WHAT IS ASBESTOS?
Chapter 8 of the Work Health and Safety Regulations 2012
Asbestos is the name given to various forms of naturally occurring, fibrous silicate minerals.
Asbestos was used extensively in building materials up to the late 1980s because of its durability, fire resistance and insulating properties. Asbestos fibres are 50 to 200 times thinner than a human hair, can float in the air for a long time, can be invisible to the naked eye and can be breathed into the lungs. In the past, asbestos was mined from the ground and manufactured into many different materials. Materials containing asbestos were very common in the Australian residential building industry between the 1940s and late 1980s before their production stopped. The use of all forms of asbestos has been banned nationally since 31 December 2003.
Asbestos is likely to be in a building if:
It was built or refurbished between 1950 and the mid 1980’s
If it has a steel frame; and/or
It has boilers with thermal insulation.
HOW CAN ASBESTOS AFFECT MY HEALTH?
Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The risk of contracting these diseases increases with the number of fibres inhaled, and the risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibres is also greater if you smoke. People who get health problems from inhaling asbestos have usually been exposed to high levels of asbestos for a long time. The symptoms of these diseases do not usually appear until about 20 to 40 years after the first exposure to asbestos. The lower the level of exposure to asbestos the lower the level of risk, therefore, the aim should be to minimise exposure to asbestos in the air.
Materials containing asbestos do not pose a risk to health if they are left undisturbed and are in good condition. Asbestos is only a risk to health if asbestos fibres are released into the air and breathed in. DIY renovators and tradespeople are the ones most at risk of exposure to asbestos fibres as they are more likely to frequently undertake repairs, renovations and other work such as using power tools, sawing or sanding, which can generate the release of asbestos fibres into the air.
Prior to any work commencing, a risk assessment should be carried out in consultation with employees. A safe work procedure should then be devised that minimises the release of dust and fibres and avoids exposure. Work involving friable (crumbles easily) asbestos is considered to present the greatest risk of exposure to air-borne fibres. Bonded asbestos is unlikely to release airborne fibres unless it is damaged or disturbed.
SPECIFIC SAFETY PRECAUTIONS FOR WORK INVOLVING ASBESTOS ARE:
- Wear disposable overalls, hat and gloves – and when finished dispose of properly.
- Make sure the area is well-ventilated area.
- Lay plastic drop sheets around the work area to catch any excess debris.
- Wear a disposable, half-face particulate respirator or a half-face filter respirator fitted with a dust/particulate cartridge appropriate for asbestos. Respirators should comply with Australian Standard 1716.
- Try not to break the sheets as you remove them.
- Wet the asbestos surface to reduce the risk of dust particles floating into the air.
- Do not use power tools to saw, grind, drill or break any asbestos product. Use non-powered hand tools as these generate less dust.
- Gently place the sheets on the ground, rather than dropping them.
- If you need to sweep up excess asbestos, use a wet mop.
- Vacuum the area with a vacuum cleaner designed for asbestos fibre collection fitted with High Efficiency Particulate Air filters. These cleaners should comply with Australian Standard 3544.
- Dispose of smaller asbestos pieces and collected dust in plastic bags, which are clearly labelled “ASBESTOS WASTE“.
- When finished, make sure you wash your hands and shower thoroughly.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT ASBESTOS IN BUILDINGS
In Australia and overseas, there has been much controversy over what should be done about asbestos in building:
Leave the asbestos intact (but labelled) if it is in good condition, unlikely to be disturbed and unable to feed fibres into workers’ breathing zones. Materials containing asbestos do not pose a risk to health if they are left undisturbed and are well maintained.
Enclose the asbestos so that disturbance of the asbestos material and entry into the enclosure is not possible. Encapsulate (or deep seal) the asbestos, if it is in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed.
Remove the asbestos if its surface is damaged or crumbling, or it is likely to be disturbed, for example by maintenance work.
Removal of asbestos obviously eliminates the hazard forever – provided it is done with the best control procedures, with competent removal experts, good supervision and a well informed workforce. But often this is not the case in practice.
The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission has set the following exposure standards which state the maximum airborne asbestos fibre levels that workers can be exposed to. The below TWA exposure standards apply to long-term exposure to a substance over an eight-hour day, for a five-day working week.
|Types of Asbestos||TWA (Time-weighted Average Values) fibres per mL of air|
|Crocidolite (blue asbestos)||0.1|
|Amosite (brown asbestos)||0.1|
|Chrysotile (white asbestos)||0.1|
|Any mixtures of these or where the composition is unknown||0.1|
Asbestos Victims Association SA
The Asbestos Victims Association (SA) Inc has been around since 2000 and has hundreds of members across the state. They focus on victim support, advocacy for victims and their families and legislative reform to provide a better deal for victims and their families.