Avoiding the dangers of asbestos

Wednesday, 22 November, 2023

Avoiding the dangers of asbestos

Workers and residents who renovate homes can easily become exposed to asbestos and the diseases that it causes. In fact, according to Australia’s Asbestos Education Committee, asbestos-related diseases kill more than 4000 Australians every year — 235% more than the number who died in road accidents during 2022.

Keeping workers safe

Employers are legally required to identify any asbestos-containing material in a workplace, label it and record it in an asbestos register. Asbestos removal licence holders are required to notify WorkSafe prior to any removal works, display appropriate signage and ensure workers are wearing personal protective equipment during its removal.

WorkSafe Victoria Executive Director of Health and Safety Narelle Beer said despite the progress made in the last 20 years, asbestos continued to pose a very real risk in many workplaces, and that National Asbestos Awareness Week (20–27 November) served as a reminder to take action on this issue.

“This is an opportune time for employers to take stock and ensure they have systems in place to identify, manage and, where required, arrange the safe removal of asbestos,” Beer said.

“Understanding the dangers of asbestos and meeting your obligations to reduce the risks can be the difference between you or a worker living a long and healthy life or developing a serious illness.”

Risks posed by older buildings

If asbestos-containing materials are disturbed during maintenance, renovation or demolition, minute fibres are released, which can be inhaled. This can lead to a swathe of diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma. There is no cure for mesothelioma, a cancer that can develop between 33 and 44 years after inhaling asbestos fibres. The average survival time following diagnosis is just 12 months.

“With one-in-three homes containing asbestos and with the continuing DIY boom, serious concerns have been raised that DIYers and tradies who renovate homes might be risking their lives and the lives of families by playing renovation roulette if they fail to respect the potentially life-threatening risks if asbestos is not managed safely,” said Clare Collins, Chair of the Asbestos Education Committee.

“With a staggering number of deaths each year from asbestos-related diseases and with deaths predicted to continue to rise among workers and those exposed to fibres during renovations, it’s vital that homeowners and tradies respect asbestos risks when renovating any home built before 1990.

“Renovators need to be aware that asbestos fibres were used in the manufacture of more than 3000 building and decorator products that lie hidden in one-third of Aussie homes, and that asbestos detection is not included in a standard building report. It’s vital that before homeowners take up tools, they visit www.asbestosawareness.com.au to learn what they need to know to ensure asbestos is managed safely and in line with regulations, and have a licensed asbestos assessor or occupational hygienist inspect your property.”

The hidden danger

While many renovators may think that only tradies are at risk of asbestos-related diseases, according to the most recent Australian Mesothelioma Registry (AMR) Report (April 2023), 83% of respondents were assessed as having had ‘possible or probable’ exposure to asbestos fibres in non-occupational settings — primarily homes.

“Most Australians don’t know asbestos-containing products are not just lurking in fibro homes, they were used widely in brick, weatherboard, clad homes and apartments, and other structures commonly found on properties including backyard sheds, fences, garages, chook sheds and even dog kennels. It could be anywhere,” Collins said.

If undisturbed, well maintained and in a stable, sealed condition, these products are considered unlikely to pose health risks. However, if disturbed during renovations, maintenance, removal or demolition, minute fibres are released that can be inhaled.

“We’re urging homeowners and tradies to respect asbestos and avoid risking exposure when renovating older properties by engaging an occupational hygienist or licensed asbestos professionals who are trained to identify, remove and dispose of asbestos safely in accordance with regulations,” Collins said.

Cherie Barber, an Ambassador for the National Asbestos Awareness Campaign, lost her grandfather to asbestos and is passionate about promoting asbestos safety.

“While asbestos remains hidden in one-third of Australian homes, it will continue to pose a very real and present danger to homeowners and tradies for many years to come, so it’s vital we respect asbestos and manage asbestos-containing materials safely to prevent releasing fibres that can kill,” she said.

“The bottom line is, if your home was built before 1990 and you suspect it may contain asbestos, before taking up tools engage a licensed asbestos assessor or occupational hygienist to inspect your property, and if you need to remove asbestos, only use licensed asbestos removalists who will remove and dispose of it safely.”

Where to find more information

Developed in accordance with government Work Health and Safety Regulations and Codes of Practice, Asbestos 101 for Residential Property Owners, Managers and Tradies is a comprehensive resource that provides Australians with vital information as to why asbestos is dangerous.

This resource also covers the risks of working unsafely with ACMs; the steps to take if renovators come across materials they suspect may contain asbestos; the importance of engaging an occupational hygienist or licensed asbestos assessor to confirm if asbestos is present; and why it is vital to only use licensed asbestos removalists, to ensure hazardous asbestos materials are removed and disposed of safely in accordance with government regulations.

It can be accessed at asbestosawareness.com.au.

Image credit: iStock.com/Daria Nipot

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