Plumbers and heating engineers must know their responsibilities or risk serious illness when it comes to dealing with asbestos, Kevin Wellman, acting chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Plumbing & Heating Engineering, has warned.

The latest figures show that in 2008 there were 2,249 deaths from mesothelioma, one of the types of lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. In total, asbestos exposure is believed to have caused about 4,000 deaths that year, and the numbers are expected to continue to rise until 2016.

"Plumbers and heating engineers are more likely than most to come across asbestos while they're working," said Wellman. "The figures are bad enough – what we don't want is a new occurrence or risk of asbestos-related illness, simply due to people not understanding what to do."

The CIPHE warning comes shortly after two cases of plumbers dying as a result of their exposure to asbestos during their working lives. Coroners ruled that both Ronald Kirkland from Derby, and Ronald Scriven from Southend, had been exposed to dangerous levels of the material.

Asbestos was a commonly-used building material until the 1980s when the dangers of inhaling the material became widely known, but those exposed to asbestos often show no signs of the illness for many years after the first exposure. In fact, it can take between 10 and 40 years for the symptoms to develop.

For non-domestic premises there is a duty, normally held by whoever manages the building, to keep records of the location of all possible asbestos and its condition. They must also have a plan of how to manage the risk and act on it.

There are three levels of training that entitle workers to deal with different levels of asbestos risk: asbestos awareness training; non-licensed; and licensed.

Awareness training is suitable for anyone likely to come across asbestos in the course of their work. It teaches you to recognise the risk and protect yourself, but it does not allow you to carry out any work on asbestos.

Non-licensed is used in addition to awareness training. It teaches you to drill holes in asbestos-containing materials, lay cables and perform other lower risk asbestos work in safety.

Only licensed training will qualify you for all kinds of asbestos work and is useful for supervisors.

"It's important for employers to be aware of the legal requirements and ensure they only take on individuals with adequate training," Wellman continued. "For non-domestic premises you must also make sure you have sight of the asbestos risk report before commencing any project."