Asbestos disturbance

First response: asbestos

In the first of an occasional series on early crisis intervention, we set out the steps to take if asbestos is disturbed on your premises. 

Image credit: ©iStock/sturti

It’s all too common; a hole drilled, a ceiling tile removed, a wall demolished, cables run and so on. But routine activities become problematic when asbestos is disturbed. It starts with a suspicion, the electrician or plumber becomes concerned about the material they have just disturbed or the employee looks worriedly at the dust on the floor or on their desk. The job stops and matters soon escalate – if it’s a building site, the work stops; a factory or office and staff get sent home; if a school, the school closes. Before you know it, you’re in the local news: “Killer asbestos exposed”.

What next? Concern, fear, significant expenditure, bad publicity and possibly prosecution. Staff ask whether they are at risk of an asbestos-related disease. Should they see their doctor and have a scan? Does the incident need to be reported to the authorities?


Clear instruction

When you receive the call or find the dust, what should you do first?

Whatever the exposure and whatever the risk, the first response should be to stop the disturbance; the second should be to isolate the location.

In those first few minutes, it is important that you or whoever takes charge of the situation gets a clear description of what has happened from whoever disturbed the asbestos or noticed the disturbance. Then you need quickly to close off all areas of potential contamination as far as possible to prevent further exposure.

In many cases isolation will be straightforward and you can just lock off the room or stairwell where the disturbance occurred. If the space is occupied, tell employees to leave the area and not to take anything with them. It is important to avoid unnecessary panic and concern but you must get everyone away from the disturbance.

If the space is occupied, tell employees to leave the area and not to take anything with them

If the disturbance is in a large open-plan floor, the same principles typically apply but, if the disturbance is localised, it would be reasonable to cordon off only the affected area. The cordon size depends on the disturbance; one hole drilled into an asbestos-containing material (ACM) may warrant a modest 20 m exclusion zone, but a more significant disturbance may require a larger exclusion zone, say 50 m to 100 m. Nobody must be allowed anywhere near the disturbed material.

There may be multiple areas to close off. This could be the area of work but also any areas that the contractors walked through or took breaks in before the alert was sounded.

In some cases, the building will need to be evacuated. I have dealt with situations when asbestos cement roofs have been power - jetted without control and asbestos - containing slurry has spread throughout the building.

There are no hard-and-fast rules, so just consider how far the dust and fibre is likely to have travelled or been spread due to the disturbance. Once you know more, you may be able to relax the level of isolation. The cost of closing a shop or of lost productivity should not weigh in the balance. If halting production would be unsafe, anyone who has to stay in the exclusion zone should be provided with appropriate personal protective equipment.

Anyone who has received bodily contamination should change and shower, and their original clothing should be bagged and disposed of. This does not include people who have not had contact with the disturbed material, but anyone using a power tool on an ACM probably has some contamination.

If in doubt, close off as much of the area or building as you believe is necessary, erring on the side of caution, then seek advice from an occupational hygienist or asbestos specialist.

Scope definition

Once contamination is contained and anyone who has come into direct contact with the material is decontaminated, the clean-up must start.

At this point, a clear description of what happened is essential. Who did what, where did they go and when? If a person drills a hole in an asbestos ceiling tile and work stops, the situation is clear and contained. If several people are involved and the disturbance took place over hours or days the remedial work may have to extend to toilets, mess areas and even workers’ cars.

Many organisations choose to do an air test in the affected area, which invariably “passes”, registering less than 0.01 fibre/ml. I hear too many people say “they didn’t find any airborne asbestos” or the tests “came up clear”. The air test is fairly meaningless and at fewer than 10,000 fibres per m3 of air – this is the same as <0.01 fibre/ml – it is easily passed, though if there has been significant disturbance, it may provide reassurance that levels have fallen.


Martin Stear is a chartered occupational hygienist, fellow of the BOHS Faculty of Occupational Hygiene and co-runs an independent consultancy. He was an HSE principal specialist inspector from 1993 until 2004.


  • The worrying factor about

    Permalink Submitted by Stephen Bowdler on 28 April 2016 - 02:04 pm

    The worrying factor about most asbestos disturbance is that persons conducting work do not ask for asbestos surveys, the Client does not always ask the contractor to read and sign to prove they are aware of asbestos content and finally most Clients and others associated with planning works do not ensure that a refurbishment survey is conducted for building works rather rely on a management survey or even in some cases a visual inspection (type 1 survey).
    This would go some way to prevent the disturbances occurring in the first place.

    • In reply to Stephen, I would

      Permalink Submitted by Phil on 12 May 2016 - 11:20 am

      In reply to Stephen, I would argue that the clear legal duty is with 'the Employer' and that in the context of the legislation, this is taken to mean the Client. He must ensure that a suitable and sufficient assessment is made [Reg.5(a)], he must from that assess the work which might expose an employee (Contractor) to asbestos [Reg.6], and must not undertake any work on asbestos without having prepared a suitable plan [Reg.7]. The employee is not required to read and sign to prove they are aware of asbestos content; it is an explicit duty of the employer to make sure that any employee is given adequate information, instruction and training [Reg.10]. The client when he employs a contractor should therefore supply the contractor with the information about what he does and does not want to be disturbed and how any disturbance work will be carried out. If he is not competent to provide this information, most asbestos surveying companies will be willing to advise.

  • We carry out repair work for

    Permalink Submitted by John Thistlethwaite on 1 June 2016 - 03:50 pm

    We carry out repair work for the major insurance companies and we regularly have escape of water that brings down ceilings with artex on them in domestic properties, we visit the PH and usually they have cleaned up the ceiling waste into their waste bins, how do we treat these type of contaminations following the HSE guidelines which are written for commercial situations?

  • Regardless of whether they

    Permalink Submitted by Stuart on 19 October 2016 - 04:16 pm

    Regardless of whether they are householders or not, they should be treated no differently to anyone else. My advice would be to get in touch with the insurer immediately and voice your concerns. The insurer should have a system in place to assess the claim and any potential risks/hazards before sending a contractor on site. Sadly it does happen, I had a plasterer ask me a very similar questions a few weeks back.


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