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Asbestos In Second-Hand Safes And Filing Cabinets

Asbestos In Second-hand Safes And Filing Cabinets

Safes, document and filing cabinets that contain asbestos have continued to be sold on the second-hand market in the UK and Ireland, by well known safe suppliers. The ban on asbestos far from seeing a reduction in the amount of safes and cabinets that contained asbestos instead saw a surge, as thousands of contaminated safes became available on the second-hand market as they were removed from all over Europe. With high costs associated with asbestos disposal and a low level of awareness when it came to the issue of asbestos in safes and cabinets, huge quantities of these contaminated products have been sold, sometimes being passed off a "almost new" having been re-sprayed and refitted. In Ireland’s case, importation of contaminated safes, fire cabinets and vaults, via the U.K. has happened on an industrial scale and continued well after our national asbestos ban thanks to the free movement of goods within Europe right up until Brexit.

In the UK, marketing documents for safes that should be presumed to contain asbestos are common. The burgeoning nostalgia market for ornate antique safes in particular, has added to the problem, seeing asbestos contamination brought back into homes and businesses.

Asbestos Used As Fire Retardant Around A Door or Drawer Frame  

asbestos-safe-door    asbestos-safe-door

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 most concerned. Abrasion caused by the opening and shutting of the safe door or filing cabinet door in such close proximity to the user 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.

A study by the BZR Institute in Bonn, Germany, found that asbestos fibres released through abrasion by opening and closing a light metal door on an asbestos fire seal released enough asbestos fibres to exceed the maximum European exposure limit after just three opening and closing cycles. 

Chrysotile asbestos fibres, which in the case of safe and cabinet manufacturing are the main type of asbestos fibres we are concerned with, are highly carcinogenic if inhaled. Breathing in air containing even tiny amounts of asbestos fibres of the kind 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.


Asbestos In The Structure Or Body Of A Safe Or Cabinet

A safe or cabinet that contains asbestos within its structure is also a danger to maintenance technicians or others called to work on such units. Due to their age most of these units are quite likely to have a mechanical key or combination lock and therefore likely to have a lock-out event at some stage. On many occasions this requires the safe, cabinet body or door, to be drilled open. Drilling a contaminated safe or cabinet will result in amounts of airborne dust containing asbestos in one of its most dangerous forms due to its incorporation into the body of many safes and cabinets as an anti-combustion filling material or as a curing agent in cement. 

Older safes may have holes intentionally present in the top interior walls which were originally intended to allow steam resulting from the heating of a mixture of asbestos and mica in the safe's walls to escape into the interior. Unfortunately these holes also allow asbestos leakage into a safe as the mixture breaks down with age. This leaves a toxic white, or sometime orange, residue in the bottom of such units, often mistaken for either rust or ordinary dust. The danger of this type of contamination in the home has actually increased in the last few years along with the unfortunate and dangerous trend of refurbishing old ornate safes for decorative use, as drinks cabinets, or for the storage of whiskey collections. Something that is encouraged largely out of a sense of nostalgia by the UK safe industry, with some companies now specialising in refurbishing such units, none of which seem to have an asbestos removal procedure.

What Is The Source Of Supply Of Contaminated Safes And Cabinets In Ireland?

In answering this question, we relied on what industry sources told us and on examining the trade in second-hand safes on-line. We also took note of the brands of contaminated safes and document cabinets commonly found in Ireland, the majority of which were manufactured in the U.K. and France. 

All of the sources in the second-hand safe industry we talked to said that second-hand safes had three main sources.

  1. Safes removed from banks and post offices in Ireland. 
  2. Units bought at auctions in the UK and Ireland.
  3. Units "sent for disposal" imported by container load directly from safe companies. 

How Safes Contaminated With Asbestos Have Been Accepted By Insurers In Ireland

As asbestos was banned across the European Union in 2005, two documents, aimed at the second-hand safe market, first appeared from organisations in the UK, historically Europe’s largest importer of asbestos. 

The Association Of Insurance Surveyors Safe List

AIS banner

The Association of Insurance Surveyors safe list first published in 2005 was widely circulated to insurers in Ireland and became very quickly the bible of insurance ratings for the safe and the insurance industry here. The list contains hundreds of safes which, unknown to the insurance industry, would be presumed to contain asbestos and many units that have already positively identified as containing asbestos, however, no mention is made of the widespread use of asbestos in older safes in the AIS list or the fact that the sale or placing on the market of any product that contains asbestos was illegal in both the UK and Ireland by 2005, and still is.

All of the safes listed in the AIS safe list, some over a hundred years old are given a “recommended” insurance cover amount in pounds Sterling which the introduction to the list states is “appropriate for use in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Eire and AiS makes no representation or promise that it is appropriate for use outside these territories.

