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The electrical world can be confusing and we’ve all come across some terms that don’t make much sense. That’s why in each issue of Wired we unravel a piece of industry gobbledygook and tell you what it means – In plain old English.

If you own or run a building, the last thing you want to hear is that asbestos has been found. But what do we actually know about this substance – and why is it considered so dangerous?

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral, with heat- and fire-resistant properties. There
are three types: blue asbestos (Crocidolite), brown asbestos (Amosite) and white asbestos (Chrysotile).

What was it used for and why?

Because of its insulating, fireproofing and anti- corrosion properties, it was used for many years in homes, commercial buildings, schools and hospitals for:

  • Ceiling and roof tiles
  • Sprayed insulating coatings on ceilings and walls
  • Insulation for pipes and boilers
  • Fuse boards

When was it commonly used?

Extensively from the 1950s to the 1970s in both new and refurbished buildings. Blue and brown asbestos were banned from 1985 (blue asbestos had already come under a voluntary ban from 1970). White asbestos was still occasionally in use up to 1999, when it too was banned.

Why is asbestos dangerous?

The biggest danger comes when asbestos is broken up and the fibres get into the air we breathe. This tends to happen when a building is being demolished or renovated, which is why construction workers have particularly been affected – in fact it’s the biggest occupational disease risk they face.

The more people are exposed to asbestos, even in small amounts, the more it is likely to affect them. However, the effects are often not seen until many years after exposure.

What conditions can it cause?

Asbestos can cause lung cancer or cancer of the lung lining (Mesothelioma), as well as life- changing diseases such as Asbestosis, when the lungs are scarred, and Diffuse pleural thickening, which restricts breathing. It will be no surprise to hear that the chance of getting lung cancer from asbestos is increased if you are also a smoker.

What is the legal position on asbestos?

This is found in the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, which states the legal duties for protecting people from the risks of asbestos exposure.

If there is a chance that work you are carrying out could disturb asbestos there is also an Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) to protect workers and the public.

All businesses must have asbestos surveys done and keep a record of the result. If asbestos is found, the business must either remove or neutralise the risk.

What about electrical contract work?

If electrical contractors are carrying out work in your building, they have a right to be protected as much as construction workers and the general public.

Building owners must provide an asbestos register to anyone working in their premises; electrical contractors need to know what the walls, floors and ceilings are made of before they start work.

As well as general risks of exposure to asbestos – for example, when an electrical engineer drills into a wall or screws into a floor – there is also the question of old fuse boards.

Why are old fuse boards potentially dangerous?

Most old BS3036 re-wireable types of fuse boards contain non-flammable Chrysotile woven asbestos rope, used around distribution board doors to keep the door sealed to the body of the distribution board.

They also have an asbestos flash guard, intended to absorb and extinguish the high temperature and energy of the molten fuse wire after a fuse ruptures.

Although not as dangerous as some kinds of asbestos, this can still cause serious health risks, including fatal lung diseases, when the rope or the flash guard is disturbed and the worker is exposed to the airborne fibres.

How do you know if you have a potentially dangerous fuse board?

Although asbestos surveyors should recognise the potential for old fuse boards to contain asbestos, they are unlikely to be qualified to open them up for inspection. As a result, they would usually list the fuse board as “potentially containing asbestos”.

While these fuse boards may be safe as far as complying with disconnection times, this can’t be proved as there is no way of safely testing fuse boards containing asbestos.

When do these fuse boards present a danger?

When the fuses are pulled and the asbestos is exposed. This tends to happen when a fuse wire blows and needs replacing.

What are the options when this happens?

In theory, the blown fuse could be replaced. However, the business would have to follow extensive HSE Guidelines for the safe handling of asbestos, which would mean waiting for a trained expert and losing power to the circuit while the fault is rectified, which could halt production in a factory or leave a business without lights, for example.

A better option is to replace the fuse board with a more up-to-date MCB distribution board. As this can also take time, it’s best done before the issue of a blown fuse has to be addressed.

What should you do if you think you may have old circuit boards?

Better to be safe than sorry. AES is currently replacing around 100 old circuit boards for one of its clients. Call now to find out if your old boards need replacing – before you have an emergency on your hands.

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