Health and Safety

Taking care with materials, equipment and work procedures and dealing with hazards.

Asbestos

Asbestos-based products were widely used in construction from the 1920s to the mid-1980s. Commonly used products that contained asbestos included roof tiles, wall claddings, vinyl floor coverings, sprayed fire protection, decorative ceilings, roofing membranes, adhesives and paints.

On this page:

  • health risks from asbestos
  • restricted work
  • working with asbestos
  • cleaning up.

Health risks from asbestos

Asbestos can cause asbestosis (lung disease) and lung cancer when inhaled. However, as symptoms often do not appear until 15–20 years after exposure, the danger of asbestos is easily underestimated.

Most work-related deaths in in the building industry are the result of exposure to asbestos during demolition or renovation.

Both groups of asbestos minerals present health risks:

  • the serpentine group (commonly called white asbestos)
  • the amphibole group (including blue and brown asbestos).

Testing for asbestos

If you suspect asbestos may be present, the following laboratories are able to test the material:

For cladding or flooring, a sample approximately the size of a $2 coin is required. For decorative ceiling finishes, a minimum of one teaspoonful is required, and this should include any sparkly material. Samples should be obtained in accordance with Occupational Safety and Health Guidelines for the Management and Removal of Asbestos.

Restricted work

The Health and Safety in Employment (Asbestos) Regulations (1998) regulate working with asbestos. They define ‘restricted work’ where OSH must be notified before the work begins and that the work must be carried out by a person holding a certificate of competence or by someone under direct supervision of a person holding a certificate.

Restricted work involving asbestos includes:

  • where the asbestos is friable (easily crumbled) and used in thermal or acoustic insulation; fire protection; lagging around boilers, ducts, furnaces and pipes; or textured ceilings
  • dry sanding of floor coverings containing asbestos
  • using a power tool with any kind of cutting blade or abrasive device on any bonded material containing asbestos, unless used with dust control equipment (dust extraction devices)
  • encapsulation (coating) of asbestos
  • demolition or removal of asbestos materials.

Working with asbestos

Working with asbestos that is not defined as restricted work must nevertheless be carried out with care. If products containing asbestos are in sound condition and left alone, they do not pose a major risk. The risk occurs when materials are cut, sanded, waterblasted or broken up, resulting in asbestos fibres being released.

When working with asbestos, precautions include:

  • sealing off the work area to minimise exposure to others
  • wearing disposable overalls and cap
  • using a half-facepiece respirator with a class P1 filter suitable for asbestos dust
  • keeping asbestos-based material damp while handling it
  • cleaning up at the completion of each day’s work.

Do not:

  • waterblast the asbestos-based material
  • break sheets or drop them, causing them to break.

Cleaning up

  • Collect residue from the washing or other work with asbestos while it is still wet and bag in plastic or a closed container.
  • Clearly mark bags/containers ‘Asbestos Hazard – wear respirator and protective clothing while handling the contents’.
  • Dispose of asbestos at a place approved by the local authority and cover immediately with at least 1 m of earth.
  • Vacuum residue and dust from all surfaces (including unsealed drawers and cupboards) using a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter.
  • Wet mop after vacuuming.

Updated: 25 September 2014