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Asbestos testing – how to identify and test for asbestos

Posted by Tracy Seward

  • Learn about asbestos and its risks to the health and safety of employees, occupants of premises contractors.
  • Discover how to identify asbestos, where it is found and asbestos testing options.
  • Understand what you need to do to prepare and check for asbestos.

Asbestos remains the single biggest cause of work-related death in the UK, killing approximately 5,000 people each year.

Widely used as a building material until its ban in 1999, asbestos is a mineral that in itself isn’t harmful. However, when asbestos is abraded, damaged or disturbed, it releases tiny fibres into the air which if inhaled can cause serious illnesses, often years after exposure. For this reason, asbestos is known as a silent killer. Around 20 tradespeople die each week in the UK due to previous exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos may be present in any premises built or refurbished before 2000 or in certain plant, equipment and machinery. Knowing what asbestos is, how to identify asbestos and how to safely conduct asbestos testing is critical for premises Duty-Holders, owners and tradespeople.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 place duties on organisations and their Duty-Holders which are in control of premises and plant that have asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). The regulations, approved codes of practice and guidance are there to reduce the risk of accidental exposure to asbestos through assessment, management controls, training workers and raising asbestos awareness.

Planning and undertaking asbestos management or refurbishment and demolition surveys is an important stage in managing risk before authorising any maintenance, refurbishment or demolition work. Asbestos surveys also help in developing an asbestos management plan that prevents accidental damage and exposures to ACMs.

Help keep your premises and workers safe from the risks of asbestos exposure with our IATP Approved Asbestos Awareness Course. Meeting and exceeding the guidance associated with the Control of Asbestos 2012 Regulations, it helps organisations meet their legal obligation to train workers who could be exposed to ACMs.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos testing - close up of asbestos fibres

Example of asbestiform riebeckite ore, also known as crocidolite or blue asbestos.

Asbestos is a general name for naturally occurring silicate minerals that form microscopic fibres. There are three main types of asbestos:

  • Chrysotile – known as white asbestos, which was fully banned in 1999.
  • Amosite – known as brown asbestos.
  • Crocidolite – known as blue asbestos which, along with brown asbestos, was banned in 1985.

Before the dangers of asbestos were known, it was widely used as a construction material since the 1950s. A strong and cheap mineral, asbestos’ heat-resistant and electrical insulation properties made it ideal for use in fireproofing and insulation. While the use of asbestos was finally banned in the UK in 1999, any premises constructed before 2000 may still contain ACM’s as can certain equipment, plant and machinery.

What are the problems caused by asbestos?

If ACMs are left intact, asbestos poses little risk to health. It’s only when its fibres are released into the air and are inhaled – which can happen during maintenance, repairs, refurbishment and demolition where there is disturbance or breaking into the fabric of the building, cutting, drilling or there is unauthorised and poorly controlled removal – that health is put at risk.

Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause serious lung damage, though it can take decades for previous exposure to asbestos particles to trigger health issues.

Exposure to asbestos can lead to a number of serious illnesses:

  • Mesothelioma – a form of lung cancer that affects the lining of the lungs and lower digestive tract.
  • Asbestos-related lung cancer – a form of lung cancer triggered by asbestos.
  • Asbestosis – scarring of the lung with symptoms including wheezing, persistent cough and chest pain.
  • Pleural thickening – causes shortness of breath and chest discomfort due to thickening of the lining of the lungs.

Who is at risk of asbestos exposure?

Tradespeople are at risk of asbestos, including construction workers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, plasterers and painters. Less obvious trades, such as telecommunications engineers, computer and data installers, shopfitters and ventilation engineers are also at risk if their work involves disturbing materials that could contain ACMs.

Contractors, building and constructions workers and tradespeople are most at risk when working in premises that were built before 2000, or on plant, equipment and machinery at unfamiliar sites without a survey and risk assessment having been carried out or available information provided by the Duty Holder. Risks increase where workers have not had approved asbestos awareness training for the type of work to be undertaken supported by clear instruction and relevant information about the premises or equipment.

Where can you find asbestos?

