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Asbestos Danger

My first job, around 25 years ago, was as a trainee Design Engineer & Project Manager within a specialist ventilation and contamination control consultancy. After leaving secondary school I went through college and university education in engineering and environmental science. I have always had a strong passion for engineering, science and physics.

In addition to designing and project managing, my training within this company also involved assisting a Senior Engineer with COSHH testing of dust extraction ventilation within various sectors. COSHH legislation (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) had recently been introduced within the UK.

One of the companies that I remember spending many weeks carrying out COSHH testing on ventilation system was TBA in Rochdale, Lancashire. (Turner Brothers, Turner & Newall)

TBA were at one-time world leaders, predominantly in the processing and weaving of asbestos into industrial fabrics and materials.

Thinking back to that time now, I was COMPLETELY unaware about the serious dangers and risks associated with inhaling asbestos. I did not fully understand or even question what this white fibre was. I guess I trusted my employer. My employer never mentioned the risks, never mind provide appropriate training or PPE!

I recall as clear as if it were last week, climbing extension ladders, to a height of 6 to 9 metres, to reach a test point in a one metre diameter ventilation duct. My pitot tube in one hand and my digital manometer hanging around my neck.

As I climbed, I clearly remember the fine white fibres drifting through the air and the layer of fine white dust on the top of the ventilation ducts. No PPE was provided apart from a re-usable cotton coverall. No mask, gloves or respirator. No induction or training at all in relation to the risks that my employers were exposing me to.

I also remember spending hours testing in the filter rooms (partitioned rooms containing the ventilation fans and filter housings where the extraction ducts terminated and discharged to atmosphere through fabric filter socks). With my experience and knowledge gained in subsequent years, I now question the efficiency of the filter socks that were used (they most certainly were not anywhere near the filter efficiency of modern HEPA filtration – 99.9997% @ 5 microns) and occasionally the fabric socks, retained by rubber rings to the filter housing, ‘blew’ and asbestos dust and fibre filled the filter room.

One other incident I remember so well was my colleague, a very experienced engineer, climbing inside one enclosed hopper to obtain an accurate vane anemometer reading at the duct connection to the ventilation hood. He re-appeared from the machine looking like a snow man, full of white asbestos fibre! The remedy? A conveniently positioned vacuum cleaner was used to suck the fibres off the coveralls – and of course, he asked me to vacuum his back – and I did!

At the time, I considered the company I was working for to have an excellent reputation and even today, I consider that they were one of the companies leading the way in health & safety – for the time period, at least.

How things have changed in just 25 years – for the better.

Yet there is still much to do. There are still employers out there with full knowledge of the risks, who are willing to expose their employees unnecessarily to contamination and hazards, perhaps to save money on their project costs or to save time.

Sadly, there still exist employees, particularly those not directly employed within the construction industry, and indeed domestic homes, who are still not fully educated or aware.

I think of the dust clouds created by the fall of the twin towers on 9/11 and consider the long term consequences of this contamination. Records show that the towers, constructed and completed in the early 1970’s, contained large amounts of asbestos fireproofing.

Then of course we have countries like China still mining asbestos.

On the positive side, there is much fine work being done to increase asbestos awareness. Take for example the tireless education work of Linda Reinstein ‏Twitter: @Linda_ADAO

If in later years I develop respiratory disease or mesothelioma, associated with exposure to asbestos, I am 99.9% sure of the source. However, many thousands were, and still are exposed to asbestos unwittingly from sources much less obvious than the exposure that I experienced during my training years. (see our previous Blog to see some incredible uses for asbestos in years gone by).

Perhaps that is why my career and passion continued on the path of contamination control, becoming involved in cleanroom and laboratory design and construction as well as founding Cleanroom Supplies, a one stop shop for disposable protective clothing and contamination control products.

It does not matter what colour the asbestos, white, blue or brown – it is a lethal and toxic material. Whatever the form, risks should not be taken, particularly in this day and age when so much more is widely known about it and how we can control contamination and risk.

By: Michael Hill
Managing Director of Cleanroom Supplies
the home of Optimum Protection