Construction Workers and Employers Must Manage Asbestos Risk

Employers and workers in construction must carefully manage any risk associated potential asbestos exposure on sites where they are working, a leader in workplace safety says.
In  the latest edition of his organisation’s SafetyCast, SafeWork NSW Assistant State Inspector Jason Wall talked with Safe Work NSW principal inspector Belinda Orris about strategies which are needed to manage asbestos-related risks when working on commercial, industrial or residential buildings.
For Wall, the topic is personal. His own father – a fitter and turner by trade – passed away from mesothelioma (an asbestos related disease) at age 65 after being diagnosed with the disease two years earlier.
Prior to being banned within manufacturing products in the mid-1980s, asbestos was widely used in building products throughout Australia. It was popular on account of its low cost, flexibility and strength along with its resistance to water and fire.
All up, it was used in more than 3,000 products.
From a health perspective, asbestos can be classified into two types:
  • Non-friable asbestos: material that contains asbestos fibres which have been reinforced into a bonding compound and are trapped within the matrix of the product; and
  • Friable asbestos: loose fibres or asbestos material which can be crumbled or reduced to powder by hand pressure when dry.
Provided it is in good condition and is not disturbed, non-friable asbestos poses little health risk and can be left alone.
Problems occur, however, when the asbestos is disturbed. This can be caused by cutting, drilling, grinding, sanding or subjecting the material to a high-pressure water hose.
Where this happens, fibres can be released from the product. Where these are inhaled, they can cause asbestos related diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Around 4,000 Australians die from such diseases each year.
There is a long latency period and diagnosis can occur ten, twenty, thirty or even fifty years after exposure. In the aforementioned case of Wall’s father, he was diagnosed 42 years after he started working with the material at age 21.
In response to growing concern about these diseases, the use of asbestos in manufactured products was banned in the 1980s. Subsequently, the use of any materials which contain asbestos was banned in 2003.
Nonetheless, the widespread nature of its use prior to these bans means that asbestos remains present in many older buildings.
For those in construction, this raises questions about where asbestos can be found and how exposure-related risks can be managed.
(Note: unless otherwise stated, any legal information in this article pertains to New South Wales. Laws may vary elsewhere.)
Broadly speaking, Wall says asbestos is likely to be found on any commercial, residential or industrial premises which was constructed before 1990. Whilst its use in manufacture was banned in the mid-1980s, asbestos containing materials continued to be sold for some time after that.
With its use having been widespread, locations in which it can be found are many. These can include within ceilings, roofs, walls, insulation, fire doors; underneath floors; behind or underneath tiles; and in pipes, downpipes, fences or window puddy.
Similarly, types of workers who can come into contact with asbestos related materials are varied.  To name a few, these can include:
  • Those entering ceilings (where there could be asbestos in insulation) such as pest spray operators, air conditioning installers, maintenance and repair workers and solar panel installers
  • Electricians
  • Plumbers, carpenters and joiners
  • Plasterers/painters/decorators (who may need to sand or patch walls which contain asbestos)
  • Demolition workers.
Plumbers, for instance, may discover asbestos in pipe lagging, cement pipes, rope insulation, sewer vents, flu pipes or gutters.
Electricians may find the material in switchboards/electrical boards or in the insulation around wires, fuse linings and conduits.
Legally, Wall says employers whose staff work on locations that may have asbestos have two obligations.
First, they need to provide their workers with asbestos awareness training. This should cover how to identify asbestos along with safe handling and suitable control measures.
Training should be relevant to the work being performed. Electricians who work on distribution boards or meter boards where asbestos may be present, for example, should be taught how to safely drill into the board or remove circuit breakers.
Employers must also provide ongoing health monitoring. This involves testing prior to working with asbestos to establish a baseline and continued monitoring of worker health at least every two years or as recommended by the workers’ general practitioner.
