If you’re sitting in an Australian building that was constructed prior to 1990, it’s likely that it contains some asbestos. Many schools, homes, public amenities and offices across Australia were built with materials containing asbestos, as it was sturdy but light, with insulating, soundproofing and fireproofing qualities. However, now that the significant health and safety risks of asbestos exposure are known, it’s important that we eliminate or mitigate them, particularly in our home and work environments.
November is National Asbestos Awareness Month in Australia, and it’s the ideal time to make sure you understand the dangers of this material. Here are some facts to get you up to speed:
What is asbestos?
Asbestos refers to a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals. Asbestos fibres are around 50-200 times thinner than a human hair and can be invisible to the naked eye. Accordingly, they can be unknowingly inhaled and trapped in the lungs.
How was asbestos used in building?
Asbestos is classified as either friable, or non-friable. Non-friable asbestos cannot be crumbled or pulverised into powder when dry, and it’s this variety that was commonly used in building materials such as:
- water, drainage and flue pipes
- corrugated or compressed asbestos cement sheets, and
- floor tiles.
This type of asbestos can become friable when weathered or damaged.
Friable asbestos is material containing asbestos that can be crushed or crumbled in the hand. This variety had mainly industrial applications and was also sometimes used as ceiling insulation. Friable asbestos is more dangerous than non-friable, as the fibres are released more easily.
Is asbestos still in use?
The mining, manufacture and use of asbestos has been banned in Australia since 2003, although it’s been slowly phased out since the late 1980s.
It’s still contained in many Australian buildings, though, and is not banned in some countries, including the USA.
What risks does asbestos pose to people?
4000 Australians die each year from past exposure to asbestos. According to the Cancer Council, exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing cancers of the lung, ovary and larynx as well as mesothelioma (cancer of the lung lining) and asbestosis. These cancers may not develop immediately and can emerge decades after the exposure occurred.
Who is most at risk of breathing in asbestos fibres?
Anyone who has had contact with asbestos that has become airborne is at risk of breathing in the fibres. Although non-friable asbestos products are less dangerous, they can still become friable when they’re disturbed. This can happen when a homeowner attempts a DIY task without taking proper precautions.
Many people who have contracted asbestos-related diseases have been exposed to it in their workplaces, particularly transport workers, construction workers, electricians, carpenters, telecommunications workers, asbestos miners and millers, asbestos cement manufacturing workers, builders, plumbers and mechanics.
People currently in the workforce who are likely to handle construction materials (including roofing and textured paints), friction brake products, insulation products and/or vehicle and plant equipment that pre-date the 2003 ban are also at risk of coming into contact with asbestos fibres, and must take safety control measures, as referred to below.
What does the law say about asbestos at work?
The Work Health and Safety regulatory body in your state or territory will have specific guidelines for the management of asbestos in the workplace, and there are also legal and safety requirements for the management and removal of asbestos under the model Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011. Safe Work Australia has also issued several guides and an Exposure standard for airborne asbestos, which can be measured through air monitoring.
To find out more about the laws in your state, click the applicable link.
How can risks posed by asbestos be eliminated or mitigated?
If you’re doing renovations at home, it is legal to remove less than 10㎡ of asbestos yourself, but the safest course of action is to hire a licensed asbestos removal professional. You might not be able to tell if a material contains asbestos, so it’s best to behave as though it does. In the ACT, all asbestos material must be removed by a licensed professional.
If you work for someone else and come into contact with asbestos, they have a number of obligations and duties to fulfil in order to effectively protect your health and safety as a worker. If you manage or control a workplace, Safe Work Australia suggests the following checklist (dependant on the operations within your organisation) should be your reference:
- You must have an asbestos register
- You must have an asbestos management plan
- You must control asbestos in your workplace
- You must hold the right training and licensing
- You must monitor your workers’ health.
Other measures may also be implemented to minimise risks associated with asbestos exposure, such as: mandatory PPE for all workers; eliminating the use of dust-raising tools or high-pressure hoses on sites with asbestos-containing materials; eliminating high-speed power tools such as angle grinders or sanders on sites with asbestos-containing materials; and training individuals how to safely handle these materials before they commence working with them. It’s important to facilitate appropriate signage, decontamination and disposal measures to ensure nobody is exposed unnecessarily. Additional administrative controls may also be implemented. The Cancer Council has a useful summary of asbestos control measures that can be viewed here.
What should I do if I believe I have been exposed to asbestos at work?
If you believe you’ve been exposed to airborne asbestos in the course of your work, visit your GP for advice. You can also add your name to the Australian National Asbestos Exposure Register to record your potential exposure.
If you’d like to know more about how to assess and manage these sorts of risks in your workplace, Recovery Partners can help. Get in touch by emailing email@example.com or calling 1300 OHS RTW (647 789) today.
Please note: This is not an exhaustive outline of the risks of asbestos in the workplace. Please refer to the Work Health and Safety regulatory body in your state or territory (see above) for more comprehensive information and instruction.
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