When working on older homes and buildings in Australia, there is always a risk of encountering asbestos. While this material can be extremely dangerous, knowing how to handle and manage an asbestos risk is crucial for the health and well-being of your workers, as well as people in the affected building.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a mineral that’s made up of millions of tiny fibres. As recently as the 2000’s, asbestos was used in building materials because it is resistant to heat and corrosion. It’s also found in various types of plant and equipment that was imported to Australia prior to the total ban on asbestos sale, use and import, in 2003.
At the time asbestos was regularly used in building materials, the risks were largely unknown. The main issue with asbestos is the fibres being breathed in, which causes a range of medical conditions, predominantly respiratory.
What are the risks of asbestos?
Exposure to asbestos can cause a number of conditions, and the risk will vary depending on the length of exposure, frequency of exposure and the extent as to which the exposures occurred.
Some of the conditions include:
- Asbestosis (scarring of the lung tissue)
- Mesothelioma (cancerous tumours forming around the lungs and intestines)
- Pleural plaques (when the membranes around the lungs start to thicken)
- Various types of cancer, including lung, ovary and larynx.
Due to the seriousness of these conditions, asbestos is no longer used in new Australian building materials produced domestically or imported, however it is still used in some parts of the world, and many instances have occurred where materials containing asbestos have been inadvertently imported into Australia.
Managing the risks
Building owners have a responsibility to protect their staff, occupants and other workers from the risks of asbestos. This means identifying whether your building has asbestos or asbestos containing materials (ACM). The following three steps will help you manage and control the risk.
Identifying an asbestos hazard
Asbestos identification is best done by qualified professionals who know what to look for, and how to manage the risk. It’s important to keep an up-to-date asbestos register if your workplace has asbestos containing materials, an expert asbestos consultant can help you with this process. In some instances it may not always be practical to remove asbestos, provided the risk can be managed safely, by identifying it on an up-to-date asbestos register and having an asbestos management plan.
If your building was constructed after 31 December 2003 and no asbestos has been identified at the workplace and asbestos is not likely to be present, you don’t need an asbestos register, but some care should still be taken when undertaking property works, due to materials being obscured, buried on-site, incomplete or not kept up-to-date.
Assessing the risk of asbestos
Once asbestos containing materials have been identified, it’s important to assess the risk that people could be exposed to its fibres. Some considerations may include whether the asbestos is:
- In poor condition
- At risk of being damaged or deteriorating further
- Located where workers or occupants could be at risk
It’s important to remember that asbestos containing materials that have been clearly identified, are bonded, sealed, in good condition and unlikely to be damaged have a pretty low risk. However, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be controlled in ways such as encapsulation, isolating, preventing any disturbance to the area or considering removal if works are to occur in the near future.
Controlling the risk
Controlling the risk of asbestos can be done in a few different ways.
Firstly, by eliminating the risk. That means removing the asbestos and all materials containing asbestos from your building. This is extremely high-risk work, and should only ever be undertaken by experienced, licensed qualified professionals.
You can also isolate the asbestos, which means sealing it up where it can’t be disturbed, damaged or exposed to anybody. Again, it’s best to enlist the help of professionals with the proper tools and equipment for handling asbestos.
You can also change your work practices to ensure better safety procedures when working in areas with a risk of asbestos exposure. This might include using administrative controls to change the safety procedures. It may also mean staff are required to wear PPE such as coveralls, gloves, respirators, masks and protective eyewear, although the use of PPE as a control measure should only be considered if all other control measures are not practicable.
If you feel there is a risk of asbestos in your building or workplace, contact the team at Opira today for further advice on managing the risk through identifying the asbestos hazard or conducting exposure monitoring.