Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous silicate mineral boasting excellent fire-retardant properties. It has been used widely since ancient times in various applications until its hazardous nature was discovered during the last century. Today, asbestos is banned in many nations although workers in different sectors are still being exposed to it.
If you handle asbestos regularly or your employees do, it is good for you to know more about this mineral and how to cope with its occupational health hazards.
The Rise and Fall of Asbestos
Historical evidence suggests that early settlers in Finland mixed asbestos with their cookware to make them more resistant to fire while cooking. The Persians too infused asbestos in their fabrics to make fire-retardant clothes. In fact, the excellent fire resistant property of asbestos, its durability and light weight made it a favourite choice for different applications, especially as a building material.
The mineral was extensively mined across Europe, South Africa and Russia throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Industrial production of asbestos gained peak during the industrial era in England and its commercial production in various applications gained popularity in the USA around the beginning of the last century.
In fact, asbestos was highly popular as a building material and chemicals containing asbestos were used as a coating in various commercial and industrial appliances solely because of its fire-retardant property.
However, in 1924, the death of a textile worker was directly connected to continuous exposure to asbestos. Again in 1931, an aggressive form of cancer known as mesothelioma was detected and the cause was again linked to prolonged exposure to asbestos. Even then, asbestos was quite popular until the 1990s.
Today, the world is aware of the several health hazards of asbestos and many nations including Australia have imposed a total ban on asbestos and asbestos-related products in any form.
Why is Asbestos Considered a Health Hazard?
Continuous exposure to asbestos can lead to several fatal conditions such as asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. Mesothelioma is one of the most common occupation-related cancers that affect the protective layer of the heart, lungs and abdomen.
Asbestosis is a long-term condition that can develop even after 20-30 years of exposure to asbestos. It affects the lungs leading to scarring and fibrosis. Patients suffering from asbestosis are at a high risk of developing mesothelioma.
Inhaling asbestos particles for decades is also one of the causes of lung cancer.
Who are at Risk?
While many countries have banned the production and use of asbestos, many more are yet to do so. Miners in such countries are most vulnerable to asbestos-related illnesses as they work in direct contact with the raw material in low-ventilated and confined spaces. Construction workers too are at high risk as asbestos is still used as a building material in these countries.
Even in countries that have banned asbestos, many people are at risk as asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma have a long latency period. So workers who were working with asbestos decades ago are still susceptible to such diseases. These include construction workers (as asbestos was a very popular building material then), shipyard workers, naval personnel who were exposed to asbestos while working on the ship, former miners and workers who worked with machines coated with chemicals containing asbestos.
Other groups include demolition workers who bring down old buildings containing asbestos. While the building is being demolished, particles of asbestos float in the surrounding, which are inhaled by the workers.
Firefighters are another group that is at high risk of asbestos-exposure as an occupational hazard. If a structure containing asbestos is burning, the high heat causes the asbestos to melt and dissipate the carcinogenic particles into the air. Even after the fire has been doused, dust particles of asbestos keep floating in the environment.
How to Ensure Worker Safety?
Australia has already taken the most important step in ensuring worker safety by banning the import or use of asbestos or asbestos-containing products since December 31st, 2003.
However, as explained above, workers in several sectors are still at high risk.
The first step is making contractors, professionals and workers aware of the dangers of working with asbestos. Spreading awareness, information and knowledge on how to minimize the dangers of asbestos-exposure is crucial to maintaining worker safety.
The next step is ensuring workers across all sectors are well protected while dealing with asbestos. Workers, who are regularly exposed to friable asbestos i.e. asbestos that becomes dust, should be provided with adequate protective gear such as respirator masks or dust masks while they are working on a project.
Only professionals who are trained to handle asbestos must be hired for dealing with both friable and non-friable asbestos i.e. asbestos infused in solid materials.
It is also the duty of clients who hire contractors for demolition and other structural work to inform them about the presence of asbestos anywhere on the property. If workers are aware of where the asbestos is, they will wear the necessary protective gear and be cautious while working on the project.
Safe Work Australia has also implemented certain model Work Health and Safety (WHS) regulations to further ensure worker safety while handling asbestos. Under the regulations, only trained and licensed workers should be hired to handle asbestos. Two types of licenses are issued, Class A and Class B.
Workers with a Class A license are allowed to handle or remove both friable and non-friable asbestos. Workers with a Class B license are allowed to remove only non-friable asbestos.
Rapid Response Protocol
A Rapid Response Protocol has also been established to monitor the entry of asbestos or products containing asbestos into Australia. Under the protocol, different government agencies coordinate with each other across several jurisdictions to identify the entry of such banned production into the country. And if it has entered somehow, the agencies try to track it across different states as quickly as possible.
It is important that different stakeholders – businesses, consumers and the government – work together to ensure the absolute safety of workers while they are working with asbestos. Spreading awareness is the key along with a national enforcement policy that will compel businesses to adhere to the safety rules.