Being a firefighter, by its very nature, is a dangerous occupation. Each day they face fire and smoke but they could also be facing an unseen hazard – asbestos.
There have been a number of claims from firemen who worked in the 1970’s and were exposed to asbestos when using asbestos blankets to put out fires. They were also exposed during training exercises which required them to crawl into confined spaces where pipes were lagged with asbestos.
Thankfully, asbestos blankets are no longer used and asbestos awareness is much greater than it was previously so training exercises do not take place where asbestos is present. Unfortunately, this does not mean that members of the fire service today are safe from exposure to asbestos.
Any building built in the UK before the year 2000 could contain asbestos. Asbestos is fire retardant and so will not burn in a fire, however, smoke may contain small asbestos fibres, these are so small that they cannot be seen but can cause damage if inhaled.
Fires can also cause structural damage to a building, with ceilings and walls being affected. Prior to entering a building it is unlikely that a firefighter would know that asbestos is present and as saving people and reducing damage are the priorities, precautions may not be taken to prevent asbestos exposure.
It is not only the firefighters themselves who could be at risk of asbestos exposure. Of course, anyone in the building at the time of the fire could be exposed. It is also important for the firefighters to consider secondary exposure, to prevent friends or family from being exposed to asbestos from their clothing, hair or skin. If there has been exposure to asbestos on a job, there should be proper cleaning and decontamination to prevent further exposure.