Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency comments on Asbestos Training

The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency released several case studies into best practice management of asbestos risk.  Two case studies describe the approach taken by Ergon Energy, who aims to be a workplace that is free of asbestos by 2027. Asbestos Training provides an important role to play.

Ergon Energy realised that it needed to get an accurate measure of the asbestos risks to its company so it established a single point of contact for asbestos issues across all of its divisions.  This avoided any asbestos issues falling through any cracks in the occupational health and safety management system.  Companies in some construction and infrastructure projects have similarly established a safety team to address a single hazard, such as a gas pipeline, that travels through various sections of an infrastructure project.

The company coordinated, through the Asbestos Manager Wayne Cullen, an audit of all of its sites built prior to 2004.  The company also assessed all of its customers including around 540,000 residential properties that contained a customer-owned switchboard.

Ergon Energy built an asbestos register that is available in hard copy and online that is updated immediately after any work involving Asbestos Contaminated Materials (ACM). The register allows for annual audits of high risk sites and 3 yearly visits to sites of moderate risk, as well as supporting the use of Quick Response (QR) codes to reduce paperwork on site.

Ergon strictly applied the Hierarchy of Controls is determining how to address asbestos risks emphasizing the higher orders of control.  Some construction companies describe this as focusing on “above the line” controls, that is, to investigate the “hard” controls rather than relying on the “soft” controls of administrative processes of PPE.  Ergon Energy’s Wayne Cullen said that

“It can be perceived as an expensive approach in implementing hard controls. Some companies tend to rely solely on Soft Controls because of this potential cost factor and because they are so much easier to implement.”

However, the company believes that the higher control measures are more effective in reducing risk of exposure and are actually more cost effective in the long term.

The geography of Ergon Energy’s home state of Queensland meant that it requires its asbestos removalists to be qualified to an ‘A class’ licence even though most work only requires a ‘B class’ licence).  Cullen explains the need for this higher level of qualification through an example:

“The biggest problem for Ergon Energy is distance and remote locations. The major cost is derived from the mobilisation of suitable qualified contractor teams. In these smaller towns [out west and in the islands of the Torres Strait] there are a limited number of qualified personnel, so they have to come from the larger cities along the coast. In one case, a crew was sent out to a sub-station to remove a large quantity of bonded asbestos. However, after commencing the task, it was identified that friable asbestos was present and had to be removed [which requires an ‘A class’ licence]. Ergon Energy had to stop the job, demobilise that crew and get another qualified crew out to the site. This resulted in a huge cost to the business.”

This requirement of a higher level of competence and control than is strictly required also extends to PPE.  Ergon Energy has replaced traditional P2 respirators with Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR) for teams working with Silva link fuses on electricity poles, many of which contain friable asbestos. According to Ergon’s best practice case study, unlike P2 masks which require the person to be clean shaven to ensure a proper seal, PAPRs consist of a hood that goes over the person’s head and a pump that generates a constant positive air pressure, preventing any chance of airborne asbestos fibres being inhaled.

These safety changes are supported by engaging with staff about safety and explaining the process behind safety decisions, keeping paperwork as simple as possible, and making sure that additional and expert safety advice is readily available, regardless of the remoteness of the location.

The two case studies from Ergon Energy recommend these processes for satisfy contemporary safety expectations around asbestos removal:

  • “There has to be someone in the organisation who is held accountable for asbestos safety. If it’s not part of someone’s day job, it won’t happen.
  • If you don’t have the support of senior management, the unions and staff in the field, it’s a hard, if not impossible task.
  • You need middle managers who are willing to promote a safety culture.
  • While there may be great costs involved initially, higher levels of control (i.e. elimination and isolation):
    • are much more effective in reducing risk of exposure to asbestos fibres
    • remove the need for ongoing costly and time consuming safety practices
    • often make it easier for employees to follow procedures
    • provide evidence that protects the organisation from any claims of risk to public health and safety.
  • Give staff ownership of the processes – include them in the decisions around safe work practices and tell them the benefits
  • Keep talking about it, so that it’s not just flavour of the month and then drops away
  • You need strong leaders that keep driving the practice and leading by example – that’s especially important for young apprentices and new starters because they see that it’s normal practice
  • People are more likely to change their behaviour when they understand the consequences – you and your staff need to understand ‘the why’
  • Make the message personal – help staff and management to understand where asbestos is in their own workplace or home and what exposure could mean to them and their families.”

Alertforce has a range of training courses on asbestos awareness, assessment and removal at http://alertforce.com.au/ohs-training-courses/asbestos-awareness/

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