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Safe as houses?

Safe as houses?

Real danger of workplace asbestos exposure

Alan Donohue Redd



The very real danger of workplace asbestos exposure arising from pre-European certification (1997) safes, fireproof filing cabinets, and vaults has gone completely unnoticed – and unmentioned – in Ireland.

This is in stark contrast with the high level of awareness of the issue among the safe and vault industry, health authorities, and waste-management companies in other EU countries.

According to the European Security Systems Association (ESSA), the majority of safe and data-cabinet manufacturers were using asbestos at least until the introduction of European certification for these products in 1997. Given the legal profession’s obvious need for fire-resistant safes, vaults, and filing cabinets, it is therefore highly likely that many legal practices in Ireland may find that their work environment harbours a potentially potent and long-term danger to staff health.

Safe as houses?

Safe as houses?

This is due, in no small part, to a surprising absence of information on the asbestos issue coming from the safe and vault industry in these islands – an industry that, quite worryingly, has had a long-term financial interest in the sale of second-hand safes and cabinets, more often than not manufactured during decades when it is known that asbestos was being widely used in their construction.

In recent years, I made a number of enquiries with various industry groups, and directly with suppliers of second-hand safes, regarding the use of asbestos contained in fire seals, as a cement curing agent, and a body fill in safes and fireproof filing cabinets manufactured before the introduction of European certification in 1997.

Unwarranted concern

I had also been in touch with several manufacturers of these pre-European certification units that are still in business. The replies were always that my concern was unwarranted and that this was a very minor problem affecting very few models, and not really worth discussion.

Recently, after a number of questions on the subject from the insurance industry in Ireland, and after encountering suspected asbestos in a second-hand safe on a client’s premises, I decided to conduct my own investigation, the result of which paints an entirely different picture.

Every breath you take

Chrysotile asbestos fibres – which, in the case of safe and cabinet manufacturing, are the main type of asbestos we are concerned with – are highly carcinogenic if inhaled. Breathing in air containing asbestos fibres, which may result from the opening and closing of a safe or filing cabinet door fitted with asbestos door seals, can lead to asbestos-related diseases, for example, asbestosis and cancers of the lungs and chest lining.

Considering that the majority of pre-European certification and second-hand safes in Ireland are of British, German, or US manufacture, my first port of call was the internet to see whether this issue had ever been investigated in Britain.

Asbestos testing

I quickly came across an article from Locks & Security Magazine (April 2012) that outlined the results of asbestos testing, commissioned by a conscientious second-hand safe supplier on their own stock. Samples were collected by Vintec Environmental Management and then submitted to scientific scrutiny by Spectra Analysis Services Ltd. The results revealed that, “out of nine samples, eight contained chrysotile asbestos”.

Following their investigations, the supplier in question was “forced to dispose of a considerable number of their stock of used document safes. Products featuring asbestos include models by major manufacturers such as Stratford, Tann, Rosengrens, Guardian, Chatwood Milner, Chubb, Kardex, Hagger & Daniels, and Sperry Remington, but this is by no means a definitive list.

As a result of their experience, their operatives were trained and licensed to remove and dispose of safes and cabinets containing asbestos.”

Regime

I next contacted Falko Adomat, project manager at ESSA. After some searching of ESSA’s archives, Mr Adomat was able to shed some light on the situation regarding German safe production before the introduction of the European certification regime.

An informal survey conducted in 1992 by FuP (Forschungs- und Prüfgemeinschaft Geldschränke und Tresoranlagen) – a German safe manufacturers’ organisation – on the use of asbestos in German safes revealed that asbestos was still being widely used in German safe production at that time. However, this stopped when asbestos was banned in Germany a year later, in 1993.

Chrysotile asbestos bans

In the absence of facts, the picture concerning other safe manufacturing countries that would likely have supplied Ireland is open to speculation. We can safely say that it is only when chrysotile asbestos bans were introduced nationally that asbestos would not have been present in the manufacture of safes and fireproof cabinets originating from the relevant countries. The dates of national chrysotile asbestos bans for most of these relevant countries are, as follows: Denmark – 1980, Sweden – 1982, Norway – 1984, United States – 1989, Austria – 1990, Italy – 1992, Germany – 1993, France – 1996, Poland – 1997, UK – 1999 and Ireland – 2000.

The only way to be 100% sure that a safe or cabinet contains no asbestos is if the unit in question has accredited European certification as, according to clause 5.6 of the EN1143-1:1997 standard for safes and secure cabinets (which has remained in subsequent standards 2005, 2012, 2019), a unit cannot undergo testing if it contains any materials that could “generate harmful substances during testing” – and this, of course, includes asbestos.

Outside of this, we can be reasonably sure that a pre-European-certification safe or filing cabinet does not contain asbestos if it carries a nationally accredited certification badge that includes the date of manufacture and the country of origin of the unit, which should be cross-referenced against the relevant national asbestos ban.

Ban dates

Unfortunately, there is no way to be sure that asbestos does not exist in the case of units manufactured before these national asbestos ban dates. In fact, the older the unit, the more likely it is that asbestos will be present, even if it has a national accredited certification badge.

There is certainly no way to be sure that asbestos hasn’t been used in a safe or cabinet that bears no accredited certification mark. A unit that was purchased second-hand, and which does not bear a certification mark, should be of particular concern, due to the long-term dumping of these unwanted units on the Irish market.

As a result of the facts uncovered in researching this article, the European Security Systems Association has added this subject to the agenda of the AGM of the European safe manufacturing industry, which will be held in November 2019 at the Mechanical Engineering Industry Association’s headquarters in Frankfurt.

Health and safety

The Health and Safety Authority and Private Security Authority have been contacted with a view to issuing advisory notes to the locksmith and safe industry regarding the health risks inherent in pre-European certification safes and fireproof filing cabinets.

I would suggest that any such advisory notes should be communicated directly to members of the legal and banking professions (and others) who possess office safes and fireproof filing cabinets to protect their clients’ precious documents and valuables. Any safe or fire cabinet manufactured before 1997 should be of particular concern, and expert advice should be sought.

It is important to note that the majority of those operating in the safe and vault industry in Ireland have overlooked (or have been unaware of) this issue for a long time.

If you are worried about an older safe or suspect that you may have bought a second-hand safe or fireproof filing cabinet that does not bear a certification mark, you should contact the independent Irish Safes Ratings Group at www.isrg.ie. Alternatively, get in touch with an approved safe and vault operator with documented qualifications in European standards, such as Certified Safes Ireland (www.certifiedsafesireland.ie).

Most queries can be dealt with by photographic identification of the safe or cabinet in question. This service is provided free of charge.

At a glance

•   Most fireproof safe and data-cabinet manufacturers were using asbestos at least until 1997

•   It is therefore highly likely that many law firms in Ireland may find that their work environment harbours a potentially potent and long-term danger to staff health

•   Any safe or fire cabinet manufact-ured before 1997 should be of particular concern, and expert advice should be sought

•   The only way to be 100% sure that a safe or cabinet contains no asbestos is if the unit in question has accredited European certification