A tradie's guide to dealing with asbestos

Health & Safety Tips & Tricks

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As a tradie, you’re no doubt aware of the issue of asbestos fibres. Asbestos is a fibrous material that was used in buildings as late as the early 2000s. In some countries – such as Russia, Brazil and India – it’s still used because it’s cheap, tough, and provides jobs in poor areas.

Builders loved asbestos because it was light, tough, and fire-resistant. However, it’s also deadly once 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 their work.

Any building pre-2000 could contain asbestos fibres in floor and ceiling tiles, roof shingles, flashing, insulation (especially around furnaces, pipework, ducting, sheeting, and fireplaces), pipe cement, siding, and seams.

Asbestos isn’t a problem when it’s in a building. When it’s disturbed, the fibres become airborne, and it’s these airborne fibres that can lodge in the lungs and cause issues. You could release fibres when working with deteriorated insulation, or when you drill into asbestos tiles.

Many tradies 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 to your team of asbestos exposure, and what to do when you come across asbestos on site.

Why is asbestos so dangerous?

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

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

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

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.

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.

Checking for asbestos on a job

As a contractor, it’s not your responsibility to perform asbestos checks on a property prior to commencing work. However, you want to be sure you don’t put your team in danger. If you’re working on any pre-1980 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 countrie 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.

What do you do if you discover asbestos?

If you’re on a site and you disturb 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.
  • If possible, minimise the spread of contamination to other areas.
  • Get expert advice on what to do next. We’ve included some links in the resource section below.

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.

The company removing the asbestos needs to have a certification. This is not work you or your team should attempt on your own if you’re inexperienced, 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.

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

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do. If you’ve already breathed in the fibres, there’s no way to remove them. The best thing you can do is ensure you inform your doctor, and read up on the warning signs for asbestos-related diseases.

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.