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Working safely with Asbestos

Asbestos was an extremely popular material throughout the 20th century for a wide variety of building applications. It was non-flammable, and it performed admirably as an insulator for heat, corrosive chemicals, electricity and even sound. And it was cheap. Its use with cement to create composite “fibro” found particular favour in post-war Australia, as a means of cheaply and rapidly producing large numbers of "homes for heroes". A different form of composite used “white” asbestos in the manufacture of friction materials for vehicle brakes and clutches. By the time, in the latter part of the century, it had become unavoidably clear that asbestos was responsible for serious, fatal illnesses like lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis and pneumoconiosis, the developed world was shot through with the stuff. Asbestos is an imperishable material – that’s why it was so useful. Getting rid of it is going to take a while. In the meantime, we need to ensure that those who do encounter asbestos in their work are protected from its harmful effects.

Asbestos litigation, in which sufferers from these diseases and/or their relatives allege negligence on the part of their employers, has been the longest, most costly body of litigation in US history, and has had a similar impact in Australian jurisdictions. Asbestos remains a serious concern for anyone working on older buildings. This article discusses some of the implications of working with asbestos, and at some of the ways you can protect workers whose work may involve exposure to, and handling asbestos.

What is asbestos?

The term “asbestos” (meaning “unquenchable” in ancient Greek) is used to describe a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals. These share certain key physical properties; long, thin, fibrous crystals, each composed of millions of microscopic fibrils which are easily released by abrasion and shock, forming a carcinogenic dust that is readily airborne.

In Australia, the use of asbestos in vehicles or for general building purposes has been banned since 31 December 2003. But of course this ban can only prevent new installations, and many businesses and their employees have to contend with asbestos that was installed decades earlier. Breaking up of fibro, hosing with water, dry brushing or air-blowing can all mobilise asbestos debris and endanger workers and even passers-by.

Contracting employers have an obligation to protect both their workers and the general public from the deleterious effects of any asbestos they find themselves working with. They must handle and transport any asbestos waste in accordance with the guidelines of the State Environmental Protection Agency in their state. This has certain key implications for managers and employers:

  • You should conduct and document a formal risk assessment before working with asbestos. All workers involved with the hazardous material should be familiarised with the risk assessment.
  • Training – ensure you and your employees are thoroughly familiar with techniques for handling asbestos, and in the use, cleaning and maintenance of Personal Protective Equipment, including gloves, overalls, goggles and respirator systems. Discuss your PPE needs with your Safetyquip adviser.
  • You should have a separate area designated exclusively for work with asbestos. This area should be floored with replaceable plastic sheeting for debris removal. This area should be clearly marked with warning signs. Portable warning signs should also be deployed elsewhere in the workplace to warn employees of the designated asbestos working area. Contaminated clothing and respirators should not be removed from the asbestos work area.
  • Water is a good medium for mopping and removing asbestos debris, especially when it contains a little detergent to enhance its wetting properties. However rags used for this purpose are a potent source of asbestos hazard when dry. They must be treated as contaminated and disposed of accordingly.
  • Working with vehicles – it is often impractical to test vehicles for the presence of asbestos in, for instance clutches, exhaust systems and brake linings and pads. For this reason it is wise to treat each vehicle as if it does indeed pose an asbestos hazard, and equip employees with suitable protective equipment.
  • Disposal of asbestos waste – this must only be done at EPA licensed sites, and never in the general waste system. Vehicle components containing asbestos should be bagged in compliant heavy duty “Asbestos Waste” plastic bags.

Following these guidelines will help you discharge your obligations and keep your workplace safe from the hazard of asbestos contamination. SafetyQuip carries a large range of equipment and PPE for workers handling asbestos. A phone call will get you in touch with a SafetyQuip adviser who can assist you in choosing the right products for your circumstances. For further information on handling asbestos, and to source training programs in your state, consult the following sites: