National Asbestos Awareness Week: 22 – 28 Nov 2021

Every home or building owner dreads hearing their home or establishment has asbestos.

Not everyone is fully aware of precisely what asbestos is or why it’s to be avoided, but we all know that asbestos is dangerous one way or another. 

In this article, we’ll be digging into what asbestos is, the dangers of it, and how tradies can protect themselves if they have to work with asbestos.

The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency is running a campaign in November to ask Aussies to Think Twice About Asbestos. 

This campaign aims to remind home and commercial property owners- and tradies alike- that asbestos is still a prevalent danger. 

What Is Asbestos?

Simply put, asbestos is a generic term used for various fibrous silicate materials. 

Several products are made from asbestos cement, including – but not limited to – fibro sheeting, guttering and other pipes made for water or drainage, corrugated roofing sheets, and roofing shingles. 

This bonded material was used heavily in the building industry between 1940 and 1990. 

Asbestos was an attractive building material due to its durability, fire-resistant qualities, and excellent insulation properties. 

However, due to health issues associated with asbestos, the manufacture, supply, storage, sale and use of asbestos was banned nationwide at the end of 2003. 

How Was It Used?

Asbestos was used in both domestic residences, commercial properties, and other buildings and structures, including schools and even hospitals.

The bonded form was commonly used to create:

  • Roof sheeting and shingles
  • Imitation brick cladding
  • Pipes and guttering
  • Plaster patching compounds and textured wall paint
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Vehicular products such as gaskets, brake shoes, disc pads, clutch housings, and elevator brakes

The looser form of asbestos was used:

  • Spray-on fireproofing/soundproofing/thermal insulation 
  • Soundproofing
  • Thermal insulation, although not in Queensland
  • Some stage curtain fabrics

What Health Issues Can Asbestos Cause?

Asbestos in its undisturbed form isn’t known to be dangerous, as far as we know. This means that simply living or working in a building that contains asbestos isn’t going to kill you or cause health conditions, as long as the asbestos is in good condition.

However, once the asbestos is disturbed, the fibres released into the air can be incredibly toxic and cause asbestos-related diseases.

Once inhaled, your lungs remove most of the fibres by your body’s natural defences, such as coughing. 

However, those that remain can cause diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.

All three of these asbestos-related diseases can be fatal, and there is currently no known cure. 

The diseases take a long time to develop and usually only emerge at least 10 years after exposure, but up to 50 years after exposure. 

Who Is Most At Risk of Asbestos-Related Diseases?

Perhaps surprisingly, the risk is fairly low for most people, even if they live and work in a building containing undisturbed asbestos products. 

While occasional exposure to low concentrations of asbestos due to house fires or renovations on a neighbouring property can be associated with health risks, the risk usually is relatively low.

The real risk is to those who have no choice but to work with disturbed or damaged products containing asbestos. 

Repeated and long-term exposure can increase your risk exponentially, as the disease takes so long to develop. 

The risk factors vary according to:

  • How long and how often a person is exposed to airborne asbestos fibres
  • How high the concentration of asbestos fibres in the air
  • A person’s susceptibility, including an increased risk in smokers
  • The size and type of asbestos fibres

How Can You Protect Your Trade Staff From Asbestos Exposure?

As we like to reiterate regularly on this blog, you, as the owner or manager of a trade business, have a duty of care to your staff. 

Providing the correct PPE and advice to your tradie staff is always important, but it’s especially crucial when working with asbestos. 

Regular dust masks aren’t going to cut it when dealing with asbestos. This isn’t the time to cut corners when it comes to cost- your staff need specific safety equipment.

What you should do

Before commencing work, Tradies should conduct a Residential Asbestos Checklist. It provides instructions on conducting a visual inspection of residential properties to help Tradies identify asbestos-containing materials to manage the job safely.

Only qualified tradespeople with asbestos awareness training can work on materials identified as asbestos.

Tradies should undergo Asbestos Awareness and Management Training to increase their knowledge of asbestos-containing materials and to learn how to manage it safely! Visit your Government regulator website for links to Registered Training Organisations in your State or Territory.

Assume asbestos materials are present when renovating or working in and around residential properties and take every precaution.

A formal inspection and sample testing conducted by a licenced asbestos assessor or occupational hygienist is the only way to be sure if asbestos is present.

Types of Asbestos

There are two types of asbestos building materials: “non-friable” and “friable”.

Non-friable Asbestos is any material (other than friable asbestos) that contains asbestos. Non-friable asbestos cannot be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to a powder by hand pressure when dry.
Products containing non-friable asbestos can be found anywhere! Common uses in residential buildings include: asbestos cement (AC) sheeting (fibro) which may be flat or corrugated that was used internally and externally as roofing, fencing, wall and floor coverings, for water drainage and guttering, flue pipes and in wet or high-temperature areas.

Friable Asbestos is any material containing asbestos in the form of a powder or can be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to powder by hand pressure when dry.
Friable asbestos was mainly used in industrial applications but non-friable asbestos can become friable if damaged, unsealed and exposed to weather.

ONLY Class A Licenced Asbestos Removalists can remove friable asbestos.

Loose-fill (Mr Fluffy) asbestos insulation was installed in ceilings in some homes in NSW and the ACT between 1968 and 1979. It was made of crushed, loose (friable) asbestos and then pumped (and possibly spread) into the ceiling space as insulation. If disturbed it could migrate to wall cavities and sub-floor areas. However, the risk of exposure to asbestos in buildings containing loose-fill asbestos is likely to be very low if the asbestos is undisturbed and sealed off.

If you are working in NSW or the ACT, NEVER enter ceiling or sub-floor space before contacting Council to see if the property is located in an area affected by Mr Fluffy.
Contact Council, NSW Fair Trading or the ACT Government to check if a property might be located in an affected Council region before entering ceiling or sub-floor space!

NEVER use high-pressure water spray or compressed air on asbestos materials. It is prohibited as it can cause asbestos to become friable.

There are legal requirements regarding asbestos management, its removal and disposal which can vary from state to state.
While some might follow the regulations and safety requirements to remove small amounts of asbestos, the safest way to manage its removal is to retain a licenced professional asbestos removalist equipped to protect those living and working on a residential property from the dangers of asbestos dust and fibres.

If Tradies need to remove small amounts of asbestos, they must follow all safety precautions including:
Wear PPE;
Ensure dust is minimised; and,
Asbestos is safely removed and legally disposed of as ASBESTOS WASTE at lawful waste management sites.

If asbestos is identified in residential properties, unless tradespeople have undergone asbestos awareness training to work safely with asbestos; Don’t cut it! Don’t drill it! Don’t drop it! Don’t sand it! Don’t saw it! Don’t scrape it! Don’t scrub it! Don’t dismantle it! Don’t tip it! Don’t waterblast it! Don’t demolish it! And whatever you do… Don’t dump it!”

PPE Requirements

RESPIRATOR

  • Specific respirator with P1 or P2 filter cartridges designed for working with asbestos. They should comply with Australian Standard AS1716, which should be displayed somewhere on the mask. Ensure your staff have read the manufacturer’s instructions detailing how to fit the most properly or provide training on this. 
  • Remind males to be clean-shaven for an airtight seal on the face. 
  • Ensure all staff keep their respirators on until all disposable clothing has been removed, bagged and disposed of safely. 

CLOTHES

  • Disposable coveralls made for use during asbestos removal or work. E.g. European Standards Type 5 and Type 6.
  • Disposable boot covers or gumboots, gloves, and hats.
  • Ensure your staff disposes of the clothing safely and DOES NOT shake them out during removal. 
  • Place all disposable clothes in sealable asbestos waste bags and dispose of them along with other asbestos waste.
  • Ensure your staff has a shower immediately to remove any remaining dust and fibres from the hair and body.

Some of these measures may seem extreme, but they’re crucial to keep your staff safe and healthy in the workplace. 

Contact us here to book a consultation for more specific guidance in this or any other OH&S issue. 

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