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This guide contains information on asbestos and provides examples of where asbestos may have been used when buildings were constructed. In addition, it includes details on the risks of asbestos exposure, how asbestos should be managed in the workplace and what you should do if you have any concerns about how asbestos is managed in your workplace.

The RCN has developed a position statement on asbestos

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibre that was widely used in construction and other industries until the late 1990s. Construction materials often contained asbestos because it is an effective insulator and fire retardant. It was added to cloth, paper, cement, plastic and other materials to make them stronger. 

Asbestos was banned from being imported and used in 1999.  However it is not a problem of the past.  Despite being banned from use, many buildings that were constructed before the year 2000, and some plant and equipment, still contain asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).

Asbestos can be found in many areas both in and outside buildings including:

  • asbestos insulating board – used for partition walls, around boilers, in fire doors and ceiling tiles
  • insulation and lagging on pipes and boilers
  • decorative textured coatings, for example, artex
  • vinyl floor tiles, for example, marley tiles
  • asbestos cement roof, panels, soffits, gutters and downpipes.

Asbestos is a carcinogen (substance capable of causing cancer). Approximately 5000 people die each year due to exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma UK has published a study which shows that 66 nurses up to the age of 74, died from mesothelioma between 2002-2010.

The highest risk of people being exposed to asbestos is through occupational exposure to asbestos fibres which are released into the air when working in buildings containing asbestos. While nursing staff don’t carry out work on buildings, it is possible to be exposed to fibres being released in the air from damaged asbestos in buildings that are:

  • in a poor condition
  • when maintenance or construction work is being undertaken such as, drilling holes in walls or refurbishment work
  • when planned work to remove asbestos is undertaken with poor management and containment of the work.   

This does not mean you should automatically be worried that asbestos may be present in the building(s) you work in. Most asbestos in buildings cannot be seen or be easily accessed and, as long as it remains in good condition and is not damaged or disturbed, it is not a risk to staff, patients or the public. 

The ill health effects from asbestos are not immediately noticed as asbestos related diseases take time to develop, sometimes over thirty years.  

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer which affects the lining of the lungs (pleura) and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract (peritoneum). It is almost exclusively related to asbestos exposure and by the time it is diagnosed, it is almost always fatal.

Asbestos exposure can also cause asbestos-related lung cancer, ovarian cancer and laryngeal cancer.

Health care buildings or buildings rented by health care providers built or refurbished before 2000 may contain asbestos. The high level of asbestos remaining in health care buildings, 23 years after a ban on its use, is of concern, especially if the building is in a poor condition and/or showing signs of deterioration.  

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and the Control of Asbestos Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012 is specific legislation relating to control of asbestos. It requires the person who has the duty ('the dutyholder' who is responsible for the building) in non-domestic premises (for example, hospitals, clinics, community buildings etc) to:

  • find out if there are materials containing asbestos, the quantity, where the materials are located and their condition
  • presume materials contain asbestos unless there is strong evidence that they do not  
  • maintain records of the location and condition of the asbestos containing materials or materials which are presumed to contain asbestos
  • assess the risk of anyone being exposed to fibres from the materials identified
  • prepare and put into action a specific plan that details how the risks from identified locations containing asbestos will be managed
  • periodically review and monitor the plan and the arrangements and ensure it remains up-to-date
  • provide relevant information on the location and condition of the materials to anyone who is liable to work on or disturb them, for example maintenance workers, and people working in areas where asbestos is known to be present. 

What should employers do in order to identify if asbestos is present in buildings and old equipment?

The dutyholder will arrange for a management survey to identify whether asbestos is present in a building, and/or equipment (manufactured before 2000), and determine its type and condition. This survey is likely to be conducted by a specialist surveyor.  This information is recorded and used to develop an asbestos management plan.

Asbestos labels will be placed on anything that contains or might contain asbestos if it is located where people are likely to disturb or damage it. In most instances these are unlikely to be things you use or come into contact with frequently, but could be boards in ceilings, lagging around pipes behind walls and ceilings and employers should be monitoring it on a frequent basis to check it remains in good condition.  There have been some unusual incidents including one where asbestos was found as a lining of a filing cabinet (due to its fire retardancy). 
If you have any concerns at all speak to your line manager and RCN representative. You can also contact us for advice and support.


If work is planned which involves intrusive work on a building, including upgrading, refurbishment or demolition, specific risk assessments for the work being carried out must be in place. These risk assessments outline strict controls, which should be put in place before any work is carried out, to ensure that staff, patients and visitors are not exposed to asbestos.  

If you become aware of planned work let your RCN representative know.  You can also contact us for further advice and support.

It is good practice for employers to provide all staff with suitable and sufficient asbestos awareness training, which includes information on:

  • what asbestos is
  • the potential risks from exposure 
  • where it is located 
  • the types and condition of asbestos within the building
  • details of the asbestos management plan for the building(s) you work in
  • the specific requirements in place for arranging maintenance and installation work 
  • procedures to follow should any member of staff, believe asbestos has been damaged or disturbed (it is unlikely this would happen, but it is good practice for staff to be aware of what to do).

If you have concerns about how asbestos is being managed in your workplace:

  • raise your concern with your line manager
  • contact your local RCN Representative and ask for their help and support 
  • contact us if you would like further support and advice.

If you are an RCN member and a registered nurse, nursing associate or nursing support worker in employment, you can apply to become an RCN representative.

Becoming an RCN Health and Safety rep gives you the chance to make a real difference to your patients, the working lives of yourself and your colleagues - and even the future of nursing.

RCN Health and Safety reps understand and champion safe working practice and environments. They help members to understand what they should expect and how to identify where standards fall short, leaving them at risk. 

Health and Safety reps build strong relationships in their workplace and understand how to influence for change. They connect with members to find out what matters to them, provide support to get those issues heard and win changes that make a difference.

You will be provided with a structured and supported learning pathway and will have access to support from the learning and development team, your local Regional Officers, and the Health Safety and Wellbeing team. 

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Page last updated - 26/02/2024