Asbestos in Construction - A Guide for Tradespeople

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Asbestos Guide_cover

As a tradesperson, you’re no doubt aware of the issues surrounding asbestos fibres. Asbestos is a fibrous material that was used as a construction material all over the world up until the early 2000s. Asbestos is banned in more than 55 countries but still used elsewhere because it’s cheap, tough, and provides jobs in poorer areas.

Jump ahead:

1. Why did tradespeople in the construction industry use asbestos?

Builders used to love asbestos because it was light, tough, and fire-resistant. However, we eventually discovered it is also deadly if it gets into your lungs. According to the New York Post, the International Labor Organisation (ILO) reports as many as 100,000 people die every year from being exposed to asbestos at work.

Any building pre-2000 could easily contain asbestos fibres in the floor and ceiling tiles, roof shingles, flashings, insulation (especially around furnaces, pipework, ducting, sheeting, and fireplaces), pipe cement, siding, and seams. Depending on your location, even recent buildings could contain asbestos.

Asbestos isn’t always dangerous when it’s in a building, but when it’s disturbed the fibres become airborne. It’s these airborne fibres that can lodge in your lungs and cause issues later in life. You could release fibres when working with deteriorated insulation, or when drilling into asbestos tiles for example. One single asbestos fibre in your lungs can cause cancer 40 years down the track.

Many tradespeople are considered to be in high-risk occupations for asbestos exposure, especially builders, plumbers, tilers, and demolition crews. We’ve created this quick guide to help you understand the dangers of asbestos exposure, and what to do if you come across asbestos on site.

2. What is asbestos exactly?

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, and Canada, widespread bans have been enacted. In many places around the world, restrictions on asbestos are not comprehensive, and exposure is still a risk for many. The threat to tradespeople still remains high, as many buildings constructed before 2000 have materials containing asbestos.

3. What does asbestos look like?

There are six different types of asbestos. Unfortunately, due to the various ways they can be used in construction, asbestos can be difficult to detect. Below are images of the different types of asbestos in their more natural forms. Chrysotile (white asbestos) is the most common form of asbestos in construction. It can be found in the rooves, ceilings, walls and floors of older buildings, automobile brake linings, gaskets and seals, and insulation for pipes, ducts and appliances.asbestos fact sheet

4. Where is asbestos found?

Tradespeople can come in contact with asbestos in many ways. Asbestos-containing materials can still be found in old basements, attics, and the exterior of houses. 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 job site. Be wary and look for signs of asbestos when dealing with older buildings, especially when it comes to:

  • Insulation
  • Interior wall paint
  • Ceilings
  • Wood stoves and fireplaces
  • Window putty
  • Garden sheds
  • Garages
  • Drywall
  • Floor tiles
  • Carpet underlay
  • Home siding
  • Water heaters
  • Air conditioning or heating ducts
  • Cement pipes
  • Boiler and pipe insulation

5. Why is asbestos so dangerous?

Asbestos fibres 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, fibres can become trapped in the lungs, causing tumours to form. If asbestos is ingested, tumours 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.

There are three main health problems directly caused by exposure to asbestos fibres:

1. Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the inner lining of the lungs and lower digestive tract. This type of cancer almost exclusively occurs because of asbestos exposure. By the time it’s discovered, mesothelioma is usually fatal.

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. A dry cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain could be signs of this type of cancer. 

One solution for mesothelioma patients is a surgical process known as pleurodesis, which shuts the gap where fluid collects in the pleural cavity. 

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Cancer of the abdomen, peritoneal mesothelioma can occur if asbestos fibres are ingested or inhaled. Scarring and inflammation can cause tumours 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.

2. Asbestosis

Mainly caused by prolonged exposure from a workplace or home where fibres are present, asbestosis is a scarring of the lung. This causes severe shortness of breath and will be fatal in many cases.

3. Lung cancer

This is the same kind of lung cancer caused by smoking and other factors. Doctors estimate that if you are both a smoker and experience prolonged exposure to asbestos, you’re 56 times more likely to get lung cancer. 

6. How risky is asbestos?

There is no 'safe' level of asbestos exposure – any amount of exposure could lead to an asbestos-related disease.

However, there are certain risk factors that increase your chances of developing an asbestos-related disease. These are:

  • The quantity of asbestos fibres you’ve been exposed to.
  • The amount of time you’ve been exposed to asbestos fibres.
  • Working in a job where there’s a high risk of asbestos exposure, such as construction, electrical, shipbuilding, railways, and automotive.
  • Whether you’re a smoker. (Smoking significantly increases your chances of contracting an asbestos-related disease).

Family members of those who are high-risk also have an increased risk, as workers may bring fibres into the family home on their clothes or tools.

The asbestos fibres you inhale remain in your lungs for life, and asbestos-related diseases have a long latency period. This means that the time of your first exposure to the time you start showing symptoms of disease will likely be at least 5-10 years. In some cases, it can take up to 40 years for symptoms to appear.

7. Checking for asbestos on a job

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. Make sure the building is inspected for asbestos-containing materials. 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. 

As a contractor, it’s not your responsibility to perform asbestos checks on a property prior to commencing work but you don’t put your team in danger. If you’re working on any buildings in an area where asbestos fibres may be present, ask to see their asbestos management plan before commencing work.

If it’s already known asbestos is present on the site, ask for confirmation this has been removed before you commence work. Most countries have legislation to cover the removal and notification of asbestos work. For example, Worksafe NZ requires asbestos removal by a licensed professional prior to any demolition or refurbishment.

If you’ve never seen asbestos before, it can be difficult to know what to look for. There are six different types of asbestos, and each one has a different appearance. Asbestos is mixed with other products, meaning it can sometimes be impossible to detect. For more information and an image gallery for asbestos identification, check out this asbestos image gallery from the UK, and this image gallery from Australia.  

Remember, asbestos-containing material in good condition generally won’t release fibres. Without touching a surface, do a walkthrough to check the different materials and identify any that you’ll be disturbing that could potentially contain asbestos. You may need an external expert in order to properly identify asbestos.

8. What to do if you discover asbestos?

If you’re on a site and disturb suspected asbestos fibres, here’s what you need to do:

  • Stop working immediately.
  • Keep people away from the area. This includes your team, the client, and other subcontractors.
  • Minimise the spread of contamination to other areas.
  • Get expert advice on what to do next.

The only way to make a site safe to continue work is to have the asbestos removed. In most countries, asbestos removal needs to be conducted by a certified team. This is not work you or your team should attempt on your own, as there are specific regulations around the removal and disposal of asbestos to prevent your team – or other members of the public – from inhaling the fibres.

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 your local area. 

Asbestos help in your local area

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.

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

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. 

USA 🇺🇸:

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

9. 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 DIY 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. You'd be putting lives at risk 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 most regions governments 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.

10. What if you think you’ve been exposed to asbestos?

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do. That's what makes asbestos such a serious concern for tradespeople in the construction industry. If you’ve already breathed in the fibres, there’s no way to remove them. The best thing you can do is tell your doctor and read up on the warning signs for asbestos-related diseases.

Tradify can help you to make sure your staff are aware of any potential health & safety hazards while on site. Job descriptions in the app make sure every employee knows exactly what they're there to do and what to avoid. Tradify is the job management app trusted by 20,000+ tradespeople. Try it free for 14 days!