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Protecting yourself from the dangers of asbestos

It’s important to wear the correct clothing when working with asbestos

Despite being outlawed for a quarter of a century, asbestos remains a risk for the modern electrician. In this special report, our Associate Member gives a comprehensive overview of its dangers, plus guidance on what steps to take if you do come across it

Asbestos was widely used in building construction for many years during the 20th century, both as a building material and for its useful insulation and fire protection properties.

Its use was progressively reduced between the 1970s and 1999 when all remaining forms were finally prohibited in the UK with the implementation of the Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations 1999. 

Asbestos has also been removed from various properties over the years for various reasons, e.g. damaged material, refurbishment and demolition, but a substantial proportion of the original products still remain. 

If undetected, these materials can present an ongoing risk to workers carrying out building repair and maintenance or improvement and refurbishment work – including electricians.

Electrical contractors are particularly at risk because as well as extensive use as a building product, asbestos was also used in certain electrical equipment due to its heat resistance and fire protection properties. \

Electricians are therefore likely to encounter asbestos at some points in their career, either in equipment or surrounding materials, so it’s vital to identify the locations where it may be encountered to prevent accidental exposure.

Where might I find asbestos?

Some of the most likely asbestos containing materials (ACMs) for electricians are flash guards in rewireable fuse carriers. Most likely to be found in distribution boards, these are a loosely bound material and extremely friable, which means that they release fibres easily.

Such guards would require an operative carrying out maintenance, e.g. replacing a fuse, to remove the fuse from the carrier, which would expose the guard and potentially release fibres into the atmosphere that could be breathed in. If such items are discovered during the course of an Electrical Installation Condition Report (EICR), the client should be advised of the hazard and the risk to persons likely to be in the vicinity or carrying out maintenance on the equipment assessed. 

The safest course of action would be to remove and dispose of the equipment in accordance with Health and Safety Executive (HSE) requirements. 

Removal of such items must only be carried out by competent persons and special precautions must be taken when handling or during removal or disposal of such items, in accordance with the guidance available at – a QR code is also available with this article.

Another problem is arc chutes, used in circuit-breakers to insulate and protect circuits from shorting by acting as a barrier and preventing a high voltage spark jumping from one contact to another.

Before the mid-1980s, these were made from an asbestos-containing plastic moulding compound and it’s possible that a high-voltage spark could crack the chute, creating dust and particles.

Storage heaters can also contain asbestos, with fibres possibly being released if the cover is removed.

The helpful list at details the makes and models that contain asbestos, which can be reviewed before work commences.

What other ACMs might be encountered while accessing work areas?

Asbestos insulating board (AIB) is particularly dangerous if drilled, cut, broken or disturbed in any way, as it can release thousands of fibres which could be breathed in.

This material came in large sheets and had many uses, including lining the inside of boiler rooms or warm air unit cupboards.

AIB was also used extensively as fire protection on or in the vicinity of electricity and gas meters, with the following guidance published in 2014 by the Association of Meter Operators:

  • Pipe lagging and insulation is a material that is particularly dangerous.

  • It is fibrous and easily disturbed when carrying out electrical works in close proximity.

  • Work on these products is to be carried out by a licensed contractor only.

  • Older textured coatings, i.e. pre-1990 and more commonly known as Artex, represents another possible risk of exposure to asbestos.

  • Asbestos in Artex ceased to be used around 1985-90 and was banned in 1992. Precautions should be taken if drilling is required in textured coatings.

HSE document a26 also provides guidance on drilling and boring through textured coatings and is available by scanning the QR code with this article or going to 

“If undetected, these materials can present an ongoing risk to workers carrying out building repair and maintenance or improvement and refurbishment work – including electricians”

Why are asbestos surveys important?

Due to the extensive use of asbestos in buildings and electrical equipment, ACMs are likely to be encountered by electricians, so the potential for asbestos needs to be planned for and properly considered. The main source of information for this will be the asbestos survey.

Warnings about asbestos should never be ignored

The Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR) 2012 requires building duty holders, e.g. building owners and other persons with responsibility for maintenance, to manage asbestos in their premises.

ACMs should normally be identified by having a survey carried out, which will provide a report, detailing information to enable asbestos to be managed safely. It will provide accurate information on the type, quantity and condition of any ACMs present.

The asbestos register should be made available to anyone carrying out works in the building.

It is important to understand any restrictions to the report, which should be clearly documented. 

There are two types of asbestos survey: 

  • A management survey – likely to involve minor intrusive works. It will usually involve sampling and analysis to determine if suspected materials contain asbestos. It can also involve the presumption of the presence or absence of asbestos.

  • A refurbishment and demolition survey – required before any refurbishment or demolition works are carried out. This is a fully intrusive survey. The asbestos surveyor will require extensive knowledge of the scope of works to be carried out in order to ensure the relevant areas are thoroughly inspected and samples taken and analysed.

This can sometimes be something of a chicken and egg situation as an asbestos inspector will not be competent to carry out the necessary procedures to isolate the supply for electrical equipment to safely carry out the inspection, so is likely to presume the presence or absence of ACMs. 

This can be unhelpful as if the material is presumed to be an ACM, the electrical contractor will have to take additional precautions, which will increase the cost to the client. Equally, if the material is presumed not to be an ACM, the electrical contractor could be at risk if it turns out to contain asbestos after all. It may be prudent to consult a licensed asbestos contractor and electrical contractor to attend site at the same time.

