Asbestos Awareness Month is held in November and aims to educate Australians on the dangers of asbestos as well as how best to manage them. It is also an opportunity to remember the families affected by asbestos-related diseases. There are a number of activities being held right across the country to support the month.
To assist in raising awareness we have decided to outline some important asbestos information such as what asbestos is and what asbestos related diseases are, where asbestos is most likely to be found, and asbestos in the workplace.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral containing strong fibres that have excellent durability, fire resistance and insulating properties. If these fibres are untouched they are generally harmless. However, if disturbed and the fibres become airborne and inhaled they can pose a health risk. They can cause diseases such as:
- Asbestos-related lung cancer;
- Asbestos-related pleural abnormalities.
Australia has the second-highest mesothelioma death rate in the world. According to cancer experts, 25,000 people in Australia are expected to die from it over the next four decades. Of those who died from mesothelioma in 2014, approximately 80% were men, and the age range of those affected was 70-79 years old.
Asbestos-related diseases have a latency period of up to 30-40 years before they become symptomatic. Unfortunately there are currently no cures for these diseases.
The importation into Australia of asbestos and products containing asbestos is now prohibited, except under limited circumstances. Importers must be able to ensure that their products are free from asbestos so they do not import asbestos into Australia.
Despite this ban, recently there has been a spate of illegal imports into Australia of products containing asbestos. A company in South Australia is currently under investigation for importing building products from China that illegally contain asbestos. Further, roof panels imported from China for the Perth Children’s Hospital were also found to have contained asbestos. These panels were supplied to the lead contractor by Chinese company Yuanda, with at least 10 other buildings in WA built from products imported by Yuanda now being investigated.
The federal opposition is calling for a tougher response to the illegal importation of products containing asbestos by increasing the penalties available. The current penalty for illegally importing products containing asbestos is $170,000.
What about asbestos in homes?
Asbestos has not been used in domestic building materials since the 1980’s. However, it was not until 31 December 2003 that asbestos and all products containing asbestos were banned throughout Australia. The ban does not apply to asbestos previously installed e.g. asbestos in homes.
So as a general rule, if your home was built before 1990, it is likely to contain some asbestos materials. Knowledge of building products that contained asbestos can help to assume whether asbestos may be present. Asbestos was used in more than 3000 products and applications and it is estimated to be in one in three homes across Australia.
If you believe or suspect your home contains asbestos you don’t necessarily need to remove it. If the materials containing asbestos are in good condition (i.e. undamaged, undisturbed), the safest option is to leave them alone. The materials are not dangerous if undisturbed and sealed.
What you do need to be careful of, however, is carrying out renovations to your home. Any pulling down of walls, hammering or drilling into, or sanding and scraping could disturb the tiny fibres and lead to exposure. Homeowners and renovators therefore need to be aware of how to safely manage asbestos in and around the home prior to carrying out any renovation work.
What about asbestos in the workplace?
The Australian Mesothelioma Register states that specific high-risk occupations include boiler makers, power plant works, carpenters, railway workers and naval workers.
It is important that asbestos be handled and managed appropriately in the workplace. When working with asbestos at your place of employment it is important that safe work procedures are in place, and followed, to prevent exposure to the dangerous fibres. An employer has a primary duty to ensure, as far as it is reasonably practicable, that a worker is not exposed to health and safety risks while at work.
Before commencing work with asbestos an employer should:
- Conduct a risk assessment specific to the task;
- Provide training for workers on how to use the appropriate personal protective equipment, on the appropriate procedures, and on the relevant codes of practice;
- Prepare the site for work with asbestos;
- Provide appropriate personal protective equipment and ensure this is worn correctly by workers.
- Conduct a final safety check.
Asbestos exposure and your rights
As it can take many years before any asbestos-related disease becomes symptomatic, many people are unaware of their legal rights after being diagnosed. Under the current legislation in Queensland a worker has 6 months from the date of diagnosis by a doctor to make a claim for workers compensation statutory benefits. It is therefore important that a person diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease that is attributable to their employment contacts a lawyer as soon as possible after receiving their diagnosis to find out what entitlements they may potentially have available to them.
It is important to note, however, that not all exposures to asbestos dust will lead to an asbestos-related disease. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing whether you will suffer from an asbestos-related disease prior to the development of symptoms in some 30-40 years’ time. If you have recently been exposed to asbestos you should take note of the following:
- Where did the exposure occur?
- When did the exposure occur?
- How did the exposure occur?
It is crucial that Australians are aware of the dangers of asbestos and how best to manage them. By educating people on asbestos we will hopefully see fewer deaths from asbestos-related diseases in the future.