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Asbestos if often dubbed "the hidden killer".  Although the use of the material has now been banned in the UK, there are still large numbers of properties where Asbestos Containing Materials are present.  Any premises that was built, or refurbished, before the year 2000 potentially have Asbestos present.

Asbestos is a material comprising many small fibres.  Asbestos becomes a risk to health when those small fibres are released into the air and are then inhaled and become lodged into the lung.  This can lead to long-term chronic conditions such as Asbestosis and Mesothelioma, which are often fatal. 

Asbestos that is in good condition, sealed and left undisturbed is usually safe and does not need to be removed.  However, it needs to be identified and managed such that, in future, it is known about and fibres are not released by nearby works.

Duty to Manage Asbestos

Regulations covering Asbestos apply to all non-domestic premises, including Churches, Places of Worship and Church Halls.  The duty is placed onto the person who has the responsibility for maintaining the premises in most cases.

The general duties are as follows:

  1. Determine where the Asbestos is located in the premises, how much there is and what condition it is in.  Any 'unknown' materials should be assumed to contain Asbestos unless there is evidence to show it does not contain the material, for example if a test has been undertaken or it was installed after the year 2000.
  2. Keep up-to-date records of the location of the Asbestos and provide information to anyone who is likely to disturb the material, which includes volunteers or employees working on property maintenance and maintenance contractors. It is common to label Asbestos containing materials as a warning for maintenance workers.
  3. Assess the risk of asbestos fibres being released which could put people at risk.  This should include a plan of how the risk to people can be minimised by preventing the release of Asbestos, with the necessary action to put this plan into place.  As with any risk assessment, this plan, and the actions taken, needs to be periodically reviewed for effectiveness.

While there is a risk to those undertaking property maintenance work if the material becomes damaged and fibres are released, it is also important to consider if others in the premises, such as the Public, could also be put at risk from Asbestos in the premises.

Some typical Asbestos Containing Materials

Asbestos was used for a long period of time with a wide variety of uses.  The material was so widely used because it was a good material for sound, electrical and thermal insulation, was relatively strong and was an affordable building material.  The following provides some examples of where the material was used (the list is by no means exhaustive).

Bullet pointInsulation boards, ceiling tiles and panels.

Bullet pointPipe insulation and water tank lagging.

Bullet pointFire protection, including being sandwiched within fire door.

Bullet pointBoard applied to the face of a door to give it a fire rating.

Bullet pointSprayed onto structural members to protect against heat in a fire.

Bullet pointFire blankets.

Bullet pointCorrugated cement sheets, often used for outbuildings such as garages and sheds.

Bullet pointPlastic floor tiles and roofing felt.

Bullet pointDecorative and textured wall and ceiling coverings.

Bullet pointWithin sanitary fittings, and 'acoustic pads' under kitchen sink drainers.

Bullet pointRainwater goods, water tanks and plumbing fixtures.

Bullet pointAs a general material for construction and property maintenance.

Bullet pointWithin equipment, such as fuse-boards, switches and motors used for organ blowers.

Bullet pointDuctwork and Conduits for cables, pipes and other services.

Note that there are different types of Asbestos (the most common are commonly called "white", "Brown" and "blue").  It is not possible to differentiate between these types by visual examination alone, so all Asbestos containing materials are to be treated as having the same level of risk.  Laboratory examination is required to determine the type of Asbestos.

Some materials are more likely to be damaged and become friable (which means that it can crumble, releasing fibres into the air).  Others materials might be safer as the Asbestos is encased in a composite, or has already been sealed or encapsulated, but this can make identification more difficult.

Work on Asbestos containing materials

A large proportion of work on Asbestos containing materials must be undertaken by a contractor that has been licensed by the Health and Safety Executive. 

Some work is exempt from this licensing regime but should still be carried out by those who are appropriately trained to do the work, and with the right precautions in place.  This 'exempt' includes work of short-duration, which is sporadic and low-intensity in nature and is carried out in such a way as to prevent the release of fibres.

Regardless of the work being licensed or exempt, the material must be correctly disposed of, to prevent a further risk to people or the environment.  It is common practice to 'double bag' the material and affix suitable warning labels, and then dispose of it as hazardous waste via a licensed waste carrier.

Anything that has been contaminated by the material is treated the same as the material itself (such as overalls and cleaning cloths).  A 'Class H' vacuum cleaner can be used to clean up asbestos dust, but it should not be swept as this pushes the fibres into the air.

The process to remove Asbestos from buildings is often time-consuming and expensive.  For this reason, it is common practice to only remove the material that has the greatest risk and leave the remaining in-situ.  However, any material that does remain should be in good condition and be sealed or encapsulated (as well as identified) to ensure that fibres are not released, and then be subject to regular inspections.

Surveying for Asbestos

The simplest form of survey for Asbestos within a building is based upon a visual inspection, which is carried out by a person who is knowledgeable about typical Asbestos materials.  In these cases, assumptions are made by comparing the materials found with those of other premises, which are known to contain Asbestos. 

Access needs to be made to those areas normally out of sight, such as roof voids, bell towers, within organ workings and around boiler plant / equipment.  It is easy to forget some areas or plant / equipment, so it is important that the survey is comprehensive.

Records can be useful in assisting with surveys.  With many newer premises, or extensions, documentation is usually produced as part of the construction work, including plans of the building and details of materials used.  It is unlikely that any such information would be available for many Churches and Places of Worship, but history books and other records might be useful to determine when works, such as the fitting of a new heating system, was carried out.

If maintenance, demolition or other similar works are to be carried out, a more detailed examination, including the taking of samples, might need to be made by a competent person to ascertain the location, type and condition of the materials to be encountered.  An alternative would be to assume that the worst kind of Asbestos is present, and that all work needs to include an (expensive) removal phase by a licensed contractor.

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