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(Recorded in 2019)

Asbestos In The Safe Industry

Safes, strongrooms, document, data and filing cabinets that contain asbestos have continued to be sold as "second-hand" or "refurbished" in Ireland and the UK, often by well-known safe suppliers and more recently accompanied by claims to the practice's "green" credentials. The European ban on asbestos in 2005 far from seeing a move by the UK safe industry to reduce the number of safes and cabinets that contained asbestos in circulation instead saw the sudden appearance of documents that could be used to promote the refurbishment and sale of asbestos contaminated safes when none existed before.

The most well-known of these documents are the Association of Insurance Surveyors safe list first published in 2005 which contained hundreds of safes which should be presumed to contain asbestos and many units that have already been positively identified as containing asbestos, and the British Standards Institution "Code of Practice for Reconditioning of Used Safes" BS7582:2005 also published in 2005 and later reviewed in 2012, 2015 and 2017 remaining unchanged. This BSI standard is as the name suggests, a standard for reconditioning safes for re-sale that according to the standard itself, would include safes manufactured as far back as 1975 when asbestos use in safe production was commonplace. Yet, the BS7582:2005 standard makes no mention of the likely presence of asbestos in such safes whatsoever.

Contaminated units can now be found in homes, offices and financial institutions in every part of the Ireland and the UK.

  The Milner's 212 Patent

In 1824 Thomas Milner secured an official contract to supply the UK War Office with ammunition boxes. Milner observed that if a mixture that contained asbestos was used to insulate ammunition boxes it would give off steam when the boxes were heated, so he reasoned that if asbestos was used as cavity insulation in safes with holes punched in the inner walls, steam could escape into the interior and protect the contents from destruction in a fire. He patented this innovation in 1840, and prosperous Victorians literally queued up to buy this new protection. When the patent lapsed in 1854, most safe manufacturers in the UK made quick use of the idea, quickly followed by their European counterparts. 

Milner was known for demonstrating his safes' capacity to preserve money and documents by placing the safes inside huge public bonfires and then dowsing the fire and removing the surviving contents to the astonished applause of the onlookers. A publicity technique that was imitated by other safes manufactures not only in the UK but all over Europe as they applied Milner’s idea in the 1850s.

Most safes manufactured under Milner’s patent can easily be recognised by a distinctive ornate brass plate with the number "212" displayed on top of an elaborate crest. 212 degrees Fahrenheit is the boiling point of water. The temperature at which the asbestos insulation would produce steam saturating and therefore protecting the contents of the safe. This plate is still a very common site on the second-hand and "refurbished" market in Ireland and the UK.

Chatwood Milner

  Asbestos In Safes 1850s To The 1990s

Almost all, if not all safe and strongroom manufacturers in business from the 1850s to the 1970s used asbestos as a fire retardant insulation, as fire retardant insulation strips around a safe or cabinet door, or as a curing agent for cement inside the cavity walls of safes, strongrooms and cabinets.

Pictured below are two Chubb Record Cabinets from 1967 (middle number on serial no.which were offered for sale through a classified ad site in 2020 having ended use in the same year. The Chubb Record Cabinet 6240, 6220, 4620, 1812 and the 6000/8000 series file produced before 1970 were fitted with an asbestos rope around the rebate, one of the most dangerous places asbestos can be present on a safe or cabinet. After 1970 Chubb replaced the rope with a fire retardant intumescent asbestos free strip. 

Wertheim Safes Ireland

One of the few surveys available, 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. According to the survey 83% of safe manufacturers still used asbestos into the 1980's. We can only say that this stopped in Germany when asbestos was banned there in 1993 but without doubt continued elsewhere in Europe into the 90s.

An example of the continued use of asbestos in safes is contained in the short list of safes (shown below), from well-known manufacturer Fichet-Bauche (France), all of which we have confirmed contain asbestos. The "end of fabrication" dates may come as a surprise to many considering the information that the UK safe industry in particular has been circulating since 2005. The safes marked with a (*) have had "recommended" covers on the Association of Insurance Surveyors (UK) safe list since 2005 but these are a just a few examples amongst many.

