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Cancer and construction: Asbestos

This page tells you about the risk to construction workers from asbestos.

What is it?

Asbestos is a natural fibrous rock. It was widely used within homes and other buildings until 1999. There are three main types:

Asbestos acts as an insulator (to keep heat in and keep out cold), has good fire protection properties and protects against corrosion. Because of this, you may find it in many common products including ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, boilers and sprayed coatings. It was extensively used from the 1950s through to the mid-1980s but can be found in buildings built before the year 2000.

Asbestos materials present a risk to your health when the fibres become airborne. This happens if you cut, drill or otherwise break asbestos containing material during construction work. Working on or near damaged asbestos may also mean breathing in high levels of asbestos fibres. A key risk of developing an asbestos-related disease is the total number of these fibres you breathe. When done regularly, even small jobs can expose you to the danger.

What is the risk to construction workers?

Asbestos is the biggest occupational disease risk to construction workers. HSE commissioned research estimates it was responsible for the death of over 2,500 construction workers in 2005 – more than two-thirds of cancer deaths in the industry. Asbestos can cause two types of cancer:

Asbestos is also linked to other serious lung diseases:

Repeated exposure to asbestos increases your risk of developing asbestos-related diseases in the future as the effect is cumulative. These diseases however will not affect you immediately as it can take 15 to 60 years to develop any symptoms It is also important to remember that you are at a much greater risk of developing lung cancer from asbestos if you smoke.

Can you prevent this risk?

Yes. There are a number of steps you can take.

Updated 2014-10-10