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Why Asbestos Should be on your Mind and How to Manage the Risks


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This month, the Senate Inquiry into Non-Conforming Building Products is expected to release its interim report into asbestos in new building products, such as the contaminated glazing units found at Perth Children’s Hospital. However, it is not just new products the industry needs to be thinking about, according to asbestos awareness experts.

Currently, one of the most active markets for trades and builders is the refurbishment and renovation sector. Conversions of low-grade commercial properties to multi-residential are becoming more and more common. Many other commercial properties are undergoing substantial redevelopment and refurbishment into higher-grade, more modern offices.

That is when asbestos can become a real and present danger for those working on site. 

Managing Consultant of Prensa Risk Management Consulting, John Batty, tells Jobsite that because asbestos was considered “such a great product” back in the day, it was used widely in all kinds of buildings.

That means it might be in anything from pipe lagging, HVAC duct work, switchboards, fibro, behind tiles, in gaskets, or in adhesives, mortars and mastics. It is also not always easy to identify. He says that even for asbestos management consultants it can actually take a few years of experience to be able to identify all the different types of asbestos-containing materials.

Another challenge is that while any non-domestic building constructed before 2004 is legally required to have an Asbestos Register that is then provided to trades or builders undertaking any maintenance or construction work on the building, the consultant who prepared it on the basis of a thorough walk-through would not always be able to spot everything.

That is because many of the asbestos-containing products would be within walls or under floor coverings, or other locations where only disassembly or demolition is going to reveal them.

“Once you refurbish, and walls are pulled out and floors are pulled up, you find there are things hidden in pipe lagging or there is cabling with asbestos sheathing,” Batty says.

One of the key measures builders and trades need to ensure is taken is destructive investigation for asbestos of any suspect item has been undertaken before taking possession of a site.

Even then, however, there is a need for caution. Batty recommends that any trade working on an older building should have undertaken some form of asbestos awareness.

“If they suspect asbestos is present, they should stop work and speak to the site foreman,” he says. The foreman or lead contractor should then bring a consultant or occupational hygienist to the site to undertake testing.

Those working on the demolition part of any project need to be especially careful, as the use of mechanical tools means they are particularly at risk of exposure.

Electricians and plumbers are also among the high-risk roles, as asbestos was extensively used in connection with pipe work and cabling, as well as fire insulation, noise insulation, and heat insulation.

Batty says another major issue is asbestos contamination in soils. Because it does not degrade and cities like Sydney used a lot of fill containing building materials with asbestos in them, up to one in five buckets of excavated fill on an urban renewal site may have asbestos-containing fibre cement [fibro] or other asbestos-containing materials.

While the risk to workers is relatively low as fibro is a bonded asbestos product, a contaminated land assessment is still essential. 

While the risk to workers is relatively low as fibro is a bonded asbestos product, a contaminated land assessment is still essential. Also, all material being taken offsite for disposal needs to be analysed; any waste with asbestos in it needs to be properly disposed of so that it is not sent to another site during the resource recovery process.

Batty says that what builders and trades need to do before working on any building constructed before asbestos was banned in 2003 is ask to see the Asbestos Register and to factor it into the daily toolbox talk around workplace health and safety.

Best practice for a builder, he says, would be to engage an occupational hygienist to assess areas that will be impacted by works to look at the condition of ACMs and identify the risk levels. This information can then be incorporated into the work methods.

The hygienist can also put together a specific plan for the removal of ACMs and monitor the air during removal to ensure no free fibres are putting workers at risk.

There are a number of resources the industry can also access to improve asbestos risk management generally.

The Asbestos Awareness campaign is one of them. Supported by the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute [ADRI], it is a joint initiative of SafeWork NSW, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the federal government’s Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency and former asbestos materials manufacturer James Hardie Industries SE.

It already has a range of guides and checklists for trades working in the residential sector available, and is releasing an on-line Asbestos Management Handbook for Commercial & Non-Residential Properties handbook, plus fact sheets and templates on November 21.

The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency also has a wide range of resources and useful information, including an A-Z of where asbestos may be found in any type of building.

The agency has also developed a number of case studies that explain the practices some firms have put in place to manage asbestos risks. They include Master Plumbers, O’Shea Plumbing, a company which, for instance, uses digital technology to assist its workforce in navigating the risks they encounter in residential jobs.

All the company’s staff have the occupational hygienist’s and the asbestos removal contractor’s phone numbers pre-programmed in their phones, and scheduling software is used to reduce the chance of people being “too rushed, too busy, too little time between jobs” to follow the company’s asbestos management protocols.

Quoting software also has a template that separates any part of the quote that relates to asbestos identification and management, so the client is aware that this is a cost that directly relates to the health and safety of themselves and their family. There is also a series of standard clauses for quotations relating to asbestos risk pre-filled in on staff iPads.

In addition, disposable masks and overalls are standard issue and easily accessible in all company vehicles and the company’s founder and managing director, Lawrie O’Shea is always available to consult with staff on ambiguous situations.

Managing the risk of asbestos is vital. Data from the ADRI released at the start of Asbestos Awareness Month this November highlights the fact that currently, 13 Australians are dying from asbestos-related diseases each week.

A dozen of them die from malignant mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused by asbestos fibres being breathed into the lungs. Weekly, 13 more people are diagnosed with the disease. 

There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, and risks increase with the level of exposure.

Australian researchers are now spearheading an international campaign for a global ban on asbestos.

Led by Professor Ken Takahashi, Director of the ADRI and Professor of the Sydney Medical School at the University of Sydney, the global collaboration by twelve scientific leaders in world health are producing a special issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH).

“Global Panorama of National Experiences in Public Health Actions to Ban Asbestos” aims to prevent asbestos-related diseases globally through an international asbestos ban, specifically in developing countries.

“When [asbestos containing materials] are disturbed releasing microscopic fibres that can be inhaled, this can cause deadly diseases to develop 20-50 years after exposure including malignant mesothelioma. There is no cure. The average survival time following diagnosis is 10-12 months,” Takahashi says.

“A global asbestos ban can aid in preventing illegal imports of new ACMs to Australia. However, while imported products do pose a health threat, the greatest risk to the health of Australians from ACM is already here; it’s in our homes and our workplaces.

“With the number of Australians developing asbestos-related diseases predicted to rise in coming years as a result of exposure to asbestos when renovating homes and commercial properties, increasing awareness of the dangers of asbestos to educate communities on how to manage it safely is vital,” he says.

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