What is Asbestos?
The chances are that you know what asbestos is – or at least you know that it is a potentially dangerous substance – but let’s take a look at what it is made up of. ‘Asbestos’ actually refers to any of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals – not as you might imagine, a man-made substance. The minerals are as follows: chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite. The fibres of asbestos, which are what can endanger lives if inhaled into the respiratory system are microscopic, extremely hardy and even fire resistant. This latter property is of course partly what made asbestos so attractive a proposition for its use in industry and construction. Its strength and fire and chemical resistance led to its status as the go-to material for roofing shingles, cement compounds, textile products, floor tiles and car parts among other applications. In the UK, the Asbestos Regulations signed by Deputy Prime Minister Prescott, came into force on November 24, 1999 five years ahead of the European deadline. This meant that the use of chrysotile, which had been the only type of asbestos permitted in the UK since 1985, was finally outlawed and gives us 2000 as a tabula rasa and the year after which constructions can be guaranteed as safe from asbestos.
Why is asbestos so dangerous?
Asbestos is particularly dangerous to humans precisely and ironically because of its strengths and attributes as a material. Once ingested the body finds it impossible to break down asbestos fibres and they become permanently lodged in the lungs or body tissues. Once in situ they can cause one of three diseases: asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Unfortunately it is not a case of ‘a little asbestos won’t harm you’ – in fact there is no safe type of asbestos and absolutely no safe level of exposure. If you have been exposed to asbestos in the past then you are almost certainly at risk of serious health complications in the future. Asbestos related diseases will not manifest immediately, often only years later will they be diagnosed and with a diagnosis often comes the reality that nothing can be done to reverse the damage.
One of the reasons that asbestos is so dangerous is that it is often concealed and unless you have a trained eye and know the warning signs then you could unwittingly disturb asbestos containing materials without knowing it. This leads us on to the next important question.
Who is most at risk from asbestos contamination?
The reality is that over the years there has been a definite pattern as to those who have suffered the most as a result of exposure to asbestos containing materials. By far the most devastating impact has been on those working in the building industry and associated trades. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, demolition experts and joiners have been affected very badly over the years and continue to be impacted by exposure to asbestos. By carrying out repairs or maintenance jobs in buildings or sites containing asbestos materials (which as we have shown could be the case in any building constructed or extended prior to 2000, workers can disturb and thus breathe in asbestos fibres without even realizing what has happened. Of course, by disturbing the asbestos containing materials in a building, workers can also endanger the lives of others inside the building. This has led to particular concern about the possible presence of asbestos in school buildings and hospitals, which could potentially lead to catastrophic levels of exposure.
Why is asbestos training important?
Somewhat fortuitously, asbestos is usually only dangerous if it is disturbed, so there are certain measures that can be taken to minimize the risk of any contamination should workers believe that there is a suspect material on site. For this reason and of course many others, it is imperative that persons working in buildings and with materials that could contain asbestos are suitably trained.
Asbestos is, unfortunately, not a problem consigned to the history books. It remains a strong latent issue in many buildings nationwide as there are a great number of buildings that have been built and extended prior to the ban. This is backed up statistically as mesothelioma deaths peaked in 2013 at 2,538 in that year, with only a minor drop in 2014. While many of these people will have been exposed years ago, there is nothing to suggest that the risks were much greater then than they are now. As such, vigilance is key and the best way to ensure that the relevant people are prepared is through training – to make them aware of the best practice when dealing with the possibility of asbestos containing materials in the workplace. Companies have a moral and legal obligation to ensure that their employees are suitably trained to minimize the risk of exposure.
Different types of asbestos training
There are a wide array of asbestos training programmes that can be completed in the UK. Firstly, there are different governing bodies and accreditors. Some courses are accredited by CDP and others by IATP, while RoSPA also offer their own approved courses. UKATA is perhaps the dominant accreditor and their many diverse asbestos training courses are now approved by CDP.
Choosing which asbestos training course is appropriate is a matter of whether a person is likely to be carrying out work that will disturb asbestos or is responsible for the safe removal of asbestos. In such cases there are specific training programmes designed to facilitate this. The type of instruction needed must consider whether the individual is undertaking non-licensable, notifiable non-licensable or licensed work. Most hands-on asbestos work must only be carried out by a licensed contractor but any decision on whether particular work is licensable is assessed depending on the risk. For instance, work could be non-licensed if it involves cleaning up of small amounts of loose debris that contains asbestos where the work is low intensity and duration; the drilling of textured decorative coatings for electrical installations or the sealing in of material that contains asbestos in good condition.
Non-licensable and notifiable non-licensable workers should be made aware of at least the following:
- How to undertake risk assessments
- Safe practice, control and protective measures
- Which protective equipment to use
- How to safely dispose of materials
- Emergency protocol
- Legal requirements
Workers carrying out both non-licensable and licensable work should be shown:
- a copy of the risk assessment for the work
- a copy of the plan
- details of air monitoring and results
- details of the notification of work made to the enforcing authority
If no deliberate disturbance of asbestos containing materials is planned, more general asbestos awareness training is usually sufficient and UKATA courses will yield a certificate and entry into a database that can be checked on site. Successful delegates must revalidate their training on an annual basis via top-up courses in order to stay fully covered. Those who work in one of the at-risk trades as self-employed tradesmen should ensure that they are scrupulous when it comes to undertaking and renewing asbestos awareness training. General asbestos awareness training should consider the following key points:
- Asbestos and its properties and the health risks associated with it
- Types and likelihood of asbestos containing materials in a given building or site
- Procedure to deal with asbestos related emergencies
- How best to minimize the risk of exposure.
When it comes to the finer details of asbestos training it is important to decide whether you would be more suited to online or classroom based training. Most asbestos training these days is available online. There are advantages to both, which are outlined below.
Advantages of online training:
- Convenience and less time consuming
- Short term bookings and easily organized
- Often more affordable
- Easy to coordinate multiple bookings within companies
- Flexibility of hours
- Better retention. Studies have shown that online training often results in better retention as there are less distractions.
- Greener and reduced carbon footprint. As online training can be done at home or in one’s regular workplace this makes it the green option.
- Millennial proof. Younger generations have grown up with online training and working online, which makes online training more millennial friendly.
Advantages of classroom-based training:
- Classroom training allows delegates to learn in a quiet and safe environment away from the distractions of everyday life.
- There is a human element to classroom based training which means that individual needs can be recognized and catered for more flexibly than in online training.
- The group interaction element of classroom based training has been shown to be a major positive of classroom training as delegates can learn from each other as well as the instructor.
Whether you decide that online or classroom based training is best for your needs or the needs of your employees the most important thing is that you recognize the immense importance of ensuring that you and your staff are fully up to date at any given time with the relevant asbestos and asbestos awareness training. Not only is there a moral and legal obligation, but with records checkable online your reputation and likelihood to land key jobs is at stake.