Why asbestos awareness is important for electricians

03 February 2015

As any electrician knows, the job comes complete with plenty of hazards, and safety awareness is an essential part of a good electrician’s training.  Yet one area that often goes neglected is the issue of asbestos, despite it being just as deadly as any of the other hazards encountered during the completion of electrical work.asbestos

Asbestos is a hidden killer: easy to miss and difficult to diagnose.  If breathed in, its fibres can cause asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma. The worst aspect of these lung diseases is that they can take anywhere from 15 to 60 years to appear.

The good news is that, nowadays, the life-threatening risks of asbestos are more commonly known than in the past and its use has been banned from modern buildings. But there is some bad news.  Asbestos is still highly likely to be found in older buildings; in fact, anywhere built or refurbished before the year 2000. These older buildings are, of course, more likely to be in need of maintenance and repair, making it doubly essential that electricians are aware of the risks.

The situation for electricians is made more difficult as there are no obvious places within older buildings as to where asbestos may most likely be found.  Asbestos was most commonly either sprayed onto steel work: used to lag pipes or boilers, or to clad walls or soffits; or deployed as fire break material and laid between floors or sandwiched within doors.  A particular problem for electricians is that asbestos was also commonly used inside fuse assemblies and fuse boxes. 

So what’s the best way to avoid coming into contact with asbestos? 

The essential advice is to “handle with extreme care.”  Nowadays, the owners of commercial buildings have a legal obligation to undertake professional surveys of their construction and infrastructure; these provide the framework for an “Asbestos register” which tells contractors where the risks are. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that any survey will be absolutely complete and domestic homes do not require one.

As a result, unless an electrician has good reason to know that a material is safe, the advised course of action is to presume that asbestos is present and assess the risks they might be facing appropriately.  For example, best practice as defined by the Health & Safety Executive is to replace the whole fuse box rather than individual components or assemblies.

Identifying specific risks can also be hampered by the diversity of asbestos products likely to be encountered; indeed, the term ‘asbestos’ refers to a family of several unique substances.  While all of these present a hazard, some types present more of a risk than others.  The more friable or degradable the asbestos is, the greater the chance of fibres being released into the atmosphere and inhaled. 

Education and Training is vital to minimise the risks

Ideally, education and training are vital if an electrician is to spot such hazards, and thereby determine the action required. A well-informed electrician will be able to assess the risks on an ongoing basis, for example knowing when to protect themselves with a respirator, or how they might deal with the minor contamination of clothing.   

The Health and Safety Executive provides a variety of useful information, including its “Asbestos Essentials” guides,  http://www.hse.gov.uk/ASBESTOS/essentials/index.htm,  which includes specific guidance  for electricians.  

Specialised asbestos awareness training is also available from reputable organisations such as Develop Training. Develop Training provides asbestos awareness courses, which are tailored to the needs of operatives, site managers or duty-holders, as well as an extensive range of specialist HV and LV electrical training.

Click here to view Asbestos Awareness Training Courses