Due to increasing public awareness of the hazards of asbestos, safe suppliers frequently receive calls concerning the possibility of asbestos being present in their safes, particularly those described as ‘fire resistant’. The replies they receive are often misleading or simply false. They are told no asbestos was used or wrongly advised that they featured ‘white’ asbestos and is “not considered hazardous”. This is unlikely to be due to a conscious intention to deceive but more likely because they themselves are either ignorant of the facts or unaware that although asbestos is not used in their current products, it did indeed feature in the past.

‘In the past’ is an important term as asbestos has not been used in security products for many years, in fact its use has been completely banned by the EU for some time. However, for a long period it was widely used as a door seal by leading manufacturers of fire resistant safes and cabinets.

The majority of these document fire safes and filing cabinets use a solid fill based on a mixture of gypsum and foamed concrete. In the event of the safe being subjected to heat, moisture is given off as steam. Like old fashioned porridge saucepans, the interior of the safe cannot exceed the boiling temperature of water (100ºC) until all the moisture is driven off. The brass name plates on some ancient safes frequently feature the mysterious number 212 and not everyone recognises this is a reference to 212ºF, the boiling temperature of water.

At this temperature, paper records remain unaffected and emerge from the safe possibly slightly damp but otherwise unscathed. During the Brixton Riots of 1981 a jewellers’ shop was totally destroyed by fire. It contained two safes, one with moisture generating insulation and one without. The heat generated by the inferno was extreme enough to melt glass yet when the fire resistant safe was opened, the contents remained exactly as they were when they had been locked away the evening before. When the adjacent safe without this protection was opened all the jewellery and watches had melted and totally destroyed.

None of these fire resistant materials contained asbestos. Asbestos is a very efficient flame retardant material – it won’t burn but it will conduct heat. Some of us remember when ironing boards had a square pad of asbestos at the end of the board to stand the hot iron on. The pad would not scorch or burn, but if you put your hand underneath and felt the metal, it would be extremely hot. Consequently it is not at all suitable as an effective heat resistant compound.

None the less, the flame retardant properties of asbestos were ideal for use as door seals to prevent flames being drawn into the interior of the safe through the slight gap between the door and frame. 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 that it may contain asbestos.

A to Z Safe Warehouse, leading specialists in the reconditioning and supply of cash and document safes, contacted safe makers to enquire about the possibility that older models may have contained asbestos. Their responses were so ambiguous or equivocal that the directors decided to conduct their own investigation. They commissioned Vintec Environmental Management to collect a number of samples from document safes in their warehouse, submitting them to scientific scrutiny by Spectra Analysis Services Limited. Out of nine samples, eight contained Chrysotile asbestos.

It has been estimated that 95% of asbestos found in the UK is this form of ‘white’ Chrysotile. Chrysotile asbestos fibres are considered carcinogenic if exposed to long term inhalation. It is not know how much abrasion can be caused by the opening and shutting of the safe door or whether this constitutes a threat but today all asbestos products are considered to be a health hazard.

So, how can you tell if your old document safe contains asbestos? Having conducted their own investigations, A to Z Safe Warehouse has more experience than most in detecting and recognising these materials and today provides a free survey service. Once it is established that asbestos is present the client has two options. The first is to contact a licensed specialist to remove potentially hazardous material in accordance with the Control of Asbestos Work Regulations 1987. Using trained operatives wearing protective clothing and equipped with specially designed tools, they safely remove and dispose of the asbestos tape, replacing it with non toxic and more efficient intumescent seals. Unfortunately, this highly specialised service is at a cost which generally far exceeds the value of the safe.

The second and frequently more cost effective solution is to have the entire safe removed and taken to a site where hazardous materials can be disposed of. They can then be replaced by modern fire resistant document and computer data safes. Both the company that removes and transports the safes and the company that disposes of them must have fully trained and licensed operatives.

Following their investigations, A to Z Safe Warehouse 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

For further guidance A to Z Safe Warehouse has published a brief report containing frequently asked questions and entitled Asbestos in Safes. Copies are freely available by contacting or calling Chris Goldfinch on 01268 566317

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