Asbestos in plumbing: Protecting Your workforce
Asbestos was renowned for its insulating, heat-resistant and fire retardant properties. Coupled with it being a relatively affordable material, it is not surprising that asbestos was commonly used within plumbing and heating materials such as boilers, water tanks, calorifiers, pipes, gaskets and valves. Here, SOCOTEC suggests some before starting works on asbestos in plumbing.
Workers within the plumbing industry have been identified as one of the highest risk groups for being exposed to the fibrous mineral, so arming your workforce with the knowledge of where asbestos can be commonly found in plumbing and heating materials will help to protect them from the health risks associated with exposure to Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs).
This does not just stop at heating and plumbing materials, either. Asbestos exposure also includes other ACMs in areas that plumbers may be exposed to, such as debris on floors, asbestos insulating board (AIB) walls that pipes may be screwed to and AIB boxing that requires unscrewing to get access to the pipes.
When was asbestos used in plumbing?
In the early 20th century, asbestos was used within pipes and insulation in both domestic and commercial properties to heat water and prevent condensation. Brown asbestos (amosite) was most commonly used within water insulation products due to its high resistance to heat. Furthermore, chrysotile (white) asbestos was used in pipes, gaskets, cement sheets and asbestos cement for its durability.
Present in both residential and commercial properties, asbestos in plumbing can vary significantly in terms of its overall appearance and texture, making it more challenging to identify. In particular, water pipes that are insulated with asbestos are usually covered in a protective coating, which is often painted and therefore even harder to distinguish. There have also been occasions where paint has been found to contain asbestos, too.
Common locations of asbestos in plumbing materials include:
- Insulation – asbestos was often applied to water pipes, on boilers, calorifiers, on tanks and to flue pipes. These can be located in plant rooms, loft spaces, ceiling voids, riser cupboards and floor ducts. The asbestos insulation is either hand applied directly to the pipework, boilers, water tanks or calorifiers, or in the form of pre-made sectional pipe insulation wrapped in a textile ‘plumbers wrap’. Asbestos insulation (lagging) was applied wet, so residue can be found on brackets and other surfaces near to pipe runs (even when the original pipe lagging may be removed)
- Pumps, valves and gaskets – asbestos compressed gaskets have been used extensively
- Heat shields – installed around hot water heaters (often made of asbestos millboard)
- Joint compounds – used around pipes due to its insulating properties.
- Asbestos cement – used to make products such as flue pipes, toilet cisterns, water tanks and rainwater goods, as it was resistant to internal and external corrosion.
- Bath panels – older bath panels were often manufactured using asbestos cement or asbestos-insulating board.
What is the recommended course of action before starting works on asbestos in plumbing?
The duty holder is responsible for managing asbestos risk within the property, and contractors must review the asbestos register before starting their work. As long as asbestos is in good condition and is not disturbed, it will not pose any risk to health. However, exposed asbestos-containing pipes and wraps can easily admit airborne fibres, as can any asbestos that has been left to deteriorate and become friable (is brittle and flakes easily). In the event of discovering or accidentally disturbing asbestos, work should be stopped immediately, the area should be cleared and the issue reported to the relevant individuals as soon as possible.
The duty holder should then organise a qualified surveyor to sample and test the asbestos, as well as providing information on location, amount and the type of ACM/s. If it has been confirmed to contain asbestos, an asbestos management plan should be implemented on the premises locating the presence of ACMs and assess the condition, type and risks.
How are plumbers exposed to asbestos?
According to the HSE, asbestos exposure kills four plumbers every week. Furthermore, the HSE’s Mesothelioma mortality by occupation statistics in Great Britain, there were 415 deaths from asbestos-related diseases from plumbers, heating and ventilating engineers in 2021. The risk of asbestos exposure is significant within the plumbing industry given the requirement to drill, join, grind, cut and repair plumbing materials, as well as handle, remove and replace parts such as pipes, pumps, gaskets and valves. Plumbers have also been known to handle asbestos cloth, which is placed behind pipe joints to heat them up prior to soldering.
All of these activities increase the chance of damaging/disturbing the asbestos and releasing fibres into the air, increasing the risk of mesothelioma and similar asbestos-related illnesses. Friable asbestos is particularly dangerous, given that the fine asbestos fibres are even more likely to be released into the air and inhaled.
What legislation is in place to protect my workforce against the risks of asbestos in plumbing?
The Control of Asbestos Regulations (2012) identify who is responsible for managing asbestos and sets out the steps that duty holders must carry out to reduce the level of risk. In line with Regulation 10 of CAR 2012, organisations must ensure that anyone who may be liable to disturbing asbestos during their work receives the correct level of information and training to carry out the plumbing work safely and competently.
Plumbers must be properly trained in asbestos awareness and must know how to report findings prior to undertaking work around asbestos. Employers/duty holders should ensure that plumbers are well informed as to where ACM/s are located on the premises so that they do not accidentally disturb or remove it. Finally, Regulation 5 of CAR 2012 states that employers must not undertake work which exposes/is liable to expose employees to asbestos in any premises.
In addition, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places a duty on every employer to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work for all employees and non-employees who may be affected by the employer’s activities. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 further expands upon these duties by requiring employers to assess health and safety risks to their workforce.
Safety & Health Podcast
In this episode, we speak to campaigner and SHP’s Most Influential Individual in health & safety, Dr Mavis Nye about her work raising awareness of dangers of asbestos exposure. Plus, a sleep expert talks about how a good night’s sleep can lead to a safer day at work.
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