durability. However, despite the perceived qualities of asbestos at that time it did - and now almost 50 years later still does - pose a dangerous health risk.

If asbestos fibres become airborne they create a health hazard, as these deadly fibres can then be inhaled and/or ingested and may lead to someone developing an asbestos related illness.

The dangers of asbestos containing materials (ACMs)

During construction work, asbestos containing materials (ACMs) would be used in products such as insulation, cements, spray coatings, roofing and flooring materials. These ACMs may have been cut, drilled or broken by workers creating a hazardous dust. Even where workers were not themselves working with asbestos they may have been working directly in the vicinity of others who were and been exposed to the asbestos dust in this way.

The use of blue and brown asbestos stopped in the main around 1970 when a voluntary code was introduced, becoming law in 1985. However, white asbestos continued to be used until 2000 when it was finally banned in this country.

Asbestos still a clear and present danger

This is why any building constructed before 2000, including private dwelling houses, public buildings and commercial premises, could potentially have asbestos in it. Although asbestos is no longer used in the construction process, construction workers remain at risk from asbestos if they are working on or in a building which contains asbestos. Boiler workers, carpenters, demolition workers, electricians, painters, plumbers and roofers can be similarly at risk. According to the HSE asbestos is still the biggest occupational disease risk to construction workers.

An obligation to ensure worker safety

Before construction work is undertaken today a company should establish whether there are ACMs in the premises or structure by checking existing records or having a survey undertaken. If asbestos is present then a company must understand the amount of asbestos, where it is and what condition it is in and whether the work will disturb it. They must further consider whether and how the asbestos needs to be safely protected or removed to ensure the safety of their workers.

Asbestos-related illnesses

It can take a long time from being exposed to asbestos before any asbestos related illness is developed, anywhere from 15-60 years. Mesothelioma, an asbestos related cancer for which there is no cure, and which can affect the lining of the lungs, stomach or heart, can be caused by exposure to just one asbestos fibre. Lung cancer can also be caused by a heavy exposure to asbestos, although smoking may also play a part in this.

Other asbestos related illnesses are asbestosis, which is fibrosis within the lung tissues and pleural thickening, which is a thickening to the lining surrounding the lungs, both of these conditions can cause breathlessness.



This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024

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