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Asbestos In Safes And Filing Cabinets – A Hidden Killer

By Alan Donohoe Redd M.Sec.I.I. 12/06/2019

Over the last few years I had made a number of inquiries 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 European certification was introduced in 1998.

I had also been in touch with several manufacturers of these *pre-European certification units who are still in business. The replies were always that my concern was unwarranted and that this is a very minor problem affecting very few models. 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.

Chrysotile Asbestos

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 that 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 such as asbestosis and cancers of the lungs and chest lining.

How Big Is The Problem In Ireland?

Considering the majority of pre-European certification and second-hand safes in Ireland are of U.K., German or U.S. manufacture, my first port of call was a Google search to see if this issue had ever been investigated in the U.K.

I very quickly came across an article from April 2012 which appeared in the U.K.’s Locks & Security magazine outlining 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 Limited.

“Out of nine samples, eight contained Chrysotile asbestos.”

Following their investigations, the supplier in question “was forced to dispose of a considerable number [sic] of their stock”. The report states that “products featuring asbestos included models by major manufacturers such as Stratford, Tann, Rosengrens, Guardian, Chatwood Milner, Chubb, Kardex and Sperry Remington.”

My next port of call was to contact Falko Adomat, project manager at the European Security Systems Association (ESSA) and Secretary of the European Standardisation Committee CEN263 WG1, WG2 & WG3. After some searching of ESSA’s archives Mr. Adomat was able to shed some light on the situation as regards German safe production before the introduction of the European certification regime.

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

The picture concerning other safe manufacturing countries, which would likely have supplied Ireland, in the absence of facts is open to speculation but I think we can safely say that it is only when chrysotile asbestos bans were introduced nationally that we can have any level of assurance that asbestos should not be present in safe and fireproof cabinet manufacturing originating from the relevant country.

The dates of national chrysotile asbestos bans for most of the relevant countries are as follows:

  • Denmark – 1980
  • Sweden – 1982
  • Norway – 1984
  • United States – 1989
  • Austria – 1990
  • Italy – 1992
  • Germany – 1993
  • France – 1996
  • Poland – 1997
  • U.K. – 1999
  • Ireland – 2000

How Can We Be Sure A Safe Or Cabinet Is Asbestos Free?

The only way to be 100% sure a safe or cabinet contains no asbestos is if the unit in question has an accredited European certification as, according to clause 5.6 of the EN1143-1:1997 standard for safes and secure cabinets, a unit cannot undergo testing if it contains any materials which 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, where the country of origin of the unit can be established and cross referenced against national asbestos bans.

Unfortunately, there is no way to be sure 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 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.

What Is The Danger Of Asbestos In A Safe Or Filing Cabinet?

1. Chrysotile asbestos was most widely used in door seals on safes, fireproof safes, and fireproof filing cabinets. This invariably took the form of woven asbestos tape adhered around the door frame against which the door would close. It is this woven tape that causes many to be concerned. Abrasion caused by the opening and shutting of the safe door or filing cabinet door is a high-risk issue, particularly as someone could be opening and closing a unit for decades in a closed environment such as an office.

2. Any pre-certification safe or cabinet is quite likely to have a lock-out event at some stage due to its age. On many occasions, this requires the safe body, or door, to be drilled. There has been little to no awareness among safe technicians, locksmiths and their clients that in drilling a pre-certification unit the resulting dust may often contain asbestos in its most dangerous form, due to its incorporation as an anti-combustion filling material or in the form of cement.

3. During a fire asbestos material can be subject to excessive heat resulting in toxic asbestos fibres being released into the air. Firefighters are trained to use their safety equipment at all times for this reason and then to decontaminate their gear after use, however asbestos if released will be found in ashes and debris posing a significant health risk.

4. Most forms of asbestos require a specialist contractor to be engaged for its removal and disposal. Dangers regarding asbestos disposal only arise when asbestos control procedures aren’t followed. This is a particular problem where pre-certification safes and filing cabinets are sold back onto the market or dumped at a facility that is not licensed to accept asbestos waste.


*Pre-European certification refers to safes or secure cabinets that were manufactured before the introduction of European certification (1998).

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