What is asbestos?
Asbestos is the name used for a group of naturally occurring minerals. They have resistance to high temperatures and fire and make effective insulators and so were popular in building products in Australia from the 1940s to 1987. Asbestos-containing materials include:
- flat and corrugated sheeting
- cement pipes
- floor tiles
- automobile parts such as brake pads
- textured paints.
Australia was one of the highest users of asbestos per capita. Products containing asbestos were phased out during the 1980s, a national ban on asbestos, its importation and all products containing asbestos came into effect at the end of 2003.
Asbestos and cancer
Asbestos is extremely fibrous and the tiny fibres are easily breathed in where they can become trapped in the lungs. Being exposed to asbestos increases the risk of developing cancers of the lung, ovary and larynx as well as mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lung). These cancers often develop decades after exposure to asbestos.
Your cancer risk from asbestos varies, depending upon the:
- length of time you are exposed to airborne asbestos fibres
- amount of asbestos fibres in the air breathed
- frequency of exposure to asbestos fibres
- time since exposure occurred
- age at which exposure occurred
- type and size of asbestos fibres.
Those most likely to have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace include transport workers (particularly waterside workers), asbestos miners and millers, asbestos cement manufacturing workers, builders, plumbers, insulators, electricians and mechanics.
Today, all states and territories in Australia have work health and safety laws that explain duty of care for employers and workers' responsibilities to reduce the risk of asbestos exposure.
What makes asbestos dangerous?
Asbestos fibres are released into the air when people handle asbestos-containing materials with poor safety procedures. Asbestos fibres are around 50 to 200 times thinner than a human hair, can be invisible and be breathed in easily. They can become trapped deep in your lungs and cause damage over a long time.
The two asbestos-containing material groups include:
- Bonded (non-friable) asbestos materials, made up of a bonding agent (such as cement) with asbestos fibres added. They usually contain less than 15% of asbestos and normally do not release fibres unless they are disturbed, damaged or have deteriorated over time.
- Friable (loosely bound) asbestos materials are those which can be crumbled or reduced to powder by hand. Bonded asbestos can become friable if severely fire damaged or crusted. Friable asbestos materials are the most dangerous as the fibres can be released into the air.
Asbestos manufacturing in Australia and your risk at work today
A wide range of products were manufactured using asbestos until the late 1980s. Examples include building and construction materials (flat or corrugated sheeting and cement pipe), insulation, floor tiles (and their adhesives), roofing, textured paints and textiles.
Gaskets and friction parts containing asbestos were made in Australia up until 2003. These were the last asbestos-containing products made in Australia.
Many asbestos-containing materials still remain in place throughout Australia. Tradespeople and home renovators are still at risk of exposure to the asbestos fibres in these materials.
Safe Work Australia warns workers to be careful of all construction materials, insulation products, gaskets, friction brake products, vehicle and plant equipment that were installed, built, manufactured, commissioned or designed prior to 1 January 2004.
Do you work with any of these materials?
Naturally occurring asbestos
Asbestos may exist in its natural state in soil and rock formations. You may come across this type in road building, site and construction work, other excavation activities and in the mining industry. There are many locations where there is naturally occurring asbestos (such as the Pilbara region of Western Australia). Geological survey information should be checked when working in these areas (refer to your state and territory mapping agencies or Geoscience Australia).
All Australian workplaces must follow work health and safety laws. These laws vary slightly between states and territories, but the duty of care for employers and responsibilities of workers across Australia is similar:
- Employers are required to ensure the health and safety of their workers at their workplace.
- Employers are required to ensure the health and safety of other people due to the work carried out.
- Employers have a duty to control the risks associated with work.
- Workers must take reasonable care of their own health and safety.
- Workers must not negatively affect the health and safety of other people.
- Workers must follow any reasonable instruction and workplace health and safety policies, of which they have been notified.
For specific information regarding the laws or regulations in your state or territory, have a look at our useful websites section.
To follow work health and safety laws, employers should eliminate or reduce exposure to hazards using the hierarchy of control (Figure 1) and implement a risk management process. Workers should always be involved in this process to correctly identify hazards and put in place controls that suit the workplace. Training workers on the hazards in the workplace and the procedures used to manage them is also a work health and safety requirement.
Safe Work Australia's, How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace and How to Safely Remove Asbestos outline how you can control asbestos dangers in the workplace. A summary of recommended controls are outlined in Table 1 below.
If control measures are not in place, anyone working with or around airborne asbestos is at an increased risk of developing cancer.
Safe Work Australia has an exposure standard for airborne asbestos which must not be exceeded. Air monitoring can check if exposure to asbestos is being managed properly. The need to monitor can vary among workplaces. An occupational hygienist can help with air monitoring.
Health monitoring identifies workers who have an increased risk of developing a work-related disease. In some states and territories, health monitoring must be provided to a worker if they are carrying out asbestos-related work.
For any concerns related to adequacy of control measures at your workplace, contact:
- your workplace supervisor or management (if you are an employee)
- your workplace health and safety representative or union representative
- state and territory work health and safety regulators
- Safe Work Australia
How do I reduce my cancer risk?