You must stop work immediately if you think you’ve discovered asbestos

Electricians must always check the survey document before starting work. There is a danger that the survey document won’t be up to date or complete or won’t cover the area to be worked on.If there is any doubt about the quality or completeness of the survey report, work should not start. Employers have legal duties to comply with the requirements of CAR 2012 to ensure workers are not exposed to asbestos. The HSE website provides more guidance on asbestos surveys.

What about domestic properties?

The requirement to manage asbestos in buildings only applies to non-domestic properties such as commercial, industrial and public buildings. In domestic properties, self-employed electricians and employers of electricians have a duty under Regulation 5 of CAR 12 to identify any asbestos before work starts to prevent disturbance and risk to health.

So can I work with asbestos?

There are certain items of work – classed as non-licensed work – that can be carried out by electricians if they are competent to do so, but this must be done carefully and in strict accordance with HSE guidance. 

It can be very expensive and time-consuming to purchase the necessary equipment and gain sufficient information, instruction and training to work with asbestos as an electrical contractor, and therefore most employ the services of a licenced asbestos contractor as it is far more cost-effective. Again, the HSE website provides guidance on managing and working with asbestos.

What should I do if I discover or disturb asbestos?

If you think you’ve discovered asbestos, it’s important to stop work immediately and make sure nobody can access the area. You must report it to your supervisor or manager as it will need to be investigated.

If asbestos has actually been disturbed, then a precautionary approach should be applied. Clothing may have become contaminated, in which case you must follow the emergency procedures as detailed on the HSE website.

You must report the incident to your managerand person in charge of the building and providea warning sign to alert others to the ‘possible asbestos contamination’. A licensed specialist asbestos contractor will be needed to decontaminate the area if required and to take a sample to be analysed and confirm the presence of asbestos.

If, following analysis, it is confirmed that asbestos exposure has occurred, the incident may have to be reported to the HSE as a dangerous occurrence under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences (RIDDOR) Regulations 2013. 

Details of the circumstances in which incidents should be reported are set out on the HSE Asbestos FAQ page, and if asbestos is discovered or disturbed, the HSE website provides guidance on what to do. Scan the relevant QR codes shown below to access these links.

How can I make sure i stay safe from asbestos?

Education can help you to stay safe

Education is the best way to stay safe from asbestos, so you should arm yourself with sufficient information, instruction and training.

Employers must ensure that anyone who is likely to disturb asbestos during the course of their work, including self-employed workers, has the correct training to enable them to work safely and competently without risk to anyone. 

As well as the SELECT awareness course with Training First Safety, the BSG, Independent Asbestos Training Providers (IATP) and United Kingdom Asbestos Training Association (UKATA) can also provide information on asbestos training. 

However, it’s important to understand that simply attending a training course won’t make an operative competent and that competence is a combination of training, learning on the job, instruction and assessment.

In summary

As an electrician, you’re likely to encounter asbestos, so it’s important to know how to identify it and deal with it. Asbestos awareness courses provide valuable information which you can retain and pass on to others, helping keep everyone safe. Also, don’t be afraid to challenge an asbestos report. You should understand its limitations and if you feel it doesn’t provide sufficient information to allow you to carry out the work safely, don’t start the job. With regard to working with asbestos, you can only work with lower hazard, i.e. non-licensed, asbestos materials if you are properly trained and apply adequate controls. A specialist licensed asbestos contractor is therefore often better suited to carry out such work. 

However, if you do work with or near asbestos, you must ensure the HSE guidance is strictly followed and the correct personal protective equipment and respiratory protective equipment is used. 


Course puts safety first

SELECT currently runs an asbestos awareness e-learning course in conjunction with Training First Safety.

Designed for anyone who may come into contact with asbestos in their work, the session is designed to give workers and supervisors the information they need to avoid work that may disturb the material.

As well as warning about the risks of working with asbestos, the course will help you recognise ACMs, make you aware of where they are used, the steps you can take to minimise risk and the legislation that applies to working with asbestos.


Using the right RPEand PPE

Some electricians feel that they’re adequately protected from breathing in asbestos fibres by using a dust mask. However, many types of disposable masks aren’t suitable for use against asbestos fibres, e.g. simple loose-fitting medical masks. 

A type FFP3 disposable dust mask to EN 149 should be used, although half-masks with a P3 filter can also be suitable. 

Anyone using respiratory protective equipment (RPE) must be properly trained and competent in its fitting and wearing. In addition, a face-fit test is required to ensure that the mask selected correctly fits the wearer. It’s also important to understand that a mask may provide little or no protection if the person has stubble or a beard, as fibres will be breathed in through the sides of the mask where it doesn’t fit tightly.

There are other things to consider, such as protecting work areas, clothing and shoes from contamination. Personal protective equipment (PPE) should also be worn during asbestos work. Check out the QR code below to find out more.


Short Cuts

Main HSE resources for information and guidance on asbestos

HSE guidance on drilling or boring through protective coatings

HSE advice on what to do if you discover or disturb asbestos

HSE list of frequently asked questions about asbestos

HSE advice on respiratory protective equipment

List of storage heaters that contain asbestos

Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012


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