How can I determine if the material I am working with contains asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous silicate mineral that was once very widely used in the UK, including in such industries as construction and shipbuilding. However, the substance has since gained a notorious reputation, due to the link between asbestos inhalation and potentially fatal disease. Indeed, for this reason, the use of asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1999.

That ban in 1999, however, did not include an automatic requirement to remove asbestos from any and all UK buildings in which the substance had already been installed. Various estimates have been made as to how widespread the carcinogenic material is in UK buildings today; some sources have suggested asbestos might still be spread across approximately 1.5 million buildings around the country.

This underlines the scale of the challenge that the ongoing management of asbestos on such sites – encompassing residential, commercial, and public buildings alike – represents, even more than two decades after the ban on the substance’s use.

Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are believed to pose negligible risk to health if they are in good condition and undisturbed. However, in the event of such disturbance occurring, or ACMs deteriorating in condition, there could be a risk of loose asbestos fibres being released into the air.

Such individual asbestos fibres are barely discernible to the human eye. However, if they are breathed in, the exposed individual could be an elevated risk of developing a potentially fatal asbestos-related disease, such as mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer, later in life.

This will hopefully give you a sense of why it is so important to ensure the accurate identification of ACMs in a building for which you are responsible. It will help you to make informed decisions on the management of the ACMs, so that you can achieve compliance with the UK’s stringent asbestos regulations, in addition to protecting the safety of anyone who uses your building.

Knowing how to identify suspected ACMs will also naturally be crucial if you intend to work with certain materials that theoretically could contain asbestos. So, below, we have delved deeper into this critically important topic.

How can I determine if the material I am working with contains asbestos?

What are some common asbestos-containing materials and their uses?

Asbestos – prized for such qualities as its relative affordability, attainability, physical strength, effectiveness as an insulator, and ability to resist fire – was first commercially mined in the 19th century. It came to be particularly heavily used in UK construction projects from around the 1950s until the 1980s, although it took until late 1999 for a UK ban on all forms of asbestos to be finally handed down.

Such was the scale of the material’s use at its peak, that thousands of products ultimately had asbestos incorporated into them. These included such common items, found in UK buildings, as:

  • Roofing tiles
  • Cement guttering
  • Asbestos insulating board
  • Lagging for the insulation of pipes and boilers
  • “Artex” decorative coatings
  • Floor tiles

ACMs like the above might be especially likely to be found in the workplace when an obviously disruptive activity to the fabric of the building, such as renovation or demolition, is being carried out.

However, those are not the only circumstances in which asbestos-containing materials may be encountered. Much concern has been voiced, for example, about how such a simple act as a schoolteacher pinning up student work on a noticeboard could release thousands of asbestos fibres for each drawing pin used. So, it is vital to avoid complacency about the variety of situations in which someone on a site may come across asbestos.

What are the methods of Visual identification of asbestos-containing materials?

Before we go any further, we should emphasise that depending on visuals alone to guide you in attempting to identify asbestos-containing materials, has its limitations and is fraught with risk. The subject of asbestos identification is a very deep one, so if you suspect that a particular product you have spotted in your property contains asbestos, you are urged to seek help from a reputable asbestos surveying company.

That warning notwithstanding, here are some broad guidelines that might assist you in identifying potential ACMs:

  • AppearanceGiven the many thousands of asbestos-containing products that came to be used in the UK prior to 1999, it can be tricky to use appearance as a way of judging whether asbestos is likely to be present in a particular item. However, it could be helpful to know something about the distinctive appearance of various types of asbestos.There are three main types of asbestos, with their differences in colour helping to make them distinguishable. The most dangerous form of asbestos, crocidolite, is a light blueish white, and consists of long and thin fibres (which could be something to bear in mind if a suspect product shows signs of damage or deterioration).Chrysotile asbestos, meanwhile, is white in colour, and comprises curly fibres that were arranged in a layered structure when incorporated into products. As for amosite asbestos, this is brown, and presents the most serious risk of cancer in someone exposed to it, although it is a more common sight in the US than in the UK.

    As we stated earlier, you cannot depend on spotting individual asbestos fibres, as they are too small. However, in instances where those fibres are in a large group or clumped together, and/or the suspected ACMs have been broken or split, you may be able to see the aforementioned visual characteristics much more easily.

  • TextureThe texture of a given material could give clues as to the likelihood of it being asbestos. Consider, for instance, the product’s surface pattern; most asbestos materials tend to have a dimpled or swirl pattern on their surface, whereas newer materials that don’t contain asbestos, are normally smoother in their surface texture.
  • AgeIf you know that a particular product you are scrutinising definitely dates from prior to the year 2000, or is likely to be from before that time (for example, because you know the construction date of the building or when a given part of the premises was last renovated), this will massively increase the probability of the product containing asbestos.

Do I need to commission professional asbestos testing and why?

Ultimately, no matter how well-informed you may be in identifying telltale signs of a product containing asbestos, there is only one way to confirm whether that product contains asbestos: arranging to have it professionally tested.

