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What is the right breathing equipment for dealing with asbestos?

07 September 2015

If you have any doubt about how dangerous asbestos is, then simply read the Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) guidelines on the respiratory equipment needed to deal with the deadly material.

The first thing to note is that all the HSE asbestos guidelines highlight the fact that asbestos fibres and dust can cause lung cancer and lung disease, that you must be trained to work safely with asbestos materials, and that you must be trained to use the personal protection and respiratory equipment properly.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 states that the control limit for asbestos is 0.1 asbestos fibres per cubic centimetre of air (0.1f/cm3) – but the HSE stresses that the ‘control limit’ is not a ‘safe’ level!

Dr Robin Rudd, a leading medical expert on asbestos disease, has stated that mesothelioma – a terminal lung cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fibres – ‘can occur after low level asbestos exposure and there is no threshold dose of asbestos below which there is no risk’. This simply means that anyone handling and removing asbestos needs to wear the correct respiratory protective equipment (RPE) or risk developing lung cancer or other lung disease.

In non-licensed tasks to remove asbestos, the HSE states that the RPE should have an Assigned Protection Factor of 20 or more. Wearers should use a disposable respirator to standards EN149 (type FFP3) or EN1827 (type FMP3), a half-mask respirator (to standard EN140) with P3 filter or semi-disposable respirator (to EN405) with P3 filter. This equipment is only suitable for short duration work. Licenced, high-risk work for long periods of time may require fan-assisted or air-fed respirators to protect against asbestos dust.

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Paul Chamberlain, from We Fit RPE Ltd, says: “Obtaining the right standard of RPE is just the beginning. The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 requires anyone wearing tight fitting RPE – for example disposable, half-mask or full face mask respirators – to be ‘face fit tested’.

“The reason for ‘face fit testing’ is to ensure that the RPE used by the wearer creates an adequate seal to protect them from the breathable hazard. People come in all shapes and sizes, and not every make of mask will fit everyone. The performance of tight-fitting face masks depends on good contact between the wearer’s skin and the face seal of the mask.

“A person may have the right standard of RPE but if it doesn’t fit properly, it’s useless. Potentially, only a single asbestos fibre needs to get through for the wearer to risk permanently damage their lungs.”

Whether through ignorance or wilful negligence, the failure to use any form – or an insufficient form – of RPE from the 1950s through to the 1990s is one of the reasons why Britain has a growing number of people with asbestos related lung diseases. Last year HSE reviewed its predicted annual death rate from asbestos related diseases. It moved its projection up from 4,000 deaths a year to more than 5,000. The UK’s asbestos-related death is estimated to peak in 2020.

Mike Kane, Labour MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, while tabling his Mesothelioma (Amendment) Bill under the ten minute rule motion this year, quoted a figure of about 60,000 deaths from mesothelioma in the next 30 years.

But the danger of exposure to asbestos is still very present. Asbestos can be found in any building built before the year 2000 (houses, factories, warehouses, offices, schools, hospitals and retail units) and some plant and equipment. In good condition, undisturbed and properly managed, asbestos does not pose a significant health risk. It is when materials that contain asbestos are disturbed or damaged, fibres are released into the air. When these fibres are inhaled they can cause serious lung diseases such as mesothelioma, pleural plaques, asbestosis and lung cancer. The disease can take between 10 and 50 years to develop, but once diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything.

Paul, from We Fit RPE Ltd, adds: “It is so important that you protect yourself now. Our team has more than 20 years’ experience with ‘face fit testing’ within the hazardous industry and doesn’t take long to sort out the correct RPE gear and ensure it fits perfectly. It’s time and money well spent if it saves your life.

“The ‘face fit test’ normally takes 15 minutes and the candidates have to perform working activities; as these movements may cause the mask to fail. Once the candidate has passed the test they are issued with a certificate showing the make, model and size of the mask that is providing an adequate seal.”

We Fit RPE Ltd has accreditation under the ‘Fit2Fit RPE Fit Test Providers Accreditation Scheme’. This Scheme has been developed by the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) together with industry stakeholders and is supported by HSE. For more information got to www.wefitrpe.co.uk or email

Further reading:

Fit testing of respiratory protective equipment facepieces (HSE Operational Circular)

EM6 Asbestos Essentials: Personal protective equipment (HSE)

We Fit RPE 

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