What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a fibrous silicate material that occurs naturally in some rocks, sediment and soils. Asbestos gained popularity in the building industry due to its heat, erosion, water, fire and decay resistance as well as insulating properties, increasing its versatility.
1 in 3 residences in Australia contain asbestos in some form or another after the material gained popularity in commercial and industrial settings throughout the twentieth century. As the dangers of asbestos came to light, a total ban of all forms of asbestos products came into effect in Australia in 2003, including its manufacturing, usage, transporting and selling.
When it comes to building materials, there are 2 types of asbestos.
What is Friable Asbestos?
Friable or non-bonded asbestos is any material that contains powdered asbestos or asbestos that when dry can be crumbled to powder by hand pressure. Asbestos fibres that are friable are not bonded into building materials. Unlike non-friable asbestos, friable asbestos was more commonly used in industrial applications rather than in the home, such as in pipe lagging, and asbestos cloth and rope. This type of asbestos must only be removed by a licenced friable asbestos removalist.
What is Non-Friable Asbestos?
Non-friable or bonded asbestos is any material that contains asbestos that has been bonded or mixed with another compound and cannot be turned into powder by hand. Non-friable asbestos has common usage in asbestos cement sheets (flat, corrugated or compressed), flue, water and drainage pipes and some floor tiles. If this type of asbestos gets damaged or degraded, the asbestos may become friable.
What does asbestos look like?
Asbestos fibres are very small and light, and can’t be seen by the naked eye. Because of this, these microscopic fibres can be blown long distances by wind without knowledge.
Can you smell asbestos?
Asbestos does not have any scent and can only be properly identified through testing of material by a National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) accredited testing facility.
What contains asbestos?
Materials containing asbestos can be found in commercial and domestic buildings, in products used on both the inside and outside in uses such as soundproofing, fireproofing and insulating. Bonded asbestos cement materials may often be found in cement sheets, roofing, shingles, fencing, pipes, eaves and wall cladding. Friable asbestos may be found in soundproofing spray-on, backing material for flooring, some brick and plaster sealants and adhesives, textured paints, and insulation around hot water pipes and stoves.
When is asbestos dangerous?
Asbestos fibres pose a serious health risk to workers and as such there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. All asbestos exposure is harmful. Dust that is released through the disturbance of asbestos materials contains fine fibres that when breathed in can cause asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. Symptoms of these diseases generally do not appear until 20-30 years after the first exposure to asbestos. Like silicosis, another dust related disease caused by breathing in silica dust, symptoms of asbestos-related diseases worsen in relation to the level of exposure in quantity and time to the hazardous material.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that can develop decades after exposure to asbestos materials. This rare cancer generally targets the lung’s outer membranes (pleura). The inhalation of asbestos allows the microscopic fibres to find their way into the lungs and lodge in the lining, causing damage to the cells. Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer with one of the lowest survival rates. Mesothelioma symptoms include shortness of breath, especially during exercise or activity and also when lying down, pain in the chest, upper arm or shoulder, skin sensitivity, weight loss, loss of appetite, sweating heavily and persistent coughing. Australia has one of the highest death rates of mesothelioma in the world, due to the country’s extensive uptake and use of asbestos. Over 10,000 Australians have died from the disease since the 1980’s, with the rate of deaths expected to increase in the coming years.
Asbestosis is an incurable, chronic respiratory disease which is also caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres. The fibres lodging within the lung’s air sacs cause scarring and stiffening of the lung tissue which can make breathing more difficult. Other asbestosis symptoms can include a persistent cough, pain in the chest, weight loss and clubbing of the fingers. Symptoms may appear many years after exposure. Unlike mesothelioma, asbestosis has a much more favourable prognosis and those affected may live for decades with the disease with medical management. However, those with asbestosis can be more likely to develop lung cancer or mesothelioma in the future.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, consult your healthcare professional.
Removal of asbestos
Only a licenced asbestos removalist should remove asbestos containing materials. There are two types of licences:
Class A – This licence can remove all asbestos, friable and non-friable
Class B – This licence may only remove non-friable asbestos
To learn more about the safe removal of asbestos, refer to the Safe Work Australia Code of Practice.
How to reduce the risk
It is important to wear the correct fit-for-purpose personal protective equipment (PPE) for asbestos removal so as to establish a barrier between the removalist and the asbestos fibres. Suitable asbestos protection PPE includes:
Disposable coveralls that are rated Type 5, Category 3, such as Ansell Microgard and Microchem coveralls. The wearer should choose one size larger than usual to avoid any accidental tearing when worn, and seal loose leg or arm cuffs with glove connectors or tape to ensure no fibres can get in.
Footwear that can be easily wiped clean once the removal has been completed. Laces are unable to be decontaminated, so a style like gumboots is the best option.
Shoe covers should we worn over the footwear and secured above the ankle. The coverall legs should then be pulled down over the top.
Disposable gloves should be worn to protect the hands, using only disposable Latex, Nitrile or neoprene materials.
Respiratory protective equipment such as a P2 or P3 dust mask or disposable particulate respirator, such as the 3M reusable respirator masks, should be worn throughout the entire process of asbestos removal. Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR) also provide premium protection against external airborne hazards, such as the range of 3M powered respirators.
To ensure the full protection of the asbestos respirator is provided, respirators must be properly fit tested. Ordinary dust masks do not provide adequate protection against the inhalation of asbestos fibres.
Protective eyewear such as safety goggles should be worn to prevent any dust or other airborne materials from making contact with the eyes.
To adequately manage the risks associated with asbestos removal, it is imperative to first identify the materials containing asbestos, record the findings in an asbestos register, and assess the level of risk of exposure to airborne fibres. Control measures should then be implemented to minimise identified risks and reviewed as necessary to make sure they are being effectively controlled.
In any area where asbestos materials are being dealt with there must be adequate warning signs to notify others of the presence of asbestos, the hazard, consequences of exposure and that relevant PPE must be worn before entering.
Preventing asbestos contamination
Once the asbestos removal process has been completed, it is important to dispose of all waste and contaminated materials properly. There are penalties imposed for the dumping of asbestos that is not in accordance with regulations at an approved landfill disposal site. The waste must be transported in a way so as not to allow the release of asbestos fibres into the air from the material.
A few important steps to prevent asbestos contamination include double bagging tainted materials in asbestos waste bags 200um thick and sealing with duct tape. These asbestos bags should then be properly labelled. Wet wipes or cloths should be used to clean dust from any surfaces within the working area including on tools and protective gear. Personal protective equipment such as the worker’s asbestos suit, any asbestos safety gear, and clothing should be carefully removed, double bagged and sealed. The asbestos mask should only be removed once all asbestos dust has been cleared from the area and person. A thorough shower and hair wash is then necessary to complete the decontamination process.
Asbestos is a serious hazard in many workplaces around Australia and steps must be taken to mitigate the risk of exposure. To find out more about how to keep your workers safe around asbestos, contact the team at ATOM Safety, or browse our range of asbestos safety gear online.