If you are concerned about your health or think you may have been exposed to a cancer-causing agent, it is important to speak with your doctor. To find out what you can do to create a workplace that supports reducing cancer risk, contact Cancer Council 13 11 20.
The table below outlines a summary of control measures for asbestos, but does not replace the need for a licenced asbestos professional to assess the presence and removal of asbestos.
Australia has a National Asbestos Exposure Register. The purpose of the register is to have a record of potential exposure in case an individual develops an asbestos related disease in the future. If you think you may have been exposed to asbestos either during the course of your employment, at home or in the community, you can register your details by clicking here and completing the form.
Table 1. Summary of control measures for asbestos
Use a competent person with relevant training and experience in asbestos identification to confirm the presence of asbestos. Test suspected asbestos containing materials using a NATA-accredited laboratory. Identify the presence of asbestos using warning labels.
Use wet, non-destructive methods. Saturation and water injection may be needed during friable asbestos removal. Dry removal should only be used when wet spray methods are not suitable (e.g. near electrical equipment). Negative air enclosures, glove bag methods or continuous misting sprays may also be needed.
To enclose asbestos completely cover, seal and prevent access to the material. Only use on non-friable asbestos where removal is not possible and asbestos is at risk of damage from work tasks. Seal with resilient matrix or protective coating that prevents the release of asbestos fibres. Never use dry sanding or water blasting to prepare surfaces for sealing.
|Selection of tools and equipment|
Use manually operated or low-speed battery-powered tools. All low-speed battery-powered tools should be fitted with exhaust ventilation dust control hoods. Do not use high-powered tools.
Limit access, display warning signs and install barricades around asbestos work areas. Close windows and doors if working inside. Put up enclosures if required. Notify others of asbestos work in the area. When preparing the work area, items that are not needed should be removed to prevent contamination and make the clean up easier.
Use wet clean up methods (water misting or wet wiping only). Do not sweep asbestos-contaminated material. Use an approved asbestos vacuum cleaner (not domestic). For commercial removal, clearance inspections are compulsory before re-occupation.
Wet asbestos waste. Double bag or wrap in 0.2 mm polythene bags (sheeting for large materials) no greater than 1200 mm long and 900 mm wide. Seal with tape using the ‘gooseneck’ method for bags. Half fill waste bags to avoid tearing and put on warning labels. Clean the outside of bags or sheets before removal. Place in labelled waste bins for secure storage and disposal, or remove immediately from site using a licenced carrier.
|Asbestos management plan and register|
Implement a management plan to identify and control workplace asbestos risks. Keep an updated register that identifies the location of asbestos (include: date identified, type, condition, locality maps, photos, drawings, etc). Make sure workers are aware of, and have access to, the register.
Train workers about the asbestos risks, how to identify them, and how to manage asbestos dangers. Ensure workers who do or could work with asbestos-containing materials get the proper level of training. Note: specialised training and licences are required for asbestos assessors, removalists and supervisors.
|Personal protective equipment (PPE)|
For friable removal, wear air supplied or air purifying respiratory protection that filters asbestos fibres, fitted for each worker individually. For non-friable removal, class P2 respirators are needed. For all asbestos removal use disposable coveralls with fitted hoods that prevent penetration of asbestos fibres (type 5, category 3), impermeable gloves, gumboots (not laced boots), boot covers and eye protection. Seal wrist and ankle openings with tape.
Wipe down protective clothing using a wet rag. Remove all PPE in a specified order: remove coveralls first and wipe down and remove boots, gloves and goggles. Any clothing worn under coveralls must be disposed of or bagged for laundering where disposable clothing is not possible (e.g. emergency services clothing). Remove respirator last. All waste, wet rags, PPE and cleaning materials must be double bagged, sealed and labelled before disposal.
|Planning||Develop a staged plan the replacement of all identified asbestos containing materials.|
This course is designed to give the DIY home renovator basic knowledge about asbestos, and the risks and safe practices when working with or removing small amounts of asbestos-containing material.
Other useful websites
- Virta R. Asbestos: Geology, Mineralogy, Mining, and Uses. Metals and Minerals. Washington, D.C: US Department of Interior, US Geological Survey: 2002.
- International Agency for Research on Cancer. Asbestos, in IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Lyon, France: IARC World Health Organisation; 2012.
- World Health Organization. Asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases - Fact Sheet No. 343. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.
- O'Reilly K, McLaughlin A, Beckett W, Sime P. Asbestos-related lung disease. American Family Physician. 2007;75(5):683-8.
- US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Toxicological Profile for Asbestos. 2001.
- US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Asbestos: Health Effects. Atlanta, GA: US ATSDR; 2008.
- Safe Work Australia. How to manage and control asbestos in the workplace – Code of Practice. Canberra, ACT: Safe Work Australia 2011.
- Model Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth).
- Safe Work Australia. How to manage work health and safety risks – Code of Practice. Canberra, ACT: Safe Work Australia; 2011.
- Safe Work Australia. How to safely remove asbestos – Code of Practice. Canberra, ACT: Safe Work Australia; 2011.
- Safe Work Australia. Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants. Canberra, ACT: Safe Work Australia 2013.
- Asbestos Diseases Research Institute. http://www.adri.org.au
- Understanding Pleural Mesothelioma, Cancer Council © 2019.
Find out more about workplace cancers