What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, made up of long thin fibres, which can be dangerous if they are inhaled as dust. They contribute to increased risk of lung cancer, asbestosis (scarring of the lung tissue) and mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the chest and the lining of the abdominal cavity).
Up until 1999, asbestos was commonly used in building materials, mainly for insulation and fireproofing, and in some consumer goods. However, under the European Communities (Dangerous Substances and Preparations) (Marketing and Use) Regulations 2003, it is now illegal to place asbestos or asbestos-containing products on the market. So, if you are removing a roof, for example, that contains asbestos, the material must go for disposal and cannot be re-used or adapted for re-use.
How to deal with asbestos-containing materials
If you think that a material may contain asbestos, or if you are arranging to have building work done on your home, you should get expert advice from a specialist asbestos monitoring/surveying company. This will help you identify whether asbestos is present and assess the potential risk for fibres to be released and become airborne. You should never handle, disturb or remove asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) yourself.
Asbestos-containing material does not always have to be removed and disposed of as waste. On occasion, it can be safer to maintain it rather than disturbing the ACM by removing it. This decision should be based on a risk assessment evaluation, carried out by a specialist.
If ACM is to be repaired and maintained, this must be done safely. Any remaining material should be clearly labelled for asbestos and its location should be clearly marked on the plans of the building for future reference.
Removing asbestos-containing material is a complex procedure and must only be done by a specialist contractor. Asbestos waste is hazardous and improper removal increases the risk of fibre inhalation. There are detailed rules about how the waste should be wrapped, labelled and disposed of.
You can find further information on asbestos on the website of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and also in these practical guidelines from the Health and Safety Authority (pdf).
Protection of workers
A series of Regulations have been made to ensure that workers are protected from risks related to exposure to asbestos at work. They apply to all places of work and all sectors of work where asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) may be present, and to everyone who may be at risk from exposure when at work.
The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) plays a major role in enforcing these regulations. While the HSA deals specifically with worker protection and the industrial sector, if you are having work done in your home then it can be deemed a workplace for that purpose, and people who are working at the site must get the required level of protection for them to do their work safely, without risk to their safety or health.
The legally defined exposure limit value is 0.1 fibres per cm3 for all types of asbestos (or 100 fibres per litre of air). This is the maximum permissible concentration of asbestos fibres in the air at the workplace to which workers may be exposed. If a planned asbestos–related work activity could expose workers to a higher concentration of asbestos fibres in air, the employer must submit a written notification to the HSA 14 days before starting any work.
Employers who are responsible for people working in an environment with possible ACMs must act to protect their employees’ health. The steps to be taken include:
- Identify any ACMs before work begins and plan the work to disturb them as little as possible
- Prepare a written risk assessment and a written plan of work or method statement
- Tell employees the results of any measurement of asbestos dust in the air in their work area
- Prevent employees' exposure to asbestos or do everything possible to keep the amount of asbestos in the air to a minimum
- Use specialist contractors for any work that involves significant risk of exposure – such specialists must use suitable controls, such as dust extractors and decontamination units
- Provide appropriate protective gear for the type of work and the level of asbestos in the air
- Provide information, instruction and training, so that employees know what risks are involved and what precautions they should take
- Properly dispose of any waste that contains asbestos
You can find detailed information and advice in the HSA’s practical guidelines (pdf) on the management and containment of ACMs in workplaces. The HSA has also published an Asbestos Information Sheet, aimed at employees and safety representatives, as well as employers.
The HSA has the power to inspect sites where work with asbestos is being carried out and its inspectors can call on a site without giving notice. They must be given full access to all areas of that site to ensure that the regulations are being complied with.
The HSA’s inspectors can close down a site immediately if they have reason to believe that dangerous practices are in place. They can place a prohibition notice on the site or specific operation. This notice remains effective until the reason for issuing it has been rectified or remediated.
Breaches of the law
If you fail to take corrective action and do not meet the requirements set down in a prohibition notice, then the HSA can prosecute. If you are convicted of an offence under the Asbestos Regulations, the court can impose a fine. It can also order you to take the necessary steps to remedy the situation within a specific deadline. Failure to do this is an offence.
Local authorities are responsible for investigating incidents of air and water pollution, which would include incorrect disposal of asbestos. They can prosecute infringements of the Air Pollution Act 1987 and the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1977. Anyone who is found to be in breach of this legislation is guilty of an offence.
To make sure that a waste collection company is licensed to handle asbestos waste, check with the National Waste Collection Permit Office.
If your concerns relate to a workplace or work activity, contact the Health and Safety Authority.
If you have concerns about asbestos in public areas, contact the Environmental Officer in your local authority.
Contact the Department of Education and Skills with any concerns about the presence of asbestos in schools.