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Myths, Mistakes Raise Asbestos Toll

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

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Neither drinking a glass of water nor opening a window will protect a worker from asbestos.

Indeed, such widely held myths and misperceptions lead to asbestos exposures that kill about 20 construction workers, painters, decorators and other tradespeople each week in the UK, a new survey shows.

Tradespeople "could come into contact with deadly asbestos on average more than 100 times a year," according to the survey commissioned by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Asbestos Asbestos
Photos: UK HSE

Asbestos lurks in exterior cement planters and ceiling tiles. In the UK, work on any asbestos insulating board (AIB) material lasting more than two hours requires a licensed asbestos contractor.

The calculation assumes that the workers work an average of 2.29 days a week in a building built before 2000. That number is multiplied by 48 work weeks a year.

The results of the survey, taken in September, were released to kick off a new UK campaign focused on asbestos health and safety.


About 1.3 million UK tradespeople are at risk of asbestos exposure, the government said.

Asbestos can be found in walls and ceilings, or the structure of a building, as well as floor tiles, boilers, toilet cisterns, guttering, soffits and other places, HSE noted.

The fibers "can be disturbed by basic maintenance work like drilling holes and sanding" and, once disturbed, can cause fatal lung diseases and cancer, the government said.

Only three in 10 of the respondents were able to identify all of the correct measures for working safely with asbestos, while 57 percent "made at least one potentially lethal mistake in trying to identify how to stay safe," HSE said.


Mark Harper, Minister for Health and Safety, distributes information about asbestos to a worker. About 1.3 million tradespeople in the UK are at risk from asbestos exposure, the government says.

And although many respondents could identify some asbestos-containing materials, "others were clueless, with only 19 percent recognizing it could also be hidden in common fixtures."

Water and Windows

The survey also found fatal misconceptions, such as:

  • Only 15 percent knew that asbestos could be found in buildings built up to the year 2000;
  • Only 53 percent knew asbestos could be found in buildings built before 1973;
  • 14 percent believed that drinking a glass of water could help protect them from asbestos dust; and
  • 27 percent said that opening a window would help keep them safe.

“The number dying every year from asbestos related-diseases is unacceptably high," said Mark Harper, Minister for Health and Safety.

"Despite being banned in the construction industry, asbestos exposure remains a very serious risk to tradespeople."

Faces of Asbestos

By way of example, HSE notes the case of former electrician Simon Clark, who was diagnosed at age 52 with mesothelioma, the aggressive, asbestos-releated cancer.

"When I was younger, I didn’t think of the dangers of asbestos and I must have been exposed to it frequently," Clark said in a statement.

Asbestos insulation Asbestos coating

Loose-fill asbestos insulation (left) and certain sprayed coatings (right) pose high asbestos risks.

"Since being diagnosed, I’ve had to give up my work and let some of my employees go, which is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

"It is vitally important that everybody knows when they might be exposed and takes the correct steps to protect themselves.”

Safety Campaign

The HSE's safety campaign includes the distribution of asbestos safety kits through TradePoint, a building supplier with locations throughout Great Britain.

The HSE has also developed an app for phones, tablets and lapotops that helps workers identify where they could come into contact with asbestos and offers tailored help on how to deal with the risks.

The app may be downloaded here.

In addition, HSE offers a full guide to asbestos practices, resources and risks on its website.


Tagged categories: Asbestos; Contractors; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Europe; Good Technical Practice; Health and safety; Respirators; Worker training

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