Tradesmen such as plumbers could come into contact with asbestos more than an estimated 100 times a year, with few workers knowing whether the deadly material is present in buildings which they are working on.

This is according to a report which has lead the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to launch a new safety and awareness campaign amid concerns about how to combat exposure to asbestos. A survey of 500 tradespeople showed that less than a third were aware of the correct ways to deal with and handle asbestos in the workplace.

Worryingly only 15% knew that asbestos could still be found in buildings built up to the year 2000. White asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999 meaning that its use did not cease completely until the year 2000 when the final stocks of asbestos products had been used.

Like all trades such as plumbers, electricians, heating and ventilation engineers were frequently exposed to asbestos throughout their career between the 1940’s and 80’s.

Using asbestos as insulation for hot pipes or helping to prevent condensation on boilers, tanks, ducts, pipes and more. Materials that contained asbestos would have been products such as pumps, valves and gaskets, all of which require replacing after a period of time. Replacing these would cause the release of asbestos fibres into the air.

Activities throughout the job that caused release of asbestos fibres included sawing, soldering and joining pipes or sanded down block insulation, as well as cutting asbestos paper. All of this would be done either without or with insufficient protective equipment, giving the asbestos an easy route into the lungs.

old plumbing image

Attitude towards asbestos – The Shocking Reality


Research conducted by the Health and Safety Laboratory in 2007 showed worrying signs of plumbers not being aware of the dangers of asbestos, asbestos exposure in their field and consequently not taking the correct precautions. The study recorded two asbestos exposure logs:

  1. Work activity logs (where workers note down when they believe they have come into contact with asbestos)
  2. Passive asbestos samplers (actual record of levels of exposure)

A shocking result found that out of all plumbers that stated they had not been in contact with asbestos, 69% had actually been in contact with asbestos during the course of a sample week [1].

The research revealed that despite awareness raised of the dangers of asbestos, the majority of plumbers were still unaware and unsure of how to deal with asbestos:

“I know it’s bad for you, but I don’t know a lot about it. I do come across it quite a lot. I was working in a house about a month ago, oh no, yeah, a month ago, and like it was one of them old war prefab buildings and all the walls are asbestos. I had to hang a radiator like I had to drill it, so I opened the door and put a mask on.

But then I had to go under the floor in the house, I had a mask on there now I think about it, it must be all asbestos down here, however long it lasts down there. I put a mask on but what kind of mask you’re supposed to use, I don’t know.”
– Plumber/heating engineer, 22 yrs, sole trader, domestic work.


Many plumbers above the age of 50 were exposed to asbestos when it arrived as a new material in the UK, as a result they were able to recall high exposure to the fibre. Sadly many believe it is simply too late for them to avoid the risk of asbestos exposure and developing an asbestos disease.

“Well I come across it every day on this estate with the tanks but it’s not a danger. When I look back the danger was when I used to breathe it all in, in the mill. But that was so long ago, that was over 40 years ago.”
– Plumber/heating engineer, 60 yrs, sole trader, both domestic and non-domestic work.


Older plumbers seem to have had a large influence on younger and aspiring plumbers, especially when it comes to evaluating asbestos risk. When asbestos first came on the trades market, the dangers of the fibres were unknown, it was considered safe at the time. For younger plumbers the attitude and experience resonated by experienced plumbers seems to make them want to question the validity of asbestos warnings.

This is not to say, of course, that older plumbers are responsible for any effect on young plumbers becoming exposed to asbestos. It is simply down to a matter of difference in attitude and experience, something which the Asbestos Justice and the HSE is working hard to improve.

“I thought well, it makes you wonder whether the risks are real or whether it is just, well obviously it makes you wonder how big the risks are because it has been his attitude all the way through his life and he’s dealt with it day in, well not day in, just dealt with it a lot more than I have and it doesn’t seem to have done him any harm.”
– Plumber/heating engineer, 22 yrs, sole trader, domestic work 

“There’s a bloke at college, he used to work with it every day he said, his face was covered in it. And because he used to, the old soil pipes that they had to use asbestos rope and pack it down like this and in front of their face and he said it was just covered in it. There’s nothing wrong with him yet!”
– Plumber/heating engineer, 22 yrs, sole trader, domestic work


It was refreshing to find that still a majority of experienced plumbers show great knowledge of steps to take if asbestos was found on site. However for many plumbers, as well as other tradesmen, simply walking away would mean facing financial pressure as a job must be completed within a budget and time-frame.

“I understand that it’s dangerous, you shouldn’t touch it, you shouldn’t work with it and it should be either – it’s your job to get the firm in that specialises in removing it or reporting it to the person whose job it is to get them to organise somebody to come and clear it up … close the site down.”
– Plumber/heating engineer, 55 yrs, sole trader, non-domestic work


  • 1.3 million tradesmen are at risk from dangers of asbestos
  • 1 in 50 plumbers born in the 1940’s and have worked in the industry for 10 years are most at risk of developing an asbestos disease
  • 414 plumbers died between 2002-2010 as a result of an asbestos disease
  • Asbestos exposure kills 4 plumbers every week [1]

How would I come in contact with asbestos?

Repairing Asbestos Materials

Many do not realise it, but the risk of coming in contact with asbestos whilst working is still high. With vast amounts of asbestos products created before the 1980’s used in both commercial and residential buildings, plumbers are more prone to interact or become exposed to asbestos. Some asbestos containing products you may come across include:

  • Joint compounds
  • Valves
  • Gaskets
  • Welding rods

Celsius Plumbing and Heating writer, Mark Hall explains:

“Unlike professionals within other industries, plumbers often work in different environments day to day. As a factory worker may remain in the same building for years, a plumber could be in a different home or commercial building daily.

