As a business owner, you have a responsibility to provide your employees with a safe and healthy environment in which to work.

This involves providing them with safe "plant" (in other words, well-maintained equipment) and processes with which to perform tasks. You must also give your employees adequate facilities (such as clean toilets and eating areas) and keep your workplace in a "safe condition", according to WorkSafe Victoria.

Finally, you must also ensure your employees have the necessary information, OHS training and supervision so they conduct themselves in a safe and healthy way in the workplace.

These are the basic OHS requirements, expected of every business owner – no matter where their business is located or what industry it operates in.

Of course, each industry comes with its own risks that business owners have a "duty of care" to protect their employees against.

What are duties of care?

If you're not familiar with the term, duty of care is a requirement imposed on both employers and employees to make sure they and the people around them keep safe in the workplace.

The WA Department of Commerce states that, in general, a duty of care is designed to stop people from being killed, injured or falling ill while performing tasks at work.

For those business owners operating in the construction, engineering, automotive and a variety of other sectors, one of the biggest hazards your employees may come across on a daily basis is asbestos.

As is the case with all other risks in the workplace, you have a duty of care to protect your employees from the dangers of this substance. If you don't take the correct precautions and your employees, customers or other people in your workplace are exposed to asbestos, the results could be deadly.

What are the duties of care for asbestos?

Because asbestos is so dangerous when its fibres become airborne, there are a number of strict rules and regulations in place concerning the proper way to manage, control and dispose of this substance.

These are outlined in two Codes of Practice, published by Safe Work Australia in December 2011.

1) Have a comprehensive risk management strategy in place.

Before any tasks are performed in an area that contains asbestos, you have a duty of care to put a risk management strategy in place. This involves getting a qualified person to identify the asbestos and organising a list of ways to control the risk it poses.

2) Do everything you can to limit exposure to asbestos.

According to the WHS Act, all persons conducting a business or undertaking (also known as PCBUs) have a duty of care to ensure anyone performing tasks in an area contaminated by asbestos is not exposed to the airborne variety of this substance.

The only exception is when they're working in an area that has been "enclosed to prevent the release of respirable asbestos fibres and negative pressure is used".

If completely eliminating a person's chance of exposure to asbestos is impractical, the WHS Act states that attempts must be made to reduce it as much as possible. This can be achieved in a number of ways, such as:

– Making sure the person working in the asbestos-contaminated area is well informed of the dangers they're facing.
– Keeping the work area containing asbestos separate from all other work areas and ensuring it's clearly signposted so people don't wander into it accidently.
– Employing a qualified person to monitor the air of the work area at all times.
– Providing employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) that meets WHS regulations.

3) Ensure workers' health is monitored regularly.

All business owners are also required to monitor the health of any employees working in asbestos-contaminated areas on a regular basis. This should be performed under the supervision of a registered medical practitioner who has a sound knowledge of the WHS regulations pertaining to asbestos.

The Code of Practice for "How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace" also states that it's the responsibility of the business owner to pay for this recurrent health monitoring.

4) Allow only trained employees to manage, control and dispose of asbestos.

Only employees who have undergone the necessary training should be allowed to perform tasks involving asbestos. As a business owner, you have a duty to ensure your staff receive adequate information and asbestos training before they begin work in an asbestos-contaminated area.

It should be noted here that there are different types of asbestos – namely non-friable and friable – which require different methods of removal. Because of this, you will need to make sure your employees undergo the training course that applies to whichever type of asbestos with which they might be coming into contact.

The distinction between non-friable and friable asbestos is this: the former is bonded to another material, such as cement or resin, while the latter is able to be crumbled or reduced to powder. The majority of asbestos found in buildings around the country is non-friable – however, if it becomes damaged, it can release deadly fibres into the air like friable asbestos and put your employees' health at risk.

AlertForce offers training courses in both removing non-friable asbestos (Class B) and removing friable asbestos (Class A). For more information, make sure you get in touch with our team today!