Working with asbestos

By Kylie Wilson-Field, Journalist
Monday, 21 May, 2007

The Asbestos Disease Society of Victoria believes that almost everyone in our society has been exposed to some asbestos fibre at some point, but for most the exposure and the risk is very small. Reassuring words, but why does the mere mention of the word asbestos send a shiver down the spine?

Asbestos is the fibrous form of mineral silicates belonging to the serpentine and amphibole groups of rock-forming minerals. The three most common types are chrysotile (white asbestos), crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown or grey asbestos), with blue asbestos causing the most harm as the fibres are long and thin, and more likely to reach the lungs.

Asbestos has been used in more than 3000 products, including heat-resistant textiles (cloth, padding), cement products (sheets, pipes), special filters for industrial chemicals, thermal insulation products (pipe and boiler insulation), friction materials (clutch plates, brake linings), gaskets, floor tiles, roofing materials, packing materials, paints and protective paper. It has also been used as sprayed insulation for buildings and other structures.

So what are the risks involved for those who work with asbestos and what regulations are in place to protect workers from exposure?

John Carter, managing director of Carter Corporation, a national company based in South Australia, says asbestos is no longer manufactured or used, but commercial buildings and two out of three homes built before 1987 are likely to have some asbestos products in them.

"As long as these products are maintained in the correct manner they are safe to be left in situ. It is really a matter of educating people to know how to live with them," he says.

"There are some basic safety issues when handling and removing asbestos which we recommend to people. Firstly, get to know the product you are dealing with. If you are unsure whether the product contains asbestos, treat it as though it does.

"Secondly, get trained in how to work with asbestos. We run courses that are specifically designed to teach people more about asbestos and how to live with it. If you know the product, you know the risk. Finally, if you are not sure get someone in who is trained and capable."

A national code of practice, which outlines the regulations of working with asbestos, is available on the Australian Safety and Compensation Council website (

John Carter believes the current regulations are sufficient to protect workers and advises them to use their rights, but stresses that it's also important for a company to ensure they follow them.

"The regulations are all based on the national code, although some differences may occur from state to state regarding implementation and time frames.

"For example, we work on the basis that South Australian laws have been at the forefront of safety with regards to asbestos. We find that by applying the principles behind them we are sure that we cover all the aspects required wherever we operate," he says.

Currently in Australia, more than 2500 people are diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases each year and the number is rising.

"The figures are lower than reported because only official reports make up the numbers. There are many cases of asbestos-related diseases that are diagnosed that go unreported," Carter says.

"Because of the lag time in asbestos-related diseases being diagnosed, some symptoms can take up to 20 years to show. It is estimated that by 2020 more than 20,000 people will be affected by the disease."

"It's so important for workers to get trained, know the product and understand the risk."

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