This translates to increased risk of asbestos exposure because the safety of the environment cannot always be evaluated and tested prior to the plumber performing their work.”

Asbestos Cement Toilet (35% asbestos)

Exposure at Work

Occupational hazards come with every job, especially when working on old residential and commercial buildings. Many plumbers are required to cut, saw and sand asbestos paper, saw and join pipes or sand down block insulation and drill asbestos-containing products to fit certain dimensions. These types of jobs cause vibrations leading to asbestos fibres being released into the air and resulting in inhalation to the lungs.

As mentioned above, asbestos was commonly used for its insulation properties. Asbestos was famously used for pipes, ducts, tanks and boilers because of its heat and fire resistance properties.

Plumbers, pipe fitters and steamfitters also face asbestos risks by handling pumps, valves and gaskets that contain asbestos. Pumps and valves are installed to pressurise and circulate water and other fluids, while gaskets are used inside of these pumps and valves to prevent leaks. Over time, these components can wear out and may need to be replaced. When plumbers remove or replace these asbestos-containing products, the fibres are frequently released into the air where they can be easily inhaled by workers [2].

Pipe Flange Asbestos Gasket - Damage Pipe Valve Flanges & Asbestos Gaskets

When am I most at risk?

The Health and Safety Executive have defined the main risk-situations of asbestos exposure for those working in a trade occupation [2]. You are most at risk when:

  • the building you are working on was built before the year 2000
  • you are working on an unfamiliar site
  • asbestos-containing materials were not identified before the job was started
  • asbestos-containing materials were identified but this information was not passed on by the people in charge to the people doing the work
  • you haven’t done a risk assessment
  • you don’t know how to recognise and work safely with asbestos
  • you have not had appropriate information, instruction and training
  • you know how to work safely with asbestos, but you choose to put yourself at risk by not following proper precautions, perhaps to save time or because no one else is following proper procedures

Where is asbestos found?

Asbestos is a deadly fibre that can be found in many buildings that still remain occupied today, industrial and residential buildings. For residential owners, when it comes to finding a new home or if you live in a home that was built before 2000, be wary of the possibilities of asbestos within the building.

It is important that you know if asbestos is present or if it has been completely removed, or in some cases never been present in the first place. Below are two images provided by the Health and Safety Executive[3] showing where asbestos can be found within the home and in industrial buildings.

Examples of where you might find asbestos[4]:

  • As packing between floors and in partition walls
  • Sprayed (‘limpet’) asbestos on structural beams and girders
  • Lagging on pipework, boilers, calorifiers, heat exchangers
  • Asbestos insulating board — ceiling tiles, partition walls, service duct covers, fire breaks, heater cupboards, door panels, lift shaft lining, fire surrounds, soffits etc
  • Asbestos cement products – roof and wall cladding, bath panels, boiler and incinerator flues, fire surrounds, gutters, rainwater pipes, and water tanks
  • Sealants on pipe joints, gaskets;
  • Fuse boxes (e.g. flash pads)
  • Electrical switchgear
  • Boards around radiators and windows

Where is asbestos found - Industrial Areas

 Where asbestos hides - Industrial Property Diagram 



Where is asbestos found - Residential Areas

 Where asbestos hides - Residential Property Diagram



BLF Action Mesothelioma Day Celebrity Support

In 2010, The British Lung Foundation held Action Mesothelioma Day which aimed to ensure that homeowners do DIY safely and understand of the dangers of asbestos if it is disturbed. Craig Phillips fronted the Action Mesothelioma Day campaign

Being a builder by trade, Craig knows only too well the dangers of asbestos if you are exposed as his uncle currently lives with an asbestos-related illness. Since 2008, Craig Phillips has been supporting the British Lung Foundation to raise awareness of the asbestos related chest cancer mesothelioma.[5]

Craig says:

“I am delighted to be able to help the British Lung Foundation; their work is invaluable to many people across the country. This campaign focuses on the building industry which is why I wanted to get involved because I owe a lot to the industry and if I can protect it in any way I will. The initiative is also close to my heart as my uncle has been affected by asbestos exposure so I know exactly how dangerous asbestos can be.”

Full credit: British Lung Foundation

Reducing asbestos damages

There are ways of minimising the risk of asbestos exposure. The BLF’s campaign Take 5 and Stay Alive highlighted the correct tools and tips on how to carry out a job safely[6].

  • Control overall asbestos dust production
  • Wear the correct PPE
  • Don’t take your work clothes home
  • Use hand-tools instead of power-tools to keep dust to a minimum
  • Use appropriate protective mask (FFP3) and clothing
  • Don’t reuse disposable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
  • Don’t eat, drink or smoke in the work area
  • Don’t sweep up dust or debris. Use a Class H vacuum cleaner or damp rags instead.

To find out more about the campaign, visit their website here: Take 5 and Stay

Asbestos. It's your problem.

PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)

As always, the HSE is fantastic when it comes to providing information about health and safety at work. One of the most important aspects of safety when dealing with asbestos is Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Below you will find information sheets explaining the correct equipment to use when removing asbestos.

HSE PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) Guide - Page 1 HSE PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) Guide - Page 2

If you, a family member or colleague are concerned over asbestos exposure, contact Asbestos Justice on 0800 038 6767 for expert legal advice.

Content Sources

[1] Burdett G, Bard D (2003), Pilot study on the exposure of maintenance workers (Industrial Plumbers) to asbestos, HSL MF/2003/15

[2] – Occupational Exposure, Plumbers







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