ACMs are common in premises such as warehouses, factories, colleges, schools, shops and offices, and typically include:

  • Asbestos insulating board (AIB), used in ceiling tiles, partition walls, fire door panels and soffits.
  • Asbestos cement, used in gutters, roofing, water tanks and cement panels.
  • Textiles, such as fire blankets and vinyl floor tiles.
  • Sprayed coatings, such as on ceilings, beams, walls and columns.
  • Insulation, such as loose-fill insulation, and lagging for boilers and pipes.

Residential buildings, such as care homes and hotel accommodation, may feature ACMs such as:

  • Insulation, such as lagging and loose-fill insulation.
  • AIB such as behind fireplaces, behind fuse boxes and in ceiling tiles.
  • Toilet seats, toilet cisterns and roofing felt.

If in doubt, it is best to assume the premises contains asbestos until you can confirm otherwise with the Duty Holder or through asbestos surveys and testing.

Asbestos awareness training

Ensuring workers and contractors are fully aware of asbestos, its risks and how to identify asbestos is a legal requirement. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 requires Duty Holders of premises such as offices and warehouses to manage any asbestos on-site, including ensuring worker awareness and training for employees who may come into contact with asbestos, such as maintenance, repair, installers, facilities personnel and contractors.

As part of any risk assessment and asbestos management plan, you’ll need to understand the competency levels required to identify ACMs and who to engage to conduct asbestos surveys and undertake testing to help formulate a premises management plan.

What is asbestos testing?

Asbestos testing - how to check for asbestos

Asbestos testing happens as part of a management or refurbishment and demolition survey where samples are taken from likely or known locations of ACMs in premises. Testing usually involves taking single or bulk samples under strictly controlled conditions by a competent person and sending them to a UKAS accredited lab for analysis. Surveys for ACM’s and subsequent testing is essential before any work is carried out that may disturb ACMs.

Asbestos testing involves several stages:

  1. Preparing for a test
  2. Testing for asbestos
  3. Developing an asbestos risk register and management plan

How to prepare for asbestos testing

1. Create a plan

Decide who will be responsible for asbestos management, including arranging testing, monitoring and communicating results. The Duty Holder should maintain an asbestos register listing the location of ACMs, set up a schedule for monitoring their condition and create a management plan for informing those that may be at risk from ACMs resident at the premises or who may visit periodically to undertake work on the fabric of the premises.

2. Survey the building

Clearly label asbestos-containing materials on site

Clearly label asbestos-containing materials on site.

Locate any previous records of ACMs. You may need to contact your facilities management company if this is outsourced, as well as check with suppliers, construction companies that have worked on-site and previous owners to determine if any ACMs are present. If you’re unsure, you must conduct an asbestos management survey. If you don’t carry out an ACM survey, you must assume that all materials are ACMs and control accordingly.

3. Decide on the type of survey required

There are two types of asbestos survey depending on the work intended to be carried out – an asbestos management survey, and a refurbishment and demolition survey.

Asbestos management survey Refurbishment and demolition survey
Why conduct this survey? Plan how ACMs on-site are managed during normal occupation, ensuring ACMs are identified, are in good condition and are undisturbed. Locates and identifies all ACMs before structural work commences to ensure no-one is harmed from ACMs and work is carried out properly.
Type of test Site survey and sample materials assessment. Site survey including potential destructive inspection and controlled ACM disturbance.
Expertise Requires a competent person. Requires a competent person.
Records Records the condition, location, type and results from any materials tested. Provides extensive information about the location and type of ACMs in the premises.

How to test for asbestos

Asbestos testing should only be carried out by a qualified, competent person

Asbestos testing should only be carried out by a qualified, competent person

Surveys, sampling and tests associated with ACM’s must be undertaken by a competent person(s) and accredited specialist organisations.


Asbestos safety

  • NEVER break off or disturb suspected ACMs.
  • Avoid contamination and exposing anyone to dust or particles from ACMs.
  • Engage a competent surveyor to conduct the survey
  • Ensure all worker awareness training is undertaken
  • Based on the findings of a survey create an asbestos risk register and management plan, including ACM locations and place warning signs near ACMs where possible.
Don’t leave it to chance. Our Asbestos Awareness course is accredited by the IATP and IOSH, delivering effective online training to help your employees identify and recognise the risks from asbestos-containing materials in premises.
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