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Asbestos Exposure whilst fitting Smoke Alarms


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If I was an electrician fitting a light fitting in a pre-2000 home in theory I should insist on a quick asbestos survey to examine the ceiling material. As a bare minimum the use of shaving foam, a capture cup, hand drill (not electric) dust mask and white suit should be considered.

I know from years of experience (before I became aware of this risk) that many thousands of homes will have been visited since brigades started fitting smoke alarms where fixings were made using drills (in accordance with smoke alarm company fitting instructions) and many firefighters will have unknowingly become exposed to asbestos dust.

Do any of you remember dusting off your shoulders or offering to borrow the householders vacuum to clear up the dusty mess? I’m pretty sure most of us will.

By vacuuming up with a domestic vacuumed cleaner will make things a lot worse as any tiny asbestos fibres initially cleared up will be spread throughout a home the next time the home is cleaned.

Asbestos leglislation has been in place for many years and as such brigades should be following best practice. There are clear procedures in place for dealing with incidents where asbestos is suspected but very little or no comprehensive guidance for fitting smoke alarms.

As this is a routine activity a ‘safe system of work’ should be put in place with a comprehensive accompanying generic risk assessment.

Moving forward and improving practice is the easy bit but addressing past practice where the law has not been adhered to probably goes into the too difficult to sort draw. 

Of course asbestos isn’t in every ceiling but it is pretty widespread and I think it is a matter of time before past malpractice bites a brigade.

A different angle to consider is the welfare of the firefighter fitting the alarm. Have they been adequately trained? Have they been given the right PPE? Should they be protected/compensated for unknowingly exposing themselves and members of the public to asbestos since legislation has been in place (2012)?

I would be interested to hear your comments. 

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Using no nails or similar is certainly the answer going forward but what are you supposed to do with the old back plate if replacing an alarm? It’s obviously easy if you are using the same alarm manufacturer as the back plates are often universal. 

Ideally you would remove the back place and re-use the fixings or at least cover up the residual markings. If the property is pre-2000 and you are not 100% that the ceiling material is asbestos free you should avoid disturbing the ceiling and potentially highlight your concerns and say that you are unable to removed the backplate or alarm. 

Matters become uncomfortable when your visit is a re-visit where you are replacing and old alarm fitted 5-10yrs previous. How are you supposed to refuse to remove the back plate of an alarm previously fitted especially when the occupier says that they recall vacuuming up all the dust made when fixing it up?

it’s all a bit of a minefield. I would like to hear the opinion of someone from outside the FRS with asbestos and H&S experience.

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2 hours ago, Jet said:

You don't touch the old alarm, no matter who put it up. It's a no nails job with the new alarm, next to the old one if needs be.

I agree 100% but if your brigade fitted the previous one with a screw fixing it puts you in a sticky situation if you say that you are not removing the old one.....

1 hour ago, LFB92 said:

@Jet is spot on there. Our main concern is that the occupant has a working smoke alarm, not that it’s aesthetically pleasing.

Of course it is but that isn’t the point I’m raising here. Do you think that you have drilled smoke alarm fixings in pre-2000 properties since 2002? I’m pretty sure that I have......

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An interesting topic and one in which as far as I am aware in GMFRS we never used drills. In the early days of plugs and screws, we just created a hole with the screwdriver and put the small plug in. I accept there may be a certain amount of dust which we all presumed to be plaster, it could have been worse and we never identified it?

Primarily, as many have mentioned, we used no nails which cause me some sweating when one of my firefighters dropped an alarm on a light green carpet, butter side down so to speak. Luckily the occupier saw the funny side, once we had got it off and cleaned up of course :)


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Im not 100% sure if I am honest, been off the pumps for a few years now. I don't remember ever taking any down. Im sure the ones we used had a similar backplate. Again, I would have to check to be 100%. There a couple of GMFRS guys on here who may be able to assist. 

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Pretty much yes. You always skirt along side of creating a bigger problem than first started if you start removing existing furniture. 

I always had this issue with my old job installing/maintaining fire extinguishers. Drilling into walls was an everyday occurrence and even though I took über precautions there's always a risk and mitigated it as much as possible.

Sadly in our noble profession we are high risk when coming into hazardous materials than others.

Asbestos is present in some buildings and I will take precautions as necessary but for me I'm more wary of the toxic twins Hydrogen Cyanide/Carbon Monoxide and other cancer causing gases/vapours as it is this that will be the greatest risk to firefighters. I cringe at stories from the old hands talking about car fires with no BA on or no ppe when digging out.

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This topic has come up with some vlogs I follow of some sparkies, obviously cutting holes out for spot lights etc and running cables in ceiling spaces raises similar questions.

Made me think about my work mounting wireless access points to ceilings obviously drilling in fittings and a hole for a cable.  Was in a site last week and first thing I asked was about asbestos but 6 months ago I don't think I'd of even bothered asking.

I think unless your aware of it and understand you will just think its plaster and carry on.  When I look back at places I've been in over the years I wouldn't be surprised if I have come into contact with it but I was never made aware of this and the dangers and I think still to this day I wouldn't be aware if it wasn't for some of the things I've read online.  Really in my day job there is no need for me to go poking around but personally I think I need to be aware even if not coming into contact with the stuff.

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I left operation duties (for fire safety) just after smoke detectors and CFS was hitting its prime so have little experience of installing them.

Its is a real risk, but compared to contamination from cutting away ceilings, roofs, walls and turning over debris- and the whole contaminated PPE saga, it seems pretty easy to avoid by using not drill/peirce techniques 

I would be more concerned by the occupiers feral pets or kids 🤔

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