What should I do after exposure to asbestos?

A person recently exposed to asbestos or who finds out they’ve been working near it for an extended period of time may be understandably nervous. There’s no doubt that asbestos can be hazardous. It accounts for a majority of work-related deaths in the UK. Plus, specific jobs, like those in the industrial field, are more prone to asbestos exposure than others.

However, limited exposure to asbestos doesn’t have to send you into a panic. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), asbestos is most often dangerous only after prolonged exposure to large quantities. Chances are slim that one instance of asbestos exposure will cause major health problems.

Still, there is technically no “safe” asbestos exposure event. That’s why knowing what to do if exposure has occurred is essential.

exposure to asbestos

Why is asbestos exposure dangerous?

Ongoing asbestos exposure can result in several health issues. Plus, diseases can take as long as 40 years or more to develop. A job that you had fresh out of college or during the middle of your career can have significant negative impacts on your health when you’re older.

On its own, asbestos that’s undisturbed and in good condition doesn’t present a danger. But if it becomes damaged or exposed, it turns harmful. For example, let’s say that construction workers drill into the walls of an older building. They could disturb asbestos and inhale the fibres without even realising it.

Over time, asbestos may fray, tear, or simply become old. Its microscopic fibres then get released into the air, and people in the vicinity may breathe them in. Inhaling asbestos fibres causes them to stick to lung tissue. That can lead to fatal conditions like asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma, and pleural thickening. Plus, asbestos fibres often go undetected because you can’t see or smell them.

Moreover, some conditions resulting from asbestos have no cure and can require aggressive treatments, too. For example, according to the United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS), mesothelioma has no cure, and treatment may include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery.

What should you do after recent exposure to asbestos?

You’ll be wondering what to do after recent exposure to asbestos. Your top priority should be to take care of yourself. That means first alerting your employer to the presence of asbestos. Then, contacting your doctor.

Report the asbestos exposure to your employer and trade union

Alert your employer immediately. Let them know there are harmful asbestos fibres present at your workplace. Provide as many details as possible, including:

  • The date of the asbestos exposure
  • The duration of the asbestos exposure
  • The type of asbestos exposed to

Additionally, if you’re part of a trade union, they should also know about the asbestos exposure. They may be able to offer advice about what to do next or let you know your employee rights.

Contact your doctor

As soon as you notice symptoms that could result from asbestos, contact your doctor. Early diagnosis is always best. This ensures you have the best treatment options and increases your life expectancy.

Your doctor will help you make a plan so that you know the next steps to take. That plan may include the following:

  • Reviewing your medical history and your family history
  • Discussing your potential symptoms and risk factors
  • Ordering tests so you can be screened for certain diseases
  • Referring you to a specialist who has more experience with specific conditions

It’s vital that your doctor knows your family history when it comes to cancer, especially lung cancer, as it can be a risk factor.

Also, be as detailed as possible when discussing the asbestos exposure. The more information you’re able to offer, the better.

Get screened for asbestos-related conditions

Once your doctor knows about the asbestos exposure, the information will become part of your medical record. You’ll also receive advice about how to get screened for potential conditions.

Additionally, the specialists you visit will know which warning signs to look out for. For example, if respiratory issues are present, that may signal a higher risk of developing mesothelioma.

Reporting recent exposure to asbestos under RIDDOR

The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) requires employers in the UK to report dangerous workplace occurrences. That also applies to self-employed workers and those who are in control of work premises. That includes the escape or release of asbestos fibres into the air of a quantity that can damage a person’s health. Submission for RIDDOR reports is via the HSE website.

What are the common symptoms of asbestos exposure?

The most insidious part of asbestos-related diseases is that they can take years to form. You may not know that you were exposed to asbestos at some point, and you may not have any signs or symptoms until decades later.

There are no known short-term effects of asbestos exposure. However, there are early symptoms that may alert you to a developing asbestos-related condition. Those warning signs include:

  • Chest pain or heaviness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Dry cough or coughing up blood
  • Fatigue
  • Hoarseness
  • Fever
  • Muscle weakness
  • Respiratory infections
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the arms or face
  • Unexplainable loss of appetite or weight

It’s also important to note that smoking increases the risk of developing lung cancer from asbestos exposure. A smoker who has been exposed to asbestos is more likely to develop lung cancer than a non-smoker who’s been exposed to asbestos.

What should you do if you suspect the presence of asbestos?

As mentioned earlier, if you suspect that asbestos is present in your place of work, let your employer know immediately. For self-employed workers, it’s your responsibility to set up the proper testing to maintain a safe workplace.

Refer to the building’s records

See if you’re able to access the building’s records. You may find the exact location of the asbestos and what type of asbestos it is. This will make it easier to determine if it’s safely protected or if it’s posing a health risk.

Testing for asbestos

A professional can test for asbestos. They’ll analyse a sample of the material in question to determine if it contains asbestos. If it does, they’ll offer steps for what to do next. One option may be to remove the materials. Or, you may be advised to seal off the asbestos to prevent the spread of the dangerous fibres.

What should you do if you are likely to come into contact with asbestos as part of your work?

Some jobs are more susceptible to asbestos exposure than others. For example, it’s common for professionals in industrial processing or trade work to come in contact with asbestos.

Your employer should require you to take certain preventative measures and wear protective equipment if asbestos is present. The type of work also plays a role in the regulations to follow.

For example, a building undergoing refurbishment may end up having exposed asbestos. That will present a high risk to workers. In this case, the employer may have to notify the authorities. Also, specialists will have to remove or seal any asbestos found.

Alternatively, if asbestos exists but it’s not disturbed, it isn’t a risk to workers. The only step may be to ensure it remains protected.

Once the risk of asbestos exposure is assessed, the employer should come up with a asbestos management plan in order to keep workers safe. Employee asbestos awareness training and a policy statement are two examples of how a workplace may handle the presence of asbestos to prevent workers from coming into contact with it.

What are the responsibilities of employers and landlords?

Not all buildings contain asbestos. The UK has banned all types of asbestos since 1999. That means newer buildings do not carry the concern of asbestos exposure. However, older buildings may have asbestos in the flooring, roofing, or walls, among other areas.

COSHH does not cover asbestos, but that’s because asbestos is a large enough issue to have its own set of laws. Employers and landlords have to follow those regulations for managing and working with asbestos.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations have been in effect since April 2012. The code “provides guidance text for employers about work which disturbs, or is likely to disturb, asbestos, asbestos sampling and laboratory analysis.”

Focus on the safety of your employees

Any amount of exposure to asbestos should be treated seriously. Many conditions that result from asbestos exposure have no cure. They may also require aggressive treatment, and sometimes they become fatal.

It’s integral that you know what to do if asbestos exposure occurs. It can be the difference between preventing deadly conditions and keeping you and your employees safe.

To learn more about how we can help or advise you on all matters relating to asbestos, please contact the Oracle Solutions team today. We will be able to provide a fast, free and competitive quote for any of our highly regarded asbestos management services.

Photo of Brendan Coleman

Written by Brendan Coleman

Brendan Coleman, with decades of experience in the asbestos industry, is a dedicated Quality Manager. Certified as a surveyor and analyst, he is adept in operations and quality management with a keen focus on HSE compliance. His expertise is pivotal in maintaining high safety and efficiency standards. Brendan ensures our UKAS accreditation requirements are consistently met and exceeded, upholding stringent standards in asbestos remediation. His commitment to enhancing quality and customer satisfaction makes him an essential advisor in asbestos management.