Asbestos – are contractors managing the risks?

Asbestos kills an average of 20 workers in the UK every week.[1] That’s just over 1,000 tradesman a year, including electricians, fire security engineers, plumbers and even painters and decorators. Any tradesman regularly working in buildings older than the year 2000 are at risk.

So, what exactly is asbestos, and how can you, as a contractor, minimise the risks?

What is asbestos?

Asbestos was a popular building material used for fireproofing and insulation between the 1950s and 21st Century. It can still be found in all types of buildings, from homes and businesses, to schools and even hospitals built before the year 2000.[2]

Inhaling asbestos fibres is a well-known cause of a number of fatal forms of lung disease. However, asbestos is only dangerous when disturbed, making it vital as a contractor to be able to recognise and act appropriately should you find it in a building.

When are contractors most at risk?

Asbestos is an odourless, colourless material found inside walls and ceilings, as well as around boilers, ducts, pipes and fireplaces.[3] This means that some of your work may require you to disturb asbestos.

Examples of work may include:

  • Drilling into walls containing asbestos materials.
  • Laying cables in areas containing asbestos materials.
  • Removing floor tiles containing, covering or secured by asbestos materials.
  • Repairing roofing which contains asbestos materials.

Asbestos can be difficult to recognise. Contractors likely to carry out any of the above activities, must be aware of when they are most likely to encounter asbestos in order to identify it and take the appropriate precautions.

As a contractor, you are most likely to be at risk when:

  • You are working on a building built before the year 2000.
  • You a working on an unfamiliar site.
  • The owner of the building has no prior knowledge of asbestos being found on the property.
  • The owner of the building has not had an asbestos survey.
  • You haven’t carried out a risk assessment.
  • You have not been trained in how to recognise and work safely with asbestos.
  • You are not aware of the procedures and precautions you should take after disturbing asbestos.

Who is responsible for managing the risk of asbestos?

When it comes to asbestos, there are three levels of responsibility, including you as the contractor: -

Responsibility of the building owner

Under the Asbestos at Work regulations 2012, the owner of any building built prior to the year 2000 is required by law to carry out an asbestos survey before work is done. This information must be provided for the contractor before work begins. If these terms are met, responsibility then falls to the contractor or their employer.

Responsibility of the Employer/Contractor

As an employer, it is your responsibility to ask the building owner if asbestos has been found and how it is contained. You have a responsibility for the safety of your employees. If working under any of the ‘at risk’ circumstances outlined above, you must carry out a full risk assessment before disturbing the fabric of the building.

Responsibility of the Employee/Contractor

As the working contractor, it is your responsibility to be aware of whether asbestos has been found and how it is contained. You must then work under the correct precautions and carry out the appropriate safety procedures should asbestos be disturbed.

What to do if you find asbestos

Exposure to asbestos can have life-threatening health risks, not only for the contractor, but for everyone in the vicinity of disturbed material.

As a contractor, there are a number of procedures that should be in place in the event of finding asbestos:

  • The affected area must be sealed off immediately to minimise the spread.
  • Anyone who is contaminated with dust/debris must be cleaned down
  • Any contaminated clothing of PPE must be disposed of
  • Anyone who may have been exposed to airborne asbestos must be told.
  • Anyone who may have been exposed must inform their doctor.
  • The owner of the property must inform the health and safety authorities.

There are huge fall outs to come from asbestos being found. Workers and supervisors need to be educated so that they can recognise and act appropriately.

If the correct procedures have not been carried out, you could be liable for any future health implications caused by your negligence.


[1] www.hse.gov.uk/Asbestos/issues.htm

[2] www.take5andstayalive.com/2017/07/5-crucial-questions-about-asbestos.html

[3] www.asbestosnetwork.com/Worker-Safety/Asbestos-In-The-Home.shtml