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:

  • Crocidolite (also known as blue asbestos)
  • Amosite (also known as brown asbestos)
  • Chrysotile (also known as white asbestos)

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 construction materials and building fittings 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. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 set standards for the protection of workers and others from the risks of exposure to asbestos.

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:

  • Mesothelioma – a cancer of the lung lining. It is always fatal and is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos.
  • Asbestos-related lung cancer – this is almost always fatal.

Asbestos is also linked to other serious lung diseases:

  • Asbestosis – a scarring of the lungs. It is not always fatal but can be a very debilitating disease, greatly affecting quality of life.
  • Diffuse pleural thickening – a thickening of the membrane surrounding the lungs. This can restrict lung expansion leading to breathlessness.

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, beginning with always considering the possibility that the property you are working on may contain asbestos.

Before the start of maintenance, refurbishment, demolition or any other type of construction work, employers must identify the presence of asbestos as part of their risk assessment.

The owners or managers of non-domestic premises have a duty to manage asbestos. This involves identifying and recording the location and condition of any asbestos. This record must be made available to anyone carrying out work to help them to manage the risks of exposure to themselves, their employees and others. You should ask to see a copy of this to help you assess the risks and decide on any control measures you may need to put in place.

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Updated 2023-12-04