Respiratory diseases caused by exposure to asbestos in the workplace have declined in recent years, according to a recent report from Safe Work Australia.

The fifth edition of the Occupational Disease Indicators study, released on July 8, studied a number of priority work-related conditions, including lung diseases and cancers developed after contact with asbestos products. Trend rates of these diseases, as well as high-risk occupations and preventative policies, were identified in this report.

Overall, five of the eight priority diseases showed a decline in prevalence between 2000 and 2011, with the remaining three categories – occupational cancers, noise-induced hearing loss and mental disorders – all remaining steady.

Worker compensation claims related to respiratory conditions, including those caused by asbestos, fell by 49 per cent during the nominated period. In particular, the rates of Australian employees reporting asbestosis fell from 36 claims per million population, in 2000-01 to just seven in 2010-11.

In the same time, the rate of occupational cancer reported by workers remained relatively steady. However, the incidence of claims due to mesothelioma – caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres – steadily increased from 11 to 33 cases per million Australians between 1983 and 2003, before falling to 28 cases in 2010.

The 20 year growth in mesothelioma claims can possible be contributed to the long-term incubation of the disease, with exposure to asbestos leading to the disease over a potential 20-40 year period. 

As respiratory disease and occupational cancer each started to decline in recent years, this may be an indication that modern practices and policies concerning asbestos in the workplace have started to make a difference for employee health and safety.

In particular, the country-wide ban of asbestos products which came into effect in 2003, coupled with extensive removal projects and asbestos awareness training, have ensured that workers in Australia understand the risks of inhalation and exposure.

The history of asbestos in Australia

Asbestos has a long and extensive history in Australian workplaces, particularly due to its use as a flame and water resistant insulation product. 

Australia had the highest per capita use of asbestos in the world between the 1950s and 70s, according to Asbestos.com. A vast range of occupations and industries relied on this material, including construction, textiles and mining.

While mesothelioma cases began being reported as early as 1962 in Australia, the use of amosite (brown) asbestos continued into the late 1980s. Furthermore, some products that contained the dangerous fibres were still in use until December 2003.

In addition to the asbestos use across the country, parts of Australia were considered mining hubs for particular forms of the material. This includes crocidolite (blue) asbestos, which was mined extensively in the Western Australia town of Wittenoom from the 1930s until the mine was shut down in 1966.

Despite the fact nation-wide bans began to come in force in the 1970s, residents across Australia are still at risk of asbestos exposure due to remnants of its use in past decades. In particular, houses and buildings built prior to 1990 are likely to contain the deadly fibres in some form.

This fact commonly puts construction workers, renovators, plumbers and other tradespeople at risk of exposure and inhalation. Because of this, asbestos assessment, awareness and removal training has remained vital consideration for employers across a wide range of industries.

Asbestos awareness training

Any person conducting a business or undertaking has a duty of care to ensure their employees are aware of the risks present in the workplace.

If an individual is required to perform work that may result in asbestos exposure, whether manufactured or naturally occurring, asbestos awareness training is highly recommended. Accessing a relevant program ensures that the worker understands their risks and is able to respond safely to asbestos discovery and exposure.

In particular, some individuals may be employed in a capacity which requires them to undertake asbestos removal work. In this circumstance, further training could be mandatory, depending on the size and type of asbestos discovered.

According to Safe Work Australia's asbestos code of practice, training and supervision is a key consideration when performing asbestos-related work. For instance, all employees who are required to wear personal protective equipment, such as breathing apparatus, must be given offered a course that provides adequate competencies to ensure safe fitting, use, maintenance and storage of the devices.

Furthermore, supervision should be provided when dealing with significant asbestos removal projects. Individuals able to offer this service need to have completed a training program, such as the AlertForce Supervise Asbestos Removal course.

For more information on this, or any other asbestos-related training, get in touch with the AlertForce team today.

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