Fichet-Bauche products

Reference Type Part Containing Asbestos End of fabrication
3010 Safe door & walls 1981
4010 Safe door & walls 1981
BAR Safe door & walls 1981*
BAGC Safe door 1976*
Bankers GC Safe door 1984*
GC 68 Safe door & walls 1984
EntrepriseSafe door & walls 1987*
170 DF Deposit walls 1984*
NSEB.R.F Vault door door 1996
PF 175 GC Vault door door 1984
PF 280 GC Vault door door 1984
BR Fireproof cabinet walls & joints 1970
ORDINA 110 Fireproof cabinet joints 1995*
ORDINA 210 Fireproof cabinet joints 1995*
ORDINA 310 Fireproof cabinet joints 1995*
COMPACT 50 Fireproof cabinet joints 1995

  Asbestos And Open Borders

As various jurisdictions and manufacturers stopped using asbestos at different times one might ask why we can not rely on the dates of national asbestos bans to ascertain if a safe manufactured by a particular company might contain asbestos. For example, Sweden banned asbestos in 1982 so it should follow that asbestos should not be present in safes and cabinets manufactured by a Swedish manufacturer after 1982. 

Sadly, this is not the case. Before European certification was introduced in 1998 there was no regular accredited auditing of safes, cabinets and strongrooms for hazardous substances, many of these types of units are still on the second-hand market. Then there is the issue of open borders within the EU which has allowed contaminated units easily cross into jurisdictions where asbestos had been banned from jurisdictions where it was still being used in manufacturing until it was banned Europe-wide in 2005.

Example below is a list of cabinets from Swedish manufacturer Rosengrens that we have verified have asbestos. Again, note the end of fabrication dates some of which far exceed Sweden's national ban on asbestos use.

Rosengrens products

Reference Type Part Containing Asbestos End of fabrication
1020 Paper Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
1120 Paper Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
1220 Paper Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
2020 Paper Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
2120 Paper Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
2220 Paper Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
2540 Paper Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
3040 Paper Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
4020 Paper Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
4040 Paper Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
5020 Paper Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
6020 Paper Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
2520 T Data Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
4120 T Data Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
5020 T Data Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
5140 T Data Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
6020 T Data Fireproof Cabinet joints 1980
2036 Fireproof cabinet + theft joints 1981
2234 Fireproof cabinet + theft joints 1982
3036 Fireproof cabinet + theft joints 1983
3135 Fireproof cabinet + theft joints 1984
3234 Fireproof cabinet + theft joints 1985
8036 Fireproof cabinet + theft joints 1986
8234 Fireproof cabinet + theft joints 1987

  When A Safe Or Cabinet Must Be Presumed Contaminated

Where The Asbestos-Free Status Of Any Pre-2000 Safe Or Cabinet Cannot Be Established Or Is In Anyway Uncertain, It Must Be Presumed To Contain Asbestos.

Any safe or cabinet that does not display a metal certification plate riveted to the inside of its door or that is not marked by the manufacturer to say that it does not contain asbestos, must be presumed to contain asbestos. In short, any safe, cabinet or strongroom that does not display a clear indication of the date of manufacture from the manufacturer is a huge red flag. As we said at the outset, even Thomas Milner who invented the use of asbestos in safes clearly marked his products and to do so is to be generally expected. A safe appearing with no identifying marks should always strike any professional as highly suspect and a very likely candidate to conceal hazardous substances or other nasty surprises. 

Hand written stickers, poor quality plastic plates, badges that look out of place, or undertakings from a supplier (regardless of who they are) that a unit does not contain asbestos are also signs that something is not right. For the unscrupulous traders who deal in dangerous safes, cabinets and strongrooms, misrepresentation is a regular business practice. 


  When A Safe Or Cabinet Is Asbestos Free

For safes, cabinets, and strongrooms a European certification plate with a date after 2000 is a guarantee that a unit is asbestos free. The verification of the absence of harmful substances being a pre-requisite of European testing and certification. A certification plate will always be fixed to the inside of a safe, cabinet or strongroom door or in the case of a filing cabinet the plate can be found to the left or right of the top drawer. This will never be a sticker or plastic badge. A genuine certification plate will clearly state the certification standard number, the manufacturing date and the name of the certification body.

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