Best practices to safely handle asbestos
Once heavily used in construction, manufacturing and other industries, asbestos was declared unsafe in 1970, when it became heavily regulated. However, asbestos remains in many buildings and items. For this reason, we’re providing you with best practices to safely handle asbestos.
It’s important to know the safety procedures for encountering asbestos and how to educate workers on what to do if they run into asbestos on the job.
What is asbestos?
A known human carcinogen, asbestos is a group of fibrous minerals whose use is now heavily regulated in the U.S. It resists heat, corrosion, fire, and electricity. It’s cheap, lightweight, flexible and strong. These properties have made asbestos useful in a variety of workplace applications, from building insulation to automotive brakes and clutches, and many materials on board ships.
Why is asbestos so dangerous?
Asbestos fibers are often too small to be seen with the naked eye. Breathing asbestos fibers can cause a buildup of scar-like tissue in the lungs called asbestosis. This can result in loss of lung function that often progresses to disability and death. Asbestos also causes lung cancer and other diseases such as mesothelioma of the pleura, a fatal malignant tumor of the membrane lining the cavity of the lung or stomach. Epidemiologic evidence has increasingly shown that all asbestos fiber types cause mesothelioma in humans. The heavier and longer duration of the exposure, the higher the risk for getting sick later. OSHA provides a number of fact sheets on health hazards that you can use in your worker training. They also offer tools to help in evaluating and controlling asbestos exposure.
It’s important to note that undisturbed asbestos doesn’t pose much of a risk, but when the fibers come loose from materials they can be harmful.
Where is asbestos commonly found?
According to SafeStart, the biggest dangers of uncovering asbestos today include
- Any renovation or demolition in buildings constructed before 1981
- Automotive workers repairing or replacing clutches and brakes
- Any renovation, repair, or demolition of ships built before 1981
- Workers cleaning up in any of the above locations or job sites
- Rescue workers and cleaning crews around buildings hit by natural disasters
Look for asbestos in many building and ship construction materials. Home construction projects from the 1930s through the mid-1970s often included asbestos-containing materials. If a home was built between 1930 through mid-1970s, says Mesothelioma.com, asbestos may be found in
- Cement sheeting
- Thermal insulation
- Pipe wrapping
- Electrical breakers
- Roof shingles/felt
- Spray-on coatings
- Textured popcorn ceilings or ceiling tiles
- Vinyl floor tiles and adhesives
- Heat-resistant textiles
Public buildings and schools also used asbestos extensively as an insulator. In 1985, the EPA estimated that 190,000 public buildings contained about 1.2 billion square feet of asbestos materials that had been sprayed or troweled on. The agency also noted that those materials contained an average of about 14% asbestos.
How do we safely handle asbestos encountered on a work site?
The first step to safely handle asbestos is to keep in mind that all products where asbestos may have been used could potentially contain the mineral and should be treated as dangerous. If you’ve uncovered asbestos and determine it could pose a risk, or if it looks like it’s been disturbed and might be shedding fibers, it’s best to stop working until given appropriate safety gear and training in how to use it.
Before performing any type of renovation or demolition work, it’s important to hire a licensed and certified asbestos abatement professional to take samples of materials that may be damaged or broken while the work is being done. A licensed professional will visually inspect the area first for any potential hazards and take samples for analysis. When taking samples, an inspector will remove small pieces of the questionable material and have them analyzed by a lab to determine their asbestos content.
If asbestos is found, a specialist may recommend complete removal, also known as abatement, or encapsulation. Asbestos-containing materials are generally considered safe if they’re in good condition, but they should still be periodically checked for damage or other signs of wear. Asbestos abatement specialists can determine what actions need to be taken and are trained to remove the materials safely.
To safely handle asbestos, workers must be provided a respirator to prevent inhalation plus protective clothing such as coveralls. The protective gear must be removed prior to leaving the job site to avoid carrying away fibers. Your supervisor can tell you if you need to use safe asbestos work practices, such as wetting the asbestos materials and using a HEPA vacuum.
Mesothelioma.com recommends the following to safely handle asbestos:
- Turn off HVAC units and seal vents to prevent fibers from circulating.
- Seal off the work area.
- Wet cleanup methods and HEPA filter vacuums should be used to clean the workspace.
- All materials removed from the site must be placed inside clearly marked, leak-tight containers.
- At the end of a shift, any soiled clothes should be bagged or contained. Workers should change and shower in a clean room away from the work area before changing into street clothes.
When attempting to perform asbestos abatement, there are rules and regulations in place that must be followed to prevent people from being exposed to airborne fibers. Building owners or homeowners should not attempt to remove or disturb asbestos on their own, as they can unintentionally expose themselves and others to the dangerous toxin.
Your tribal entity also needs a procedure in place to cover an event where there’s an exposure incident. For instance, if a wall collapses and disturbs and spreads asbestos fibers, there should be a procedure in place to prevent or minimize exposure. Safestart recommends your procedure include isolating the area, alerting others nearby, and safely cleaning and inspecting the area.