As if to dispel any doubt that this list was intended to aid in the sale of safes manufactured during the period when asbestos was in common use in their production, the 2007 issue of the AIS list had the following comment in its forward: “Prior to the 2006 edition of the Safe List many old safes were downgraded because there were doubts regarding their ability to withstand modern methods of attack and because of the age of the bolt work and locks and probable general lack of maintenance. A number of suppliers of reconditioned safes commented on this and because of these comments AiS commissioned the BRE to carry out tests on a number of older pre BSEN-1143-1 safes ranging from the equivalent of Grade 0 to the equivalent of Grades 4 and 5. These tests were carried out in January 2007. The barrier materials of all the safes tested stood up to the modern attack methods carried out by BRE remarkably well. In view of these results the Committee reviewed the cash ratings of a number of older safes and where considered justified, the ratings were increased from those of the previous List. If older safes are to be accepted at the cash ratings recommended in the Safe List they must be serviced at regular intervals by safe engineers in accordance with BS 7582:2005 Code of Practice for Reconditioning of Used Safes."

British Standard BS7582:2005 Code of Practice for Reconditioning of Used Safes

This brings us to the second of the two documents aimed at the second-hand safe market that appeared from organisations in the UK in 2005 and has been referenced in every edition of the AIS safe list. The British Standards Institute Code of Practice for Reconditioning of Used Safes BS7582:2005 which was reviewed in 2012 & 2015 and has remained unchanged. This standard that received input from some of the same people involved with the AIS safe list, is as the name suggests, a standard for reconditioning safes for re-sale that according to the standard would include safes manufactured as far back as 1975 when asbestos use in safe production was not only commonplace but under some standards was a requirement. Yet, the BS7582:2005 standard makes no mention of the likely presence of asbestos in such safes whatsoever, which would seem a huge dereliction of duty of care to the safe technicians who might refer to it. 

The identity of the individual AIS safe committee members responsible for drafting the AIS safe list and that had input into BS7582:2005 is also worth noting. Contrary to what many in the insurance industry in Ireland believed the Association of Insurance Surveyors safe committee, far from being a committee of “Insurance Surveyors”, is and was almost entirely composed of people directly involved in, and who would benefit from, the sale of second-hand safes. Second-hand safes that were in plentiful supply in the UK in 2005 and ever since.

Have There Been Any Advisories Or Alerts Issued Regarding This Serious Risk To Health Since Asbestos Was Banned In Ireland In 2000? 

After some sustained communication with the Health and Safety Authority on the issue, the HSA issued a legislation and compliance notice in 2019, however, having consulted with some unnamed "third parties" the resulting HSA notice was factually incorrect and contrary to official European expert advice.

The HSA notice states: “use of asbestos (in safes and cabinets) was generally phased out from the 1960’s to the 1980’s”. A statement that is factually incorrect as according to a manufacturer survey conducted in Germany in 2000, that the HSA were fully aware of, asbestos was still used quite widely in the 1980s in fire-retardant door seals, while a major French manufacturer with a base in Ireland stated that some of their most popular products had door seals that contained asbestos right up until 1995.

As Germany would have been ahead of many other countries regarding this, and as there are large amounts of evidence of asbestos in French safe and cabinet production as late as 1997, the HSA statement stating use of asbestos (in safes and cabinets) was generally phased out from the 1960’s to the 1980’s” is not one based on facts. Far more alarming however is the HSA statement “A seal in good condition should not present any risk of exposure to asbestos”.

This statement runs completely contrary to the BZR Institute study on the subject, which showed an asbestos strip in perfect condition releases enough fibres release through abrasion by opening and closing even an exceptionally light metal door to exceed the maximum European exposure limit after just three opening and closing cycles. It also completely ignores the fact that asbestos strips breakdown over time, so it would not be technically possible for any asbestos strip over twenty years old to be in “good condition”.

These obvious problems with the HSA enforcement notice were highlighted by Certified Safes Ireland™ and by the European Security Systems Association (ESSA) as soon as it was published, and have yet to be corrected.


As things stand today in March 2021 safes and cabinets that contain asbestos continue to be sold on a daily basis, all over Ireland, by prominent safe suppliers and in private sales. Large number of these units are not only in circulation, but more are currently being removed from bank and post office closures where there is no accountability for their disposal, nor a requirement to verify that removal and disposal was done taking in account asbestos. Most of these units make their way back on to the second-hand safe market.

The HSA, the body responsible for protecting workers and office staff, have taken no action to stop the illegal sale of these units and continue to refer to a notice that is factually incorrect, highly misleading and has ignored expert advice from the European Security Systems Association (ESSA) and Ireland’s NSAI expert on the subject.

Certified Safes Ireland™ wrote to the Association of Insurance Surveyors (UK) safe committee in November 2019 pointing out that the organisation had placed hundreds of safes that should be presumed to contain asbestos on the market in Ireland and naming several units that a manufacturer had confirmed contained asbestos that were listed in the organisation 2015 list. No response has ever been received and the list continues to be used in the Republic of Ireland as a reference for second-hand safes by insurers and second-hand safe dealers.

Recently, Mavis Nye, President and Co-Founder of Mavis Nye Foundation (MNF) an asbestos awareness group in the UK who herself has been suffering with Mesothelioma caused by asbestos in the workplace, highlighted the recent case reported in the Evening Standard of an office worker who had died at the age of just 49 from asbestos related cancer. The coroner concluded she “had been exposed to asbestos in an office environment during her working life”. However, the actual source of her exposure remains a mystery.

Click below to view Law Society Gazette article or HSA notice:

    HSA Asbestos Safes

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