For tradespeople and workers, Wall says it is important to ‘think asbestos’ on every job. This includes thinking about whether asbestos is likely to be present, where it could be located and what control measures are needed.
When working on commercial or industrial buildings which have been constructed prior to 2003, they should ask to see the asbestos register for the building along with the asbestos management plan.
The asbestos register must be kept for all commercial and industrial buildings which were constructed prior to the ban on use of asbestos containing materials in 2003. This should show where asbestos is located, the type of asbestos which is present (friable or non-friable), the condition of the asbestos and the control measures which are needed.
The asbestos management plan, meanwhile, will link to the register. The plan should include:
  • a list of areas where there might be signage or labelling
  • an outline of the safe work control measures which have been approved when working at the site
  • incident and emergency procedures
  • responsibilities and consultation arrangements between workers and others who are coming onsite; and
  • the type of training which people working in that area should have.
When working at a residential premises, by contrast, asbestos registers and asbestos management plans are generally not available as residential property owners are not required to have these.
In such cases, the person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) will need to identify any areas in which asbestos is located. Where they do not have the expertise to do this themselves, they will need to have a consultant perform this role for them.
When working in areas where it is known that asbestos is present, Wall says tradespeople should think about the type of work involved and the specific tasks which need to be undertaken. These could include drilling holes, installing downlights, removing panels or many other things.
Those who have asbestos awareness training can apply strategies learned through this to work safely around the material.
Important information can also be found in tools available on the Safe Work NSW web site.
A Code of Practice on managing asbestos, for example, outlines procedures on specific tasks such as drilling into material which contains asbestos where this needs to be done.
In addition, a five-part series of videos demonstrates how to work with asbestos. This includes understanding asbestos hazards and risks, required PPE (P2 masks, respirators etc.), setting up a removal area or work area, safely drilling into asbestos and decontaminating yourself and your work area after working with asbestos.
Specific details are important. When wearing a P2 mask, for example, it is important to be clean shaven and free of beards or facial hair. Masks also need to be fit tested to ensure they fit properly.
Where asbestos needs to be removed, this needs to be performed by a licenced contractor where the removal involves either friable asbestos of any quantity or non-friable material of greater than ten square meters. Where non-friable material of less than ten square meters is involved, those who have completed the awareness training will be able to remove this.
When talking about asbestos, Wall highlights a particular problem in use of high-pressure hoses to clean older roofs.
As time moves on, many Australians who live in older houses with older roofs will wish to clean these as the aesthetic value of the roofs is compromised by the build-up of moss among other things.
Often, a high-pressure hose operated by a handyman is used.
This becomes problematic where the roof contains asbestos.
Typically, Wall says the sheeting material in these roofs is comprised of between 20 percent and 30 percent asbestos along with sands, cements and resins which combine together to form a strong and rigid sheet.
When subjected to a high-pressure water hose, the bonding and matrix of the sheet breaks down and the asbestos fibres are released. These fibres can be disbursed not only throughout the yard but also into neighbouring properties.
This not only creates health hazards but also necessitates extensive remediation which can involve removal of trees and grass in affected areas.
Instead, Wall says there are other options.
One such option involves application of fungicides through a light spray of a fungicide material onto the roof sheeting. This breaks down and kills the moss. Once the sheeting is clear of moss, it can be repainted.
Other products avoid the need to clean the roof altogether. Here, Wall says there are paints which can be directly painted over the moss in the desired colour and encapsulated onto the roof sheeting. This avoids any need to clean the roof before applying the paint.
Orris agrees about the importance of this. She recalls attending one site where a high-pressure hose had been used and remediation costs ran into several hundreds of thousands of dollars. This involved not only the direct cost of remediating the landscape but also indirect costs for temporary accommodation as people needed to relocate until the work had been done.
Overall, Wall says it is important to think asbestos at all times.
“My takeaway for tradies would be to ‘think asbestos’,” Wall said.
“Think of the job that you are going to or the job you are at now: could there be asbestos and where will it be?”