Asbestos Insulation: The Vital Facts You Must Know

Tradespeople like construction workers, gardeners, electricians and plumbers often find surprises while working on old buildings. One surprise that’s never welcome is the presence of asbestos insulation. Our Asbestos Awareness Training course gives you the skills and knowledge to deal with this.

Although it was once commonly used in buildings throughout the Ireland, asbestos insulation is a highly hazardous material. Suppose your work involves breaking apart walls or fixtures in older structures. In that case, you must know about the health risks of insulation containing asbestos.

What is Asbestos Insulation and Why is It So Hazardous?

Many homes and office buildings built between the start of the 20th century and 2000 contain asbestos insulation. In the past, building standards in the UK and our knowledge of hazardous materials weren’t as good as today.

Asbestos was believed to be a completely safe building material. Companies and construction workers valued asbestos for its strength, flexibility, and ability to withstand heat. Asbestos was also available in abundance and cheap. For these reasons, it was considered the perfect material for insulation and fireproofing. Or, at least, that’s what people thought at the time.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t have been more wrong. As it turns out, when you break asbestos insulation, it releases tiny fibres into the air. If you inhale or ingest asbestos fibres it can cause life-threatening, incurable diseases like mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. Tragically, by the time these diseases are diagnosed, it’s often too late for treatment.

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The Most Common Types of Asbestos Insulation

Asbestos insulation was a prevalent building material used in buildings across the UK. If your job often takes you into older buildings, you’ll likely come across asbestos insulation in some form.

The most common types of asbestos insulation include:

Loose-Fill Asbestos Insulation

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Also called blown-in insulation, loose-fill insulation looks fluffy and granular, much like sheep’s wool. This kind of insulation can contain a very high percentages of asbestos. Even a slight breeze can release asbestos fibres from loose-fill insulation. It’s incredibly toxic and highly hazardous to health.

Asbestos Block Insulation

Asbestos Awareness Training - Common Types

Asbestos insulation also came in the form of large blocks known as Asbestos Insulating Board (AIB). AIB blocks were manufactured using almost pure asbestos. It’s stable if kept in place, but large amounts of asbestos fibres are released if block insulation is drilled, cut or sawn. AIB blocks were commonly painted, so it isn’t easy to recognise them.

Asbestos Pipe Wrapping Insulation

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You’ll find heating pipes, ducts and plumbing systems are often covered in asbestos insulation wrappings. Over time, these wrappings can disintegrate and release asbestos fibres into the air. Pipe wrappings can look like old wool blankets, corrugated paper or cardboard.

Other Types of Insulation That May Contain Asbestos

Vermiculite Insulation

Vermiculite insulation is also a type of loose-fill insulation. It’s usually grey-brown or silver-gold in colour with a pebble-like appearance. Not all kinds of vermiculite insulation will contain asbestos. If undisturbed, the asbestos in certain types of vermiculite insulation is reasonably stable. Still, if broken, asbestos particles can be released into the air.

Spray-On Asbestos Insulation

Often used in commercial and industrial building walls, ceilings and beams, spray-on asbestos looks like a bumpy white plastic coating. Spray-on insulation coatings made before 1990 usually contain a high percentage of asbestos. If broken, this insulation can release high levels of asbestos fibres into the air.

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Other common types of insulation, such as cellulose or fibreglass, aren’t as much of a health hazard but can look like insulation containing asbestos.

What to Do If You Find Asbestos Insulation

If you suspect a building you’re working in contains asbestos insulation you should immediately stop all work. In most cases, the asbestos must be removed before work can resume. Where you can’t remove the asbestos insulation, work must only be continued by licensed asbestos contractors.

All types of asbestos were prohibited entirely for use in any building in 1999. Currently, the  Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Asbestos) Regulations 2006-2010 apply to all work activities which expose persons to risks arising from the inhalation of dust from asbestos or asbestos containing materials. The regulations apply to all workplaces (including domestic construction work) where there is a risk of asbestos exposure during the course of work activities.

 outlines the safety procedures you must follow if asbestos is found. You can find more information about safely working with asbestos via the Health and Safety Authority website.

Construction managers, owners of construction companies and employees are all legally obliged to assess risk, to determine whether or not a work site contains asbestos. Suitable controls must be in place to prevent the harm it can cause to a reasonably practicable level.