Asbestos has been a high profile occupational heath and safety issues for workers (especially construction workers) in Australia. Here’s why:
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral fibre that was widely used in building materials up until 1985. It was used because it is a versatile material that withstands heat, erosion and decay, and has fire and water resistant properties. However it was later found out that asbestos is a carcinogen – a substance that causes cancer.
Heath risks arise from the inhalation of asbestos fibres into the lungs and can cause serious health effects such as asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer and pleural disease. These illnesses can take up to 50 years to develop.
In the past, exposures to asbestos were very high particular areas such as asbestos mining and asbestos-cement manufacturing. These industries no longer operate in Australia. Now the demolition of buildings that contain asbestos has the potential for the release of huge amounts of fibres, unless severe precautions are taken.
There are now significant laws in place to protect workers from the dangers of asbestos. In 2003, it became illegal to use, re-use or sell any products containing any form of asbestos in Australia. The ban does not apply to asbestos products that are already in place, but when they are replaced non asbestos alternatives must be used.
An employer must identify and implement measures to prevent the uncontrolled disturbance of asbestos containing material if construction work is being carried out. An employer must also ensure that employees contracted to carry out asbestos work are informed of the dangers involved and the precautions to be taken.
Asbestos is also an issue for the home handyperson or DIY enthusiast. You need to be careful when renovating or demolishing old buildings or sheds. Asbestos can also be an issue while cleaning up storm, flood or fire damage.