Asbestos is a potentially lethal substance which was once used extensively in premises as an insulator and building material. In total, about 6 million tonnes of asbestos, mainly chrysotile, have been imported into the UK since the turn of the last century. Sales of asbestos products were vigorously promoted after the Second World War, peaking in the 1960s and 1970s. The importation, use in manufacture and marketing of all forms of asbestos are now banned but there are still significant amounts in place in existing buildings and workplaces.

Breathing in air containing asbestos fibres can lead to a number of incurable diseases, including cancerous tumours in the lungs and chest. Asbestos is only dangerous if the fibres are released into the air and breathed in. This can be caused by drilling, sawing or damaging the material in any other way. It can then take between 15 and 50 years for the onset of disease, if it occurs. Past exposure to asbestos currently kills 4000 people a year in Great Britain and the number continues to rise with a peak expected in the next five years.

Facilities managers who are responsible for building maintenance have legal duties to manage asbestos risk. Most important is to find out if the building actually has any asbestos, where it is and what condition it is in. There is no need to panic if some is present, as undisturbed asbestos in good condition presents no risk, but good records must be kept of where it is.

Facilities managers should always presume that suspect materials contain asbestos until proven otherwise and not allow anyone to take risks with suspect materials by drilling, sawing or otherwise disturbing them. The organisation must carry out a risk assessment reflecting the condition, location and possibility of disturbance. From this, it should prepare a risk management plan, follow it carefully and review it as necessary.

It is important to ensure that anyone who might work on or disturb the materials knows where and what they are and understands the right procedures and the risks. The organisation should keep safety representatives, human resources personnel and other stakeholders fully informed, explaining how it is keeping everyone safe so that they are not alarmed. By developing an effective management plan, facilities managers will prevent the risk of those who use their building developing asbestos-related disease.

The removal and management of asbestos, regardless of quantity, is subject to controls set out in the Special Waste Regulations 1996. It must be double-bagged in heavy-duty polythene bags and clearly labelled with a specified label, before it is transported to a specially licensed disposal site. Local authorities can advise on specialist contractors and licensed sites in their area.

More information is available in the Health & Safety Executive leaflet, “A comprehensive guide to managing asbestos in premises” (HDSG227).