What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material that has been a popular building material since the 1950s.
It is used as an insulator (to keep in heat and keep out cold), has good fire protection properties and protects against corrosion. Because asbestos is often mixed with another material, it's hard to know if you're working with it or not.
But, if you work in a building built before the year 2000, it's likely that some parts of the building will contain asbestos.
Asbestos is found in many products used in buildings, including ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, boilers and sprayed coatings.
More information can be found in the following leaflet which provides information for tradesmen on protecting themselves against the hidden killer - asbestos.
The following are examples of some of the more common uses of asbestos in buildings:
- sprayed coating - found as fire protection on structural supports (for example, columns and beams) - it is a high hazard asbestos product and can generate very high fibre levels if disturbed
- pipe insulation - asbestos thermal pipe lagging is a high hazard asbestos product
- asbestos insulating board (AIB) ceiling and door panels - AIB is a high hazard asbestos product and can generate high levels of fibres if the board is cut or drilled
- AIB window panel - like other AIB, this is a high hazard asbestos product, and if in good condition should be left undisturbed
- floor tiles - vinyl (PVC) or thermoplastic tiles contain asbestos
- asbestos cement roof sheeting - asbestos cement sheeting is often found on industrial building roofs and walls
- textured decorative coating (such as Artex) - textured coatings contain a small amount of asbestos - the asbestos is well bonded and fibres are not easily released - however, it is still an asbestos product, and as such, needs to be worked with safely
Where is asbestos found?
Asbestos could be present in any building that was built or refurbished before the year 2000. It is in many of the common materials used in the building trade.
What is the danger?
Asbestos can cause four serious diseases:
- asbestos-related lung cancer
- pleural thickening
These diseases will not affect you immediately. They often take a long time to develop, but once diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything. They can devastate your health and livelihood and are still a major killer of tradespeople in Northern Ireland. There is a need for you to protect yourself now.
Mesothelioma is a cancer which affects the lining of the lungs (pleura) and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract (peritoneum). It is almost exclusively related to asbestos exposure and by the time it is diagnosed, it is almost always fatal.
Asbestos-related lung cancer
Asbestos-related lung cancer is the same as (looks the same as) lung cancer caused by smoking and other causes. It is estimated that there is around one lung cancer for every mesothelioma death.
Asbestosis is a serious scarring condition of the lung that normally occurs after heavy exposure to asbestos over many years. This condition can cause progressive shortness of breath, and in severe cases can be fatal.
Pleural thickening is generally a problem that happens after heavy asbestos exposure. The lining of the lung (pleura) thickens and swells. If this gets worse, the lung itself can be squeezed, and can cause shortness of breath and discomfort in the chest.
Am I at risk?
Workers invovled in refurbishment, maintenance and other similar trades could be at risk of exposure to asbestos during their work. This includes:
- heating and ventilation engineers
- demolition workers
- carpenters and joiners
- roofing contractors
- painters and decorators
- construction workers
- fire and burglar alarm installers
- shop fitters
- gas fitters
- computer and data installers
- general maintenance staff, e.g. caretakers
- telecommunications engineers
- architects, building surveyors and other such professionals
- cable layers
*This list does not include all occupations at risk from potential exposure to asbestos
When am I most at risk?
You are most at risk when:
- the building you are working on was built before the year 2000
- you are working on an unfamiliar site
- asbestos-containing materials were not identified before the job was started
- asbestos-containing materials were identified but this information was not passed on by people in charge to the people doing the work
- you haven't done a risk assessment
- you don't know how to recognise and work safely with asbestos
- you have not had appropriate information, instruction and training
- you know how to work safely with asbestos but you choose to put yourself at risk by not following proper precautions, perhaps to save time or because no one else is following proper procedures
- you can't see or smell asbestos fibres in the air
- the effects of being exposed to asbestos may take many years to show up - avoid breathing it in now
- people who smoke and are also exposed to asbestos fibres are at a much higher risk of developing lung cancer
- asbestos is only a danger when fibres are made airborne and breathed in
- as long as the asbestos is in good condition and it is located somewhere where it can't be easily damaged then it shouldn't be a risk
Working with asbestos
It's possible that you've worked with, or disturbed asbestos before. Now you're clued up on how asbestos can affect your life, make sure you avoid disturbing it, or are trained and always work with it safely.
For details on training, visit:
Don't be afraid to ask about asbestos
Always ask your boss if the building has been checked for asbestos - it's your right to be protected from this dangerous substance.
In non-domestic buildings you have a right to be given information about the condition and location of asbestos by the person who manages the building, before you start work - you must pass this information on to anyone working for you on the job.
You should ask for this when tendering or quoting for work, the information about asbestos will help you to cost the job correctly, plan the work safely, preventing potentially expensive surprises on site.
Removal and disposal of asbestos
Asbestos which is in good condition should normally be left undistrurbed.
Where it is necessary to remove it, this work must be carried out by a specialist contractor who is licensed to do this type of work.
HSENI has provided additional information and guidance for dutyholders who have a responsibility to manage asbestos on their property as part of the 'Duty to Manage' campaign.
The disposal of asbestos is controlled by regulations. You should consult a waste disposal expert or contact the Asbestos Advisory Service for additional information on:
- phone: 0800 0320 121
'Asbestos Essentials' task sheets will show you how to do a range of non-licensed tasks safely - they include:
- equipment and methods including what protective equipment you need
- work with asbestos cement (AC) (non-licensed)
- working with textured coatings (TC) containing asbestos (non-licensed)
- strictly controlled minor work on Asbestos Insulating Board (AIB)
- safe work with undamaged asbestos materials
- removal and replacement of other asbestos containing materials
- fly-tipped waste
The Asbestos Essentials task sheets are free to download from the HSE(GB) website:
If you wish to find out more please call HSENI's free helpline:
- 0800 0320 121
- Asbestos - Duty to manage information leaflet
- Asbestos management - checklist for schools
- Asbestos: your quick guide (pdf format) - HSE (GB)
- Checklist for managing my asbestos
- Table of deaths caused, or contributed to, by asbestos-related diseases 2009-2021
- Contractors licensed for work with asbestos insulation or asbestos coating