Asbestos Awareness: Preventing a Hazardous Workplace
Many on-the-job hazards are obvious... leaking machinery... dangerous chemicals... slippery floors. However, other hazards aren't so obvious. There may be no visible signals that they are present at all. That's why Asbestos is often known as 'the silent killer.' While you often can't see, taste or smell it..., prolonged periods of exposure to Asbestos can cause lung disease, cancer... even death.
What is Asbestos? Simply put, Asbestos is a mineral, that breaks down into small fibers... like the 'strands' in a rope. Because of its insulating and fire retardant characteristics, Asbestos has mainly been used in building materials (as insulation for pipes and walls or in fire proofing)... and in brake linings in cars and trucks.
Believe it or not, very little was known about Asbestos early in the 20th century, and by 1946, Asbestos products became widely used as they are today. The use of Asbestos paper materials in roofing and insulation products have been banned by the Environmental Protection Agency since 1972. From much research, we now know that Asbestos fibers can be extremely hazardous to the lungs and other parts of the body.
For some time the Federal Government has been concerned about worker exposure to Asbestos and Asbestos-Containing Materials (ACM's). After much investigation, OSHA published a ruling for the Asbestos standard in August of 1994, and made several revisions in June of 1995.
This regulation, 29 CFR 1910.1101, 'Occupational Exposure to Asbestos', requires that all employees who come in contact with materials that might contain Asbestos be given appropriate training on working safely in these situations. Employees who work in 'maintenance and custodial activities' or who cleans up waste and debris containing these types of materials, make up the largest group of workers who must have this training.
OSHA is convinced that many of the problems associated with Asbestos exposure in the past have been due to the lack of employees' knowledge about the proper methods needed to handle Asbestos and ACM's. This is why the Standard requires that workers who don't work directly with Asbestos, but who may have 'incidental exposure', receive at least 'Asbestos Awareness' training.
'Why has Asbestos been used so widely if it is so hazardous?' Only in recent years have the true dangers of Asbestos been recognized. But make no mistake, Asbestos is a very hazardous material. Asbestos fibers are so small and light that they can float in the air where they can be easily be inhaled. One disease, 'Asbestosis', is the result of damage to the delicate tissues inside the lungs. Asbestosis can cause shortness of breath, enlargement of the heart, and sometimes... death.
How can we help to protect employees from the hazards of Asbestos? The first thing supervisors should tell their workers is where Asbestos is located in the workplace. This information must be recorded and made available to everyone in your facility. For instance, in buildings built before 1980, parts of the heating system (the boiler, utility pipes, and duct work) may have been covered with installation that contains Asbestos... there might be ceiling tiles or paneling that contains Asbestos.
Some of the materials that contain Asbestos, such as sprayed on fire-proofing are referred to as 'friable'. This means that they are rough, brittle and can crumble easily (it doesn't take much to damage friable Asbestos and release fibers into the air). How many times have you walked by pipes or heating ducts and noticed a pile of debris below? That is a sure warning sign that friable Asbestos material may be present. Other 'harder' Asbestos Containing Materials (such as floor tiles) are considered 'non-friable'. But even non-friable materials can be damaged enough to release fibers. For example, if floor tiles are broken by a sudden impact or ground down during cleaning, this could release millions of Asbestos fibers into the air.
There are other times, however, when the signs of Asbestos aren't as obvious as a pile of debris on the floor. Remember looking up at a ceiling tile and noticing a water stain? That stain could be a warning that the material has been weakened. And if the tile contains Asbestos, fibers could be lurking, ready to disperse.
What should someone do if they find a problem that could lead to the release of Asbestos fibers? Would your employees know? The most important rule in preventing exposure is: 'Do not disturb materials that may contain Asbestos.' (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration defines a 'disturbance' as any activity that... 'crumbles, pulverizes, generates visible debris or otherwise disturbs an Asbestos containing material').
What does this mean in real life? For example, since vinyl and asphalt flooring installed before 1980 often contains Asbestos, it should never be cut, ground, or sanded because release of Asbestos fibers could result. If floors need to be stripped, employees should use what's referred to as 'wet methods.' Wet methods dampen the materials so that fibers are less likely to become airborne.
Dust and debris that contain asbestos fibers must also be handled with extreme caution. OSHA says not to sweep or shovel these materials if they are 'dry,' but instead, to use wet methods here as well. This type of debris shouldn't be cleaned up with an ordinary vacuum cleaner either... only HEPA vacuums should be used for this type of work. HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) vacuums, have filters that prevent the release of Asbestos. And, of course, whenever anyone is working with Asbestos it is essential that they wear appropriate personal protective equipment.
A word of warning however... you can't just throw out Asbestos in the trash... arrangements must be made to haul it to a licensed land-fill once the Asbestos has been sealed in Asbestos disposal bags.
Much of this information should be documented in your facility's Asbestos Management Plan. The Plan must show where Asbestos and ACMs will be found,... how you have prepared your employees to deal with Asbestos-related hazards should they encounter them..., and what they should do if they must handle or work around Asbestos.
Here's the bottom line... You should make sure your employees get the training they need now... before it's too late! There are many videotape programs out there that teach workers about Asbestos awareness as well as Interactive CD-ROM programs that are concise, comprehensive and cost-effective for both large and small companies. And other training tools are available as well.
Fortunately, you don't have to be able to see Asbestos to defend against it. Remember these tips:
- Know where Asbestos is present in your workplace.
- Inspect these areas regularly, and be on the lookout for problems.
- Don't disturb Asbestos containing materials unless absolutely necessary.
- Take the steps necessary to prevent contamination when employees are working with Asbestos.
- Always have your employees 'decontaminate' after coming into contact with materials that may contain asbestos.
Asbestos is hazardous to your employees health. Don't take chances with thinking Asbestos will 'go away.' If the problem is there... then it is your problem. Make sure your workers take the right precautionary measures... and protect everyone from the hazards of Asbestos. Not only is it the right thing to do... its the law!