Asbestos Exposure On The Job: Not Worth The Risk

Health & Safety

Asbestos Blog

On the 17th anniversary of Global Mesothelioma Awareness Day, we wanted to take the time to discuss where you might find asbestos, what to do if you do, and why it’s important to never risk exposure to this carcinogen. 

What is Asbestos?

The commercial name for a group of silicate minerals, asbestos was used in many industrial products and building materials throughout the 20th century. Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were common because they are excellent insulators, durable, and fire-resistant. It wasn’t until diseases like mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer were connected to asbestos exposure that the severe health hazards of this material became more well known. 

Now, in countries like Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, wide spread bans have been enacted. In many places the ban on asbestos is not comprehensive, and exposure is still a risk for many. The threat to tradespeople still remains high, as many buildings constructed before the 1980s have materials containing asbestos. 

Dangers of Exposure

Asbestos fibers can become airborne and be easily inhaled or ingested, where they may become lodged in the linings of the lungs and abdomen. For tradespeople, exposure can occur in the workplace and approximately 125 million people worldwide are regularly exposed to asbestos on the job. If inhaled, fibers can become trapped in the lungs, causing tumors to form. If asbestos is ingested, tumors can form in the abdomen. Unfortunately the life expectancy for mesothelioma patients is only 12-21 months on average. With a long latency period that could be upwards of 50 years, tracking down the source of initial contact can be difficult, which is why exposure is never worth the risk.

Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma

Malignant pleural mesothelioma makes up about 80-90% of all mesothelioma cases. Patients with pleural mesothelioma may experience breathing difficulties and suffer from fluid build up in the lining of the lungs referred to as pleural effusions. One solution for mesothelioma patients is a surgical process known as pleurodesis, which shuts the gap where fluid collects in the pleural cavity. A dry cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain could be signs of this cancer. 

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

A cancer of the abdomen, peritoneal mesothelioma can occur if asbestos fibers are ingested or inhaled. Scarring and inflammation can cause tumors to form and cause abdominal pain, nausea, and unexplained weight loss. Peritoneal mesothelioma accounts for 15-20% of mesothelioma diagnoses. Although the average life expectancy for patients with peritoneal mesothelioma is only a year on average, this can be bolstered with heated chemotherapy (HIPEC). Medical professionals have found that HIPEC is “most successful in the treatment of selected patients — those with resectable metastatic appendiceal cancer, metastatic colon cancer and peritoneal mesothelioma," according to Dr. Wasif of the Mayo Clinic, "With increasing experience and refinement of selection criteria, we hope to improve on these initial outcomes."

How To Stay Safe On The Job

Trades workers can come in contact with asbestos in many ways. ACMs are still found in old basements, attics, and the exterior of houses regularly. The only way to ensure you and your workers aren’t exposed to asbestos is to know what to look for and what to do if you find asbestos on your jobsite. 

Asbestos was used in thousands of building materials. A few examples of some common ACMs include:

  • Flooring and Mastic
  • Roofing Materials
  • Cement Board
  • Vermiculite 
  • Insulating Materials
  • Plaster
  • Siding

Identifying Asbestos

If you’re hired to complete a job on a home or building that was built before the 1980s, you should always perform your due diligence and inspect the building for ACMs. If you suspect that a material contains asbestos, have it tested by an abatement professional before you proceed with the project. Don’t just take someone else’s word that the material in question doesn’t contain asbestos. 

Removal

If the material is found to contain asbestos, it’s best to hire an abatement professional to remove the ACMs, too. This can be expensive, but by using negative pressure to create a sealed environment and proper personal protective equipment (PPE), abatement professionals ensure the safety of those removing the material and anyone else in close proximity to the worksite. It’s also important to dispose of asbestos properly. Typically a specific dumping site for ACMs is available and varies depending on the local municipality. 

PPE and Abatement Equipment

A tyvek suit, respirator (not a paper mask), and eye protection should always be worn. These clothing items should be washed before leaving the work area, removed in a closed chamber, and disposed of immediately. Homeowners should never take on asbestos removal for this reason. 

Contractors should never try to remove asbestos without the proper equipment and PPE. Putting yourself or your team at risk of exposure is never worth it just to save time or make a few extra bucks by not subcontracting the service to an abatement professional.

Professional asbestos removal workers should never perform asbestos removal duties without PPE. In the United States, states that follow federal OSHA regulations require employers to provide PPE and proper training to any employee that may come into contact with asbestos. If your employer doesn’t follow these regulations, contact your local government agency to discuss your options. 

Stay Safe and Healthy

While out on the job stay safe by avoiding exposure to asbestos. It can be hard to identify asbestos, but knowing some of the materials that were commonly made with asbestos is one way to make an informed decision on whether you should test the material. It’s never worth cutting corners to remove asbestos yourself. It may seem like it’s no big deal at the time, but you’ll think differently if you're diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestosis, or lung cancer down the road.

Helpful resources

Australia 🇦🇺:

The Australian Government’s Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency provides a national focus on asbestos issues. Their website is packed with information from workplace safety to environmental and public health issues.

New Zealand 🇳🇿:

Worksafe NZ publish a variety of resources, including guidelines for exposure, removal, and licensing on their website.

United Kingdom 🇬🇧:

The Health and Safety Executive (HSA) has information about legislation, workplace safety, and and FAQs. The Telegraph published a sobering article about the problem of asbestos in the UK, which educates on the health effects.

USA 🇺🇸:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) manages the legislation and cleanup of asbestos for the United States.

Canada 🇨🇦:

The Asbestos Network website offers an excellent range of resources on asbestos dangers and removal. Canada actually still mines asbestos for use in developing countries.