Asbestos in the workplace

Last updated: 17 Jan 2024

This article explains the risks posed by Asbestos in the workplace and how it should be dealt with by your employer. We include details of the Prospect asbestos compensation register.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a term for a group of naturally occurring minerals, which all share the same fibrous structure. It was used extensively as a building material in the 20th century and in a range of other products such as machinery and vehicle brakes. This is because it is resistant to heat, is very durable and is a good thermal insulator.

However, the fibrous structure of asbestos means that if it is damaged or disturbed, tiny fibres can be released into the air. These fibres are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and can cause serious, often fatal, damage. All types of asbestos are classified as human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

It wasn’t until 1999 that all forms of asbestos were banned in the UK, so any building that was constructed or refurbished before this date could contain asbestos.


What are the health risks of asbestos exposure?

Those involved in refurbishment, maintenance and building trades, such as electricians, plumbers, joiners, engineers and construction workers, are at most significant risk. In 2014, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimated that 1.3 million tradespeople were at risk of asbestos exposure, and that they could come into contact with asbestos, on average, more than 100 times a year.

Asbestos exposure can cause a number of diseases, including mesothelioma (a form of cancer), cancers of the larynx, ovary, pharynx and stomach, and asbestosis. Exposure to asbestos causes over 5,000 deaths in the UK a year, making it the biggest cause of workplace death.

Asbestos-related diseases do not develop immediately but can take between 15 and 60 years to appear. Many of the people dying today were exposed to asbestos many years ago. However, people are still exposed to asbestos due to its prevalence in the built environment.


Where can asbestos be found?

In 2002, the HSE estimated that asbestos was present in 500,000 commercial and public buildings. Although many of these buildings will have since been demolished or refurbished, it is likely that hundreds of thousands of workplaces still contain the material.
It can be found in all manner of places in a building, and in a number of different forms, which can make it hard to identify. Examples include:

  • Sprayed coatings on ceilings, walls, beams and columns
  • Water tanks
  • Toilet seats and cisterns
  • Loose fill insulation
  • Lagging on boilers and pipes
  • Asbestos insulating board (AIB) – partition walls, fireproofing panels in fire doors, ceiling tiles, soffits and panels below windows
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Textiles such as fire blankets
  • Textured decorative coating on walls and ceilings, such as Artex
  • Asbestos cement roofs, panels, flues, gutters and downpipes

Often, asbestos can be hard to identify, partly because it was often mixed with other materials – something known as asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).

When materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air. It is therefore vital that asbestos is managed and maintained in a good condition.


How should your employer manage asbestos at work?

The main law governing the management of asbestos in the workplace is the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. The regulations place a “duty to manage” asbestos on all who are responsible for the maintenance or repair of non-domestic premises and the common parts of domestic premises.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 require these dutyholders to survey their buildings and produce an asbestos register, which details where asbestos is, or might be, located. Building managers must presume materials contain asbestos unless there is strong evidence they do not.

For each entry in the register, the building manager must score it based on the type of asbestos it is and its priority for action. This priority score depends on factors such as its location and condition.

If any ACMs are in good condition and are not likely to be disturbed, the dutyholder may leave them in place, but must monitor and manage their condition. If they are in a poor condition, they should be sealed or enclosed. If this cannot be done safely, or would fail to sufficiently reduce the risk because they are likely to be disturbed, the dutyholder should remove the ACMs.

Based on the findings of the survey and the register, building managers need to produce an asbestos management plan, which details things like who is responsible for managing asbestos, plans for work on asbestos materials and the schedule for monitoring the materials’ condition.

If the survey and register indicate that the asbestos needs to be removed or repaired, then the building manager will need to hire a contractor that is suitably competent to carry out work with asbestos. Higher risk repair or removal work must only be done by a contractor which holds a licence from the HSE. Any decision on whether work is licensable is based on the risk.

When asbestos that is in a good condition is left in place, dutyholders must ensure that everyone who needs to know about the asbestos is told about it. One of the easiest ways to doing this is to label it.


What can you do about asbestos at work?

As with any other health and safety risk, you should co-operate with your employer to help everyone meet their legal requirements to keep workers safe.

If you come across what you think might be asbestos, stop work immediately, and inform your health safety rep and employer.

If you are concerned about possible exposure to asbestos from work activities, you are advised to consult your GP and ask for a note to be made in your personnel record about possible exposure. You should also log an entry on Prospect’s asbestos register (see below).

If you’re a health and safety rep, check whether your employer:

  • has an asbestos management plan
  • has carried out an asbestos survey
  • has labelled all areas that may contain asbestos
  • regularly inspects asbestos-containing materials for damage/deterioration
  • has trained employees on asbestos risks and precautions, and given them information on its location
  • has procedures to record any exposure and inform any employees who may have been exposed.


Prospect’s asbestos register and claiming compensation

Prospect pursues compensation claims for asbestos-related illness every year. We sometimes need help from members’ former colleagues to help prove that asbestos is involved. But many sufferers have lost touch with former colleagues by the time their condition comes to light.

We have set up a register to record details of members’ workplace exposure to asbestos. So far, more than 1,600 people have volunteered this information.

If you have worked with asbestos, please add your details to the register by emailing [email protected], or download a registration form from our library.

You can also download our privacy notice.

The register will be used if you ever need to make a claim on your own behalf, or to help pursue claims on behalf of your colleagues or former colleagues.

Prospect lawyers will search the register for witnesses who worked for the same employer or in the same workplace and so provide evidence in support of members’ claims. This will help them succeed in claims for Prospect members or their bereaved families and can bring financial peace of mind and justice to those affected by asbestos-related illnesses.

If you are suffering from an asbestos-related disease and want to submit a claim for compensation, please contact our legal team on call 020 7902 6624 or email [email protected].