There was a time when asbestos was considered to be some sort of ‘surprise product’. This time extended from the end of World War II until the early 80’s. As such, it was used extensively, and in Australia at the minimum, can be found in most buildings built within this time frame.
The number of products known to contain asbestos is truly mind boggling; however some shared examples include flat cement sheeting, corrugated cement sheeting, vinyl floor tiles, electrical switchboards, pipe insulation, brake friction products (cars, buses, trucks, trains, lifts, etc) and water pipes.
As is now extensively proven, exposure to asbestos has been associated with lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, and as a consequence workplace exposures must be prevented.
To prevent these exposures, it must be remembered that these health effects are caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres. This method that asbestos containing materials (ACM) must never be cut, grinded, sanded, or worked upon in a manner which causes them to increasing rapidly.
In my experience, the number one cause of asbestos related conflict within workplaces occurs when an ACM is accidentally worked on. This could be a plumber cutting a hole in a section of cement sheeting to adjust to a pipe, or a group of workers demolishing a structure containing ACMs.
To avoid these exposures the following simple steps are recommended:
- clarify and document the location of all ACM within your workplace. This will probably include expert assistance;
- Label all ACM in your workplace. If this is not possible then ensure that a document outlining the location of all ACMs is freely obtainable (often known as an Asbestos Register);
- If your workplace has some sort of permitting system in place to control work, then make reference to asbestos in these systems so that possible exposures are identified prior to work commencing;
observe: on more than one event I have become aware of accidental exposures already though an asbestos register is obtainable. The cause of these incidents is quite simple – either the work group neglected to consult the register or were not aware that a register existed;
- Follow the hierarchy outlined below:
- Wherever possible, remove ACMs from your workplace. This must only be done in a controlled manner by qualified individuals (some jurisdictions require asbestos removalists to be licensed);
- Enclose ACMs to provide a protective obstacle (e.g. construct a false wall in front of a cement sheet wall or cover asbestos containing pipe lagging);
- Cover ACMs in a coating (e.g. paint cement sheeting).
- Prevent work being conducted on ACM wherever possible. However, it this is not possible, ensure that appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is worn at all times. This should always include a particulate respirator and protective coveralls.
These recommendations do not replace the need to consider the specific requirements of your workplace, and will not necessarily guarantee regulatory compliance; however following these basic principles should make your workplace safer.