Avoiding a worksite worry
Asbestos exposure continues to be a concern on the job site. But there are ways to help protect workers from the health risks it brings.
Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally occurring minerals used in certain products, such as building materials and vehicle brakes. It has good insulating properties, is fire-resistant, and the mineral fibers can be spun and made into fabrics. In years past, this led to its widespread use, including in:
- Pipe insulation
- Roofing products
- Friction products
- Gaskets and packing
- Coatings and electrical insulation
Asbestos may be present in many older buildings and building materials. Because asbestos fibers are so small and light, they stay suspended in the air for a long time. Damaged loose asbestos materials like insulation are more likely to release fibers than those bound in a matrix like plastic or cement.
That means construction and maintenance activities may potentially expose workers to asbestos. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established strict rules regarding asbestos abatement and certification for employers performing abatement of asbestos in buildings.
Dangers to workers
The inhalation of asbestos fibers by workers can cause serious diseases of the lungs and other organs that may not appear until years after the exposure has occurred. Exposure to asbestos can cause disabling or fatal diseases such as asbestosis, an emphysema-like condition; lung cancer; mesothelioma, a rapidly spreading cancerous tumor of the lining of the lung; and gastrointestinal cancer. Asbestos fibers associated with these health risks are too small to be seen with the naked eye, and smokers are at higher risk of developing some asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos exposure risks
Asbestos has been eliminated from most products due to the health hazard, but may be present in products and building materials made before 1980. Vehicle maintenance employees may be exposed when performing brake and clutch repairs. In the construction industry, exposure occurs when workers disturb asbestos-containing materials during the renovation or demolition of buildings. Maritime employees may be exposed when renovating or demolishing ships constructed with materials containing asbestos. In addition, custodial workers may be exposed through contact with deteriorating materials with asbestos in buildings.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set three standards to protect workers from exposure to asbestos in the workplace:
- 29 CFR 1926.1101 covers construction work, including alteration, repair, renovation, and demolition of structures containing asbestos
- 29 CFR 1915.1001 covers asbestos exposure during work in shipyards
- 29 CFR 1910.1001 applies to asbestos exposure in general industry, such as exposure during brake and clutch repair, custodial work, and the manufacture of asbestos-containing products.
The standards for the construction and shipyard industries classify the hazards of asbestos work activities and prescribe particular requirements for each classification:
- Class I is the most potentially hazardous class of asbestos jobs and involves the removal of thermal system insulation and sprayed-on or troweled-on surfacing asbestos-containing materials (ACM) or presumed asbestos-containing materials (PACM).
- Class II includes the removal of other types of asbestos-containing materials that are not thermal system insulation—such as resilient flooring and roofing materials containing asbestos.
- Class III focuses on repair and maintenance operations where ACM or PACM are disturbed.
- Class IV pertains to custodial activities where employees clean up asbestos-containing waste and debris.
States with OSHA-approved state plans have similar regulations.
OSHA has established a Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of 0.1 f/cc (fiber per cubic centimeter of air) as an eight-hour Time Weighted Average (TWA). OSHA also has a 30-minute excursion limit of 1 f/cc. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists has a recommended Threshold Limit Value of 0.1 f/cc as an eight-hour TWA.
Establishing safe areas
Controlled zones known as regulated areas are designed to protect employees where certain work with asbestos is performed. Access should be limited to authorized persons who are wearing appropriate respiratory protection. There should be no eating, smoking, drinking, chewing tobacco or gum, or applying cosmetics in these areas. Warning signs should also be placed at each regulated area. In construction and shipyards, workers must perform Class I, II, and III asbestos work and all other operations where asbestos concentrations may exceed a PEL within regulated areas. In general industry, establish regulated areas wherever asbestos concentrations may exceed a PEL.
Employers must also provide and ensure the use of respirators when a PEL is exceeded. In construction and shipyards, you must require workers to use respirators when performing certain work. Generally, the level of exposure determines the type of respirator needed.
In addition, when any employee is exposed to airborne concentrations of asbestos that exceed a PEL, you must provide and require the use of protective clothing such as coveralls or similar full-body clothing, head coverings, and gloves and foot coverings. You must provide face shields, vented goggles, or other appropriate protective equipment wherever the possibility of eye irritation exists, and require workers to wear them.
Decontamination areas and hygiene practices for employees exposed above a PEL are also required.
In construction and shipyards, training must be supplied for employees exposed above a PEL and for employees involved in each identified work classification. The specific training requirements depend upon the particular class of work being performed. In general industry, you must provide initial placement and annual training to all employees exposed above a PEL. You must also provide asbestos awareness training to employees who perform housekeeping operations covered by the standard. Warning labels should be placed on all asbestos products, containers, and installed construction materials wherever possible.
These are just some of the tips that can help keep your workers safe while dealing with asbestos. Remember—by paying attention to safety, you’ll minimize any possible losses.