Despite its use being outlawed in the UK in 1999, (five years ahead of the European deadline) asbestos remains an ongoing threat to firefighters. Its widespread use in buildings throughout Britain means the problem is not going away any time soon. Today’s firefighters will continue to need adequate training to recognise asbestos, and understand the risks posed by exposure to asbestos fibres.
Despite advances in knowledge, equipment and technology over the last few decades, by its very nature, firefighters are engaged in a dangerous profession. The traditional threats from fire and smoke are well documented, but asbestos remains and will continue to be a considerable risk for the foreseeable future. As a hidden killer lurking in many buildings, asbestos is at its most lethal when airborne fibres are inhaled mixed with smoke and other fumes.
Several compensation claims for asbestos related illness have been made by firefighters active in the 1970s who were either not aware of the risks of asbestos or not given sufficient PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for the task at hand. When looking at the risks from asbestos, smoke inhalation remains the most common, but asbestos is such a commonplace material that firefighters can come into contact with it in a variety of ways.
Asbestos blankets were used in the past to put out fires and even training exercises where firefighters had to crawl into confined spaces could see them come into contact with asbestos dust – particularly as plasterboard and pipes were historically lagged with asbestos. Most ironic of all, early protective clothing for firefighters once contained asbestos – solving one safety problem but creating another.
The risks today
Today’s firefighters are better protected from asbestos. Awareness is greater, and training coupled with modern PPE and RPE which have developed in leaps and bounds is undoubtedly saving lives. Yet the risk from asbestos has not gone away. The grim statistical facts reveal asbestos remains the UKs biggest workplace killer. To put this into context, more people in the UK die from asbestos related diseases each year than are killed in road accidents.
Firefighters need to be aware of the risks to themselves, but also to the general public should a blazing building be known to contain asbestos. As asbestos was only banned outright in 2000, any building built before this date almost certainly contains asbestos in some form, so widespread was its use as a building material.
Asbestos is fire retardant and will not burn, but the release of the fibres into the atmosphere pose a health risk if they are inhaled. Diseases like asbestosis and mesothelioma are killers and there is no known cure for asbestos related diseases.
The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 encourages building occupiers, (including public bodies), to inform Fire Services of known asbestos removal activities. Regulation 4 of CAR, which came into force on 6 April 2012, also requires asbestos in non-domestic premises to be managed. The Duty Holder is required to identify asbestos-containing materials (ACM) or to assume ACM is present unless they have evidence to the contrary.
An additional requirement is to ensure this information is made available to emergency services. Firefighters are lifesavers and if an Incident Commander or firefighter does not have access to such a record when having to act fast in order to save lives; the safest approach is always to assume asbestos is present.
Firefighters are most at risk from breathing in airborne asbestos fibres during firefighting operations, but the contamination of clothing and equipment with asbestos fibres is a serious secondary threat. Asbestos products do not burn, but exposed to direct heat, they can break into small pieces with explosive force, which can see asbestos fibres released over a wide area.
When you factor in the possibility firefighters may have to cause structural damage in order to affect a rescue, this can unwittingly release asbestos fibres, as walls and ceilings are places where asbestos is commonly found. Another underreported risk is where asbestos roofs are encountered – extremely fragile they would likely not support the weight of a firefighter. There have been several cases in recent years of workers falling through such roofing to their death and serves as a reminder of the caution needed and knowledge set required by those who may encounter ACMs as part of their working life.
Products containing asbestos
Asbestos has a wide range of uses and is found in many forms. The most common Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs) are sprayed coatings on insulation and boards, lagging for pipework. Ceiling tiles can be composed of up to 40 per cent asbestos, while roofing felt, wall cladding and damp proof courses can be 100 per cent asbestos.
Even transport is not immune. Asbestos was used in shipbuilding for many years and in railway rolling stock for insulation. Even the famous Orient Express had to have its asbestos insulation removed when the carriages were restored.
There is also a risk to colleagues at the point PPE and RPE is removed should asbestos be clinging to the material. These risks are eliminated by following effective protocols that firefighters will recognise. These include ensuring equipment is correctly cleaned and decontaminated to eliminate any risks from further secondary exposure. Technical Services Staff are usually responsible for ensuring that PPE are a correct and safe size and interface correctly with other equipment and RPE used. UK fire services are well versed in uniform being replaced after a minimum period of wear (usually be based on the number of incidents a station attends in a year) or safely disposed of in the worst contamination cases.
There are three main types of asbestos – Crocidolite, often referred to as ‘blue asbestos;’ Amosite, often referred to as ‘brown asbestos;’ and Chrysotile, often referred to as ‘white asbestos.’
Crocidolite belongs to the amphibole family of asbestos; is finely textured and looks like human hair. Its colour ranges from a dull slate grey to a very vibrant dark blue. The fibres of Crocidolite are fairly flexible, and occurs in naturally-formed bundles that are long, sharp, and straight. This makes it especially easy to inhale and also makes it the most hazardous of all types of asbestos.
Amosite is considered the second most hazardous asbestos type. A member of the amphibole group, its long, thin fibres are brittle and break off easily, therefore prompting inhalation. Approximately five percent of all asbestos used in commercial buildings or factories was, at one time Amosite. It was used in the manufacture of thermal insulation products and anti-condensation material.
Chrysotile is the most widely used type of asbestos and is the most abundant form worldwide. A form of serpentine asbestos and given its flexibility, it was used in a variety of consumer products. It could be spun and woven into everything from insulation, protective clothing, rope brake linings and floor and ceiling tiles to consumer products such as toasters and hair dryers.
It is this very ubiquity that makes asbestos such an ongoing risk, as you never know where ACMs may be encountered. For firefighters, the safest approach is to assume ACM is present. All types of asbestos are dangerous and should be treated as ‘hazardous material’ should they be encountered by firefighters.
An Incident Commander will look to discover if asbestos is involved in a fire and if so, if any of the substance has been damaged or disturbed – and if not, can the fire be prevented from reaching it. The answers to these questions will dictate further actions, tactics and methods as an incident progresses.
Techniques to preventing the fire reaching asbestos if possible would be the approach to take but failing that, all personnel in the risk area would be in the minimum of full fire kit and PPE and RPE as required. Gas Tight Suits (GTS) might assist in any decontamination but would generally only be used for firefighting if the risk from ACM is considered to be severe. Like any PPE, GTS can deliver wearer fatigue and the flammability of the suit itself would also be a factor.
Knowing the dangers posed by asbestos is half the battle and while workers likely to come into contact with the substance can be provided with training for licenced and non-licenced work as appropriate, a firefighter can be thrown in at the deep end and there is no substitute for comprehensive asbestos awareness training and instruction in how to deal with ACM should it be encountered.
Thanks to the provision of such training, today’s firefighters are better protected than ever. So much so, that the main risk is complacency. Asbestos is going to be a problem for decades to come and only constant vigilance and awareness can keep the people who keep us safe, safe from our biggest workplace killer.
Anyone interested in asbestos training should contact UKATA direct for a list of training providers. Tasked by the HSE in 2008 for taking-on, managing and developing the list of training providers for licensed asbestos work in the UK, UKATA is now the leading authority in all levels of asbestos training in the UK.
For more information, go to www.ukata.org.uk