Buildings constructed prior to 1990 are filled with an invisible but deadly hazard: asbestos. Exposure to deadly material can cause serious long-term health issues and even death in some cases. Unfortunately, it was widely used across British Columbia for decades. This is why it’s a must to account for asbestos safety in the workplace.
How Workers are Exposed to Asbestos
Found in dozens of items in older buildings, asbestos breaks down into small fibres as it ages or when it’s disturbed. Anyone who repairs, renovates, or demolishes older buildings in British Columbia is at risk of inhaling asbestos fibres. Workers who are at the highest risk from asbestos include:
- Demolition and renovation contractors
- Carpenters, plumbers and electricians
- Building owners, home inspectors, insurance adjusters and realtors
Understanding the Risks
Simply put, breathing in asbestos fibres damages your lungs, causing serious health problems. These can include:
- Lung cancer
- Mesothelioma (a cancer)
- Pleural thickening (a lung disease)
Symptoms of asbestos exposure don’t manifest immediately. It takes years for the effects to show up. Research has indicated an increased danger for smokers who inhale asbestos. It greatly increases their risk of lung cancer.
Improving Asbestos Safety in the Workplace
Risk reduction begins by never assuming a building material is free of asbestos. It’s impossible to tell just by looking at it. If you suspect asbestos is present, WorkSafeBC recommends stopping work immediately and having a qualified asbestos professional complete an asbestos survey.
If asbestos is found, the law requires employers to hire a qualified abatement contractor to remove it. A qualified person must also certify the air on-site is safe, following the completion of the asbestos removal work. A notice of project must also be submitted to WorkSafeBC for all asbestos work.
The most effective way to manage the risk of exposure is to eliminate the source of the asbestos. If that’s not possible, there are other risk controls to use. Below, we have listed WorkSafeBC’s recommended steps:
Elimination or Substitution
Eliminate the asbestos hazard by substituting for a safer material, where possible, is the most effective control method.
Can you make any physical modifications to facilities, equipment or processes that will reduce risk of exposure? Some pointers to consider:
- Can asbestos containing materials be encapsulated or enclosed
- How can asbestos removal work areas be enclosed, and the air filtered to prevent the escape of asbestos fibres?
- How will worker exposure to asbestos be monitored?
- How will asbestos waste be properly contained and disposed of?
Can you change workplace practices or policies, awareness tools or training to limit the risks of asbestos exposure? Consider the following:
- Have you developed a written exposure control plan for asbestos?
- How can warning signs be effectively posted to warn unprotected workers?
- Where can written safe work procedures be posted?
- How will you train workers regarding the hazards of asbestos and how to protect themselves?
Personal Protective Equipment
This should be considered the least effective of all controls and should always be used in conjunction with one other control. Use personal protective equipment when working with asbestos. This equipment should include respirators and other protective clothing. Make sure respirators have been checked and tested to ensure they work correctly.