So, we would strongly urge you to enquire to a trustworthy asbestos surveying company, which will then be able to advise you on the process involved, and the type of survey that will suit your needs. Asbestos surveying entails a sample of a suspected ACM being taken and then sent to a laboratory for testing, so that it can be determined whether asbestos is contained inside.

As we have written about in the past at Oracle Solutions, there are various things that you should look for and bear in mind as you compare your options for an asbestos surveying company. Those will include:

  • Whether the company is accredited by a reputable external organisation such as the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS)
  • The training that the company’s personnel have undergone, and their knowhow and experience. Your chosen asbestos surveyor should, as a minimum requirement, hold the P402 qualification, and we would also urge you to keep a lookout for UKAS accreditation to ISO/IEC 17020, which specifically indicates the given company’s technical competence
  • Whether the asbestos surveying company represents a good fit for your building, circumstances and/or project. For example, if the property that you are looking to have surveyed is an office block at which you intend to carry out refurbishment or demolition work, you will need to seek out a company that provides asbestos refurbishment or demolition surveys.

What should you do if you suspect asbestos?

Another subject we have previously addressed in the Oracle Solutions Learning Centre, is what you should do in the event of finding materials on your site that you suspect to be asbestos (whether or not you might have disturbed these materials).

You can click through to our article to read more, but the essential steps are as follows:

  • Cease any work you are carrying out in the given location immediately. This will enable you to arrange for the materials to be tested for asbestos, instead of putting anyone using your premises at further risk.
  • Prevent anyone else (other than asbestos professionals) from entering the area. Depending on the circumstances, this is likely to entail you physically sealing off the area and putting up a warning sign reading, “possible asbestos contamination”. Anyone who does need to enter the area for the purposes of investigating and identifying the material, will need to be wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and respiratory protective equipment (RPE).
  • Report the issue of the suspected ACMs to whoever is in charge. The person who has responsibility for the site work or building will need to be immediately alerted. This individual will have their own legal and moral responsibilities in how they deal with suspected ACMs, so letting them know will enable them to take quick and appropriate action.
  • Arrange for a sample of the suspected ACMs to be taken and tested. To reiterate a key theme of this article: you can’t depend on simply looking at the given material in order to determine whether it definitely is or is not asbestos. So, placing your trust in a reputable provider of asbestos sample testing will be essential.
  • In the event of the material not containing asbestos, work can resume. If it emerges from the testing of the sample that there is not any asbestos contained within it, you will be able to continue using the affected area in the same way you were using it previously.
  • If the material does contain asbestos, reach out to a licensed asbestos contractor. You will need to take responsible measures to deal with confirmed ACMs, which may involve the material being left in place and monitored over time, or instead removed from your site. A licensed contractor will be able to advise you on the most suitable steps to take, so that you can keep users of your buildings safe, at the same time as achieving compliance with the UK’s stringent regulations on asbestos management.

What are the different types of asbestos training and awareness?

There are three main levels of asbestos training in the UK. These are:

  • Asbestos awareness training
  • Non-licensable work with asbestos, including notifiable non-licensed work (NNLW)
  • Licensable work with asbestos

The latter two types of training are aimed at those who know they will be working directly on asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), carrying out tasks such as the removal of the substance from a building. We have detailed the circumstances in which these different forms of training are typically required, in our comprehensive guide to asbestos training in the UK.

As for asbestos awareness training, also called category A or Cat A training, this is the most basic form of asbestos training in the UK.

Crucially, asbestos awareness training is not aimed at people who will be knowingly and directly working on asbestos materials. Instead, it is geared to the requirements of individuals who carry out work within or on any building or structure where they conceivably could come across – and be exposed to – asbestos materials.

Asbestos awareness training, then, is required by a much broader range of workers than is the case for the other types of asbestos training mentioned here. Examples of such workers include (but are not limited to) the likes of construction workers, demolition workers, general maintenance staff, plumbers, electricians, plasterers, roofers, and painters and decorators.

Conclusion: equipping yourself with a little asbestos knowledge can make a big difference

Naturally, if you are reading this article as someone who is not professionally qualified in the field of asbestos surveying, management, and/or removal, you cannot hope to acquire the broad-based and wide-ranging knowledge a professional has in how to identify potential ACMs (or at least, you will not gain such a level of knowledge simply from reading a few articles like this one).

Nonetheless, it is still greatly important to know some of the basics of how you might spot suspected ACMs in a property for which you are responsible. This will help you to take the actions we have outlined in this article that will prioritise the health and safety of everyone who uses your buildings (as well as, of course, legal compliance).

Professional testing and training will both have major roles to play in ensuring such safety. So, if you do find any materials on your premises that you think may contain asbestos, please don’t hesitate to seek qualified expert guidance. Doing so will help ensure you make all the right decisions in how you deal with such materials.

Mark Carter

Written by Mark Carter

Mark Carter is a renowned expert in asbestos management, offering clients vital guidance on compliance and safety. His expertise is invaluable for navigating asbestos regulations, ensuring both safety and legal adherence. Mark's role is central in providing effective asbestos-related solutions, helping clients achieve their business objectives with an emphasis on regulatory compliance and safety in asbestos management.