There are many occupations that are at risk of exposure to asbestos fibres during the duty of employment. One role with a significant chance of discovering asbestos is electricians in Australia.

In addition to the risks already faced by those working in this type of employment, such as electrocution and confined spaces, electricians often work on homes, buildings and switchboard panels or meter boards that may contain loose asbestos fibres.

Because of this significant risk of exposure, the National Electrical and Communications Association (NECA) has recently spoken out against the government's decision to withhold a list of contaminated homes in the ACT.

The government chose not to release the information to the public due to the impact the knowledge could have on property prices. While this decision helps protect the homeowners' investments, the NECA believes that without the details, tradespeople across the territory are at risk of working on a home without the proper precautions in place.

NECA ACT Executive Director Oliver Judd explained that the decision to withhold this information "flew in the face of common sense" and demonstrated a lack of respect for residents and tradespeople in Australia.

"Electrical contractors are regularly called upon to enter ceiling spaces, under floor areas or access cavity walls where this danger exists. For an employer to send their employees into a work situation where safety cannot be guaranteed is an intolerable position," the May 21 statement read.

Those working in the electrical industry already face a significant level of risk during the undertaking of their occupation. With the added threat of asbestos exposure, employers in this field need to ensure their workers have access to all the necessary training and personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to minimise hazards and risks.

In particular, electricians who often work in homes or on meter boards constructed before 2004 should consider investing in asbestos awareness training to make sure they are able to correctly identify and respond to asbestos contamination.

Identifying asbestos risks

The simplest way to avoid potentially deadly asbestos exposure is to avoid working on any buildings, structures or switchboards that may contain the material.

Overall, there is a significant risk of asbestos fibres being present on any board or building that was built before 2004. In particular, meter boards installed before 1990 are very likely to contain asbestos fibres, according to Workplace Health and Safety Queensland.

Non-friable asbestos was commonly used as electrical insulation on meter boards and other relevant panels. The components themselves also contained asbestos materials, as well as many meter boxes being lined with asbestos-cement sheeting – also known as fibro.

When electricians work on these meters and boards, any disturbance of the material could cause fibres to become airborne. This includes when drilling, cutting and sanding panels, or even simply removing components. Once the asbestos becomes airborne, there is a significant risk of inhalation which may lead to serious lung diseases, such as mesothelioma or asbestosis.

It is generally impossible to tell whether a material contains asbestos simply by looking at it. It is therefore recommended to invest in official asbestos testing and treat the site as contaminated until results prove otherwise.

If this is not practical or appropriate, electricians are urged to assume asbestos is present. This means that asbestos-related PPE should be worn at all times when working on switchboards or homes built prior to 2004, unless thorough testing confirms asbestos fibres are absent.

Often, commercial buildings that contain bonded asbestos will have a register of this information available for any tradespeople to review before beginning work on the site. Electricians are encouraged to speak with building owners or request the details from the relevant property body.

Responding to asbestos exposure

When asbestos is potentially present in a work site, there are a number of steps electricians should take to avoid inhalation of fibres. This includes undergoing asbestos awareness training and ensuring all persons in the area are aware of the asbestos risk.

The site should then be prepared for work by covering all furniture, floors and other items with two layers of PVC plastic sheeting, secured with duct tape. All vent systems and air conditioning should be shut down and sealed with the same cover – at least 200 micrometres thick.

In addition to protecting the site from exposure, individuals working in the area are required to wear official PPE, including approved respirators, eye wear and disposable coveralls, gloves and boots. It is the responsibility of the employer to provide this equipment to all workers on the site. Self-employed electricians or contractors must protect themselves by purchasing their own PPE, most of which can be found at local work safe stores.

Once work is underway, electricians can take a number of precautions to avoid particles becoming airborne. This could include using a wet substance, such as shaving foam, to dampen non-friable asbestos before drilling.

After the task has been completed, the clean up of the site is equally as important as the preparation. This involves correctly disposing of the coveralls, gloves and materials used.

A wet-wipe cleaning method should help discourage any disturbed fibres from becoming airborne, however this is not guaranteed so PPE should be worn during the clean up process. Even when removing the coveralls and PPE, the respirator should be the last item taken off, before sealing the equipment and waste in two plastic bags, at least 200 micrometres thick.

After ensuring the worksite is free of dust and debris, the sealed bags should be disposed of in accordance with local legislation and requirements. 

If you're working as an electrician in Australia and would like to learn more about asbestos safety, contact the AlertForce team about our asbestos awareness training today.

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