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Understanding asbestos in Australia
Asbestos exposure is a very real threat in Australia, with new discoveries made almost every week. Homeowners, contractors and workers all face serious asbestos-related risks across each state and territory.
Fortunately, minimising the work health and safety hazards posed by asbestos exposure is relatively simple. Any employee undertaking work that may result in them handling or inhaling these dangerous fibres should access an asbestos awareness training program.
Additionally, it is important that any person who is planning to renovate, build, demolish, work on or cut into a structure that may contain asbestos understands the risks they are facing.
To help prepare yourself and your staff against asbestos hazards, here are a few basic facts and information related to this deadly material.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fibre which has traditionally been used as insulation. Falling into two groups – Serpentine and Amphibole, asbestos comprises of six kinds of fibres. These are:
- Chrysotile (White asbestos)
- Amosite (Brown or grey asbestos)
- Crocidolite (Blue asbestos)
Generally, asbestos containing materials in structures and buildings fall into two categories – friable and non-friable. This related to whether the asbestos fibres are bonded to their structure, with friable materials poses serious risks to health and safety due to unbonded and airborne fibres.
What are the risks?
While asbestos was traditionally considered a useful and valuable material, this substance can seriously impact on the health of any person exposed to it.
In particular, airborne asbestos fibres can be easily inhaled and settle into the lungs of a builder or tradesperson. Once breathed into the lungs, asbestos can lead to a person developing serious illnesses and diseases. The most common conditions caused by asbestos are:
- Asbestosis – scarring of lung tissue. This generally causes breathing problems and is irreversible
- Lung cancer – after 20-40 years of incubation, tumours develop in and around the lungs
- Mesothelioma – a deadly cancer of the lining around the lungs and abdomen. This condition is largely incurable and can lie dormant for up to 40 years before developing
- Benign pleural diseases – non-cancerous conditions that affect the lining of the abdomen and lungs
Hundreds of people are diagnosed with these diseases every year in Australia, with the number of mesothelioma cases not expected to peak until 2020. Overall, the global asbestos awareness authority, The Mesothelioma Center, believes that at least 35,000 Australians are expected to die from this disease within the next four decades.
The history of asbestos in Australia
When asbestos was originally discovered, it was heralded as a diverse and useful tool in the construction of homes, structures and tools. This is because asbestos has an excellent durability, is fire resistant and insulates against heat, damp and electricity.
Asbestos was commonly used in Australian homes between the 1940s and 80s. Additionally, extensive asbestos mining operations were in place across various sites, creating a massive industry in certain towns.
However, it wasn't long before international studies regarding the health risks of asbestos fibres lead to nationwide bans. Each form of asbestos was subject to individual bans until, finally in December 2003, all use of asbestos was completely prohibited in Australia.
Unfortunately, much of the damage was already done. Up to one-third of all homes built in Australia contain asbestos products, with any property constructed prior to 1990 likely to pose some risk to health, according to the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency.
Because of this, asbestos exposure continues to be a serious factor for any homeowner considering renovations, contractor or tradesperson working on older structures and building managers.
Responding to asbestos discoveries
It seems as though not a week can pass without some form of asbestos exposure making the headlines in Australia.
As asbestos discoveries continue to be made, any individual working on building sites and structures need to ensure they can identify and respond to potential asbestos fibres.
Fortunately, Safe Work Australia has published a Code of Practice outlining the recommended responses related to national occupational health and safety standards. In particular, this document addresses the identification of asbestos as the first step in managing risks related to the dangerous fibres.
A person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) in Australia has a duty of care to their employees and visitors to their site. Because of this, it is vital that PCBUs understand how to safely control asbestos risk in the workplace.
First, if an employer suspects asbestos may be present, they must engage a competent person (someone trained to handle and test samples) to the material.
Until tests are completed, it is recommended that any suspected asbestos materials are treated as if they are definitely contaminated. This will mitigate the risk of accidental exposure.
Secondly, investing in asbestos awareness training is a recommendation for any employee in trades and building related occupations across Australia. This should ensure that potential asbestos materials are easily identified and avoided to minimise the risk of exposure.
Ensuring all workers can effectively identify asbestos is a key factor in protecting not just themselves, but also the public. In some cases, construction work can cause fibres to become airborne and impact on neighbouring properties. When contamination is possible, a trained employee should respond by halting work and seeking further advice from a competent and qualified worker.
For example, work was recently halted in a discount store in Tasmania after renovation work potentially put workers at risk. The owner of the store had undertaken work by ripping up tiles that potentially contained asbestos.
Despite failing to invest in an inspection prior to commencing work, the renovations were finally stopped and the store closed for testing after employees were present in the store for some hours.
This dangerous potential exposure to asbestos fibres has put not only the renovation contractors at risk, but also the employees and shoppers present in the store while work was being undertaken. If the employer, renovators and staff had access asbestos awareness training prior to the renovations, the identification of asbestos tiles may have been made much earlier – mitigating this unfortunate exposure.
Safe removal of asbestos
If asbestos is discovered in the workplace, the safest option is usually to remove all contaminated materials. However, the act of removing asbestos can pose more serious risks than working around it. This is because disturbing and handling asbestos will usually lead to fibres becoming airborne.
Fortunately, it is not difficult to put safe removalist practices in place, particularly when engaging a third-party business to conduct this work.
In particular, building managers, employers and home owners should employ a competent team or person to undertake removal work. This includes investing in a business that has provided asbestos removal training to its entire staff.
Even homeowners can get into trouble when incorrectly removing asbestos. A Canberra couple were recently convicted for failing to safely and completely remove contaminated materials from their home during major renovations.
While the homeowners had identified and removed some asbestos from the ceiling before undertaking demolition work, two kinds of asbestos were discovered in the rubble once the work had been completed.
This was because the couple had gone ahead with the demolition without investing in a general asbestos assessment. Instead, they told the contractors that all the asbestos had been removed – putting themselves, their children and the workers at risk of exposure.
The couple pleaded guilty to the charge and were each fined $1,650, according to the Canberra Times.
It is easy to see how asbestos training and qualifications can help all Australians avoid asbestos risks, whether they are homeowners, employers or business managers.
For more information on asbestos awareness and removal training, get in touch with the AlertForce team today.
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