Despite asbestos being officially banned in Australia from 1989, employers and business owners still need to take care that their workplaces aren’t harbouring any hidden stores of the hazardous fibres. These silicate minerals are extremely toxic and tend to be very resistant to the natural cleaning process that occurs in human lungs, which is why safe asbestos assessment and asbestos removal are crucial.

Anyone who inhales these miniscule asbestos fragments is at risk of a variety of related diseases and conditions, from pleural disease and asbestosis to lung cancer and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is one of the most dangerous ailments that can arise from asbestos contamination or inhalation, as the first symptoms of the condition may not surface until up to 20-40 years after the initial episode of exposure.

According to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), it is estimated that there have been at least 4,700 deaths from mesothelioma since the 1980s and over 25,000 Australians will die from the condition over the next 40 years. Australia and the United Kingdom have the highest rates of asbestos-related death in the world.

Unfortunately, asbestos was one of the most commonly used construction materials in the period between 1945 and 1980s. Most public buildings and around one third of private buildings constructed during this time are thought to contain asbestos in concrete, cement sheeting, vinyl floor coverings and more.

Due to the widespread use of asbestos in the construction industry in the past, when it was preferred for its strength, flexibility, durability and insulating properties, the risks of exposure can also affect a wide variety of people. In addition to this, asbestos-containing materials within buildings can weather and age as time passes, heightening the risk of the release of asbestos fragments even years after construction.

As a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) in Australia, you have some vital responsibilities concerning the safety of your workers and any premises they operate in. First and foremost, you are obliged under work health and safety regulations to control the risk of exposure as much as you can. This means eliminating or minimising the possibility that anyone will be at risk of airborne asbestos in the workplace.

If any workers do carry out the identification and removal of asbestos in the workplace, a PCBU is responsible for ensuring they have the necessary asbestos awareness training completed as well as access to regular health monitoring to support their wellbeing.

If asbestos or asbestos-containing materials have been identified in the workplace, there are several tips that are helpful for creating an effective asbestos risk management and removal strategy. You can always ask the relevant asbestos authority or training course provider for more detailed information, but here are some basic essentials to think about when it comes to protecting your own workforce.

1. Identifying asbestos

Asbestos awareness and identification are the first steps to any risk management strategy. The danger of exposure to asbestos is not allowed to exceed the standard set for the workplace, so it’s important to be able to safely identify asbestos and asbestos-containing materials.

If asbestos has been detected at the workplace, the location of the substance must be clearly indicated and recorded in a register, and it should be accompanied by a written asbestos management plan. This register needs to be up to date at all times and easily available.

In Queensland, the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 stipulates that an asbestos management plan is required if naturally occurring asbestos has been identified or is likely to be present in a workplace. These regulations took effect from January 1 this year.

Asbestos in the workplace needs to be identified officially by a person who is competent in doing so. This covers occupational hygienists who have had previous experience with it, licensed asbestos assessors, asbestos removal supervisors, people who have a statement of attainment in the VET course for asbestos assessment and representatives from organisations accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA).

2. Creating an asbestos register

All employers are required to maintain an asbestos register if any contaminated products have been found in their workplace. This rule has been in effect since 1996.

The register lists all identified or assumed asbestos that is present or likely to be present in a workplace. When recording asbestos, you need to note the date it was identified and the location, type and condition of the substance found.

These are the compulsory details, but you can also choose to record information about inaccessible areas of the workplace, any analysis of other materials confirmed not to be asbestos, or attach photographs or maps that clearly show the affected area.

According to relevant legislation, the register needs to be held at all workplaces where the asbestos is present and it needs to be updated at least every 12 months or more frequently if necessary.

However, in certain cases an asbestos register is not compulsory. This applies to workplaces in buildings that were constructed after December 31, 2003 or if no asbestos has been identified. It also applies if the likelihood of asbestos appearing in the workplace is impossible.

3. Implementing control measures

Once asbestos has been identified, it is vital to undertake the necessary control measures to eliminate or minimise the exposure risk and keep workers safe and healthy. You will need to implement the appropriate safe work procedures and detail the necessary information about what to do in the case of an asbestos-related accident, incident or emergency.

If asbestos removal is required, the professional must first have a copy of the workplace’s asbestos register before carrying out any work.

There are several ways you can control asbestos risk in the workplace. You could eliminate the danger entirely by getting a licensed professional (or a staff member who has undergone asbestos removal courses training) to take it out from the premises.

You can also manage the risk by sealing the affected area or enclosing it with certain materials that will isolate the site. Work safe practices can also help, such as making the area off-limits to your workforce. Providing staff and others who have access to the area with personal protective equipment is also useful for minimising the risk.

4. Make a practice of consulting workers

Consulting your workforce during the process of creating a risk management strategy has many benefits. It’s also a legal requirement of PCBUs under the Work Health and Safety Act. That legislation specifies workers who are likely to be directly affected by the matter should be consulted as much as is reasonably practical.

Involving your staff members in the process of creating risk management strategies for asbestos can help to ensure they know what to do. If your workforce has a single health and safety representative, consultation should take place with him or her as well.

If you open up the process of asbestos risk management and seek feedback from workers who could be affected, this helps to establish a clear channel of communication between you and your workforce. Encouraging input from your workforce may lead to more effective and well-received control measures in the future.

For more information about asbestos assessment training in Australia and what you can do to manage the risk, contact the team at AlertForce today.

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