How to safely upgrade electrical systems in asbestos-prone buildings


Friday, 15 December, 2023

How to safely upgrade electrical systems in asbestos-prone buildings

Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, was historically favoured in building materials for its fire resistance and insulating properties. This included its use in electrical insulation, where its ability to resist heat and corrosion made it an ideal component in electrical panels, wiring and other equipment. However, writes Sebastian Tiller, General Manager at Octfolio, this widespread use has led to significant health concerns — particularly for professionals like electricians who may encounter these materials in older buildings.

Asbestos is a critical concern during electrical upgrades in older buildings, because disturbing asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) can release harmful fibres into the air. When inhaled, these fibres can lead to asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Identifying asbestos risks

Identifying potential ACMs in older buildings is a crucial step before any electrical upgrade.

ACMs can be found in various components like insulation, tiles and wiring conduits. Electricians should look for telltale signs such as ageing materials, distinct textures, or labelling that indicates the presence of asbestos. Knowledge of building construction periods can also aid in identifying areas where asbestos was commonly used.

Conducting professional asbestos testing is paramount before initiating any electrical work in older buildings. These surveys, performed by certified asbestos inspectors, accurately identify and assess the presence and condition of ACMs.

This is essential not only for planning safe electrical upgrades, but also for ensuring compliance with health and safety regulations — thereby protecting workers and building occupants from asbestos exposure.

Legal and safety regulations

Legal requirements and safety standards for working in asbestos-prone environments are stringent and are designed to protect workers and the public from the dangers of asbestos exposure.

These regulations typically include mandatory asbestos surveys, strict guidelines on handling and disposing of ACMs, and ensuring that workers have the proper training and equipment. Non-compliance can lead to significant legal penalties, making adherence crucial for any electrical upgrade project.

Contractors and building owners have significant responsibilities in ensuring compliance with asbestos-related safety regulations.

Contractors must adhere to safe work practices, use appropriate personal protective equipment, and ensure that their workers are adequately trained in asbestos awareness and handling. Building owners are responsible for providing accurate information about the presence of asbestos and ensuring that any work done on their property complies with legal safety standards.

Planning and precautions for electrical upgrades

When planning electrical upgrades in buildings with potential asbestos-containing materials, a meticulous approach is essential to minimise health risks. Here’s a step-by-step guide, including necessary safety measures:

  • Initial assessment: Conduct a thorough assessment of the building to identify areas where asbestos might be present.
  • Upgrade planning: Design the electrical upgrade to minimise interference with asbestos-containing areas. If interaction with these areas is unavoidable, incorporate strategies for safe asbestos handling and containment.
  • Containment strategies: If disturbing asbestos is unavoidable, establish a sealed work area to prevent fibre dispersion. This involves using barriers and negative air pressure systems to contain the fibres.
  • Safe clean-up procedures: Utilise specialised vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters for clean-up. This ensures that any asbestos fibres released during the work are safely captured and removed.
  • Proper ventilation: Ensure proper ventilation in work areas, but avoid spreading asbestos fibres to other parts of the building.
  • Worker training: Train all workers in recognising asbestos-containing materials and in procedures to follow if these materials are inadvertently disturbed.

Following these steps can significantly reduce the risk of asbestos exposure during electrical upgrades, ensuring a safer work environment for everyone involved.

Handling asbestos during electrical work

When asbestos is disturbed during electrical upgrades, specific procedures must be followed to manage it safely.

Firstly, work should be stopped immediately, and the area should be isolated to prevent further contamination. Then, specialised asbestos removal professionals should be consulted to safely remove and dispose of the contaminated materials.

During this process, the use of HEPA filter-equipped vacuums and wet cleaning methods can help in minimising airborne asbestos fibres.

In the event of unexpected asbestos exposure, immediate emergency response steps are crucial. This includes evacuating the area, sealing it off to prevent further contamination, and notifying asbestos management professionals.

Affected workers should undergo medical evaluation and decontamination, including changing out of contaminated clothing and showering, to prevent the further spread of asbestos fibres.

Use of personal protective equipment

The use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential for electrical work in asbestos-prone areas. This includes respirators with HEPA filters, disposable coveralls, gloves and protective footwear.

Respirators are particularly important to prevent inhalation of asbestos fibres, and all PPE should be certified for asbestos work to ensure maximum protection.

Best practices for using PPE involve ensuring a proper fit — especially for respirators — and wearing it at all times in contaminated areas. Maintenance of PPE includes regular checks for damage or wear and tear, and proper cleaning as per safety guidelines.

After use, PPE should be disposed of as hazardous waste according to local regulations, to prevent contamination and potential asbestos exposure to others.

Post-upgrade asbestos management

After completing electrical upgrades in areas with asbestos exposure, specific procedures must be followed for waste disposal and site decontamination:

All asbestos waste, including used PPE and contaminated materials, should be securely bagged, labelled as hazardous, and disposed of at designated facilities.

Site decontamination involves thorough cleaning with HEPA-filtered vacuums and wet wiping methods to remove any residual asbestos fibres, ensuring the area is safe for future use.

Post-upgrade inspections, done by certified asbestos professionals, test the air and surfaces to verify that asbestos levels are within safe limits.

Clearance certifications provide documented assurance that the area is safe for occupancy, complying with legal and safety requirements.

Awareness and training

Adequate training in asbestos awareness should cover the identification of asbestos-containing materials, understanding the risks of asbestos exposure, and learning proper safety protocols for handling and disposal.

Such training is a legal requirement in many jurisdictions and a crucial factor in safeguarding the health of workers and building occupants.

Safely upgrading electrical systems in asbestos-prone buildings requires a comprehensive approach — from initial assessments to post-upgrade decontamination and training, each step is crucial in mitigating the risks associated with asbestos exposure. These guidelines help electricians and contractors ensure the safety and wellbeing of all involved while maintaining compliance with health and safety regulations.

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