What is Asbestos?

April 8, 2022

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral composed of flexible fibers that are resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion. These qualities made the mineral useful. However, asbestos exposure is highly toxic, making this substance hazardous to human exposure.

There are six kinds of commonly found asbestos:

  1. Chrysotile - The most commonly used form of asbestos in major industries covering the building and construction, automotive, and railways sectors.
  2. Amosite - The second most commonly used form of asbestos found in  insulating boards, ceiling tiles and thermal insulation products.
  3. Crocidolite - Largely considered the most dangerous form of asbestos due to it being the easiest to inhale. It was used to insulate steam engines, as well as some spray-on coatings, pipe insulation, plastics and cement products.
  4. Anthophyllite - Mostly discovered accidentally in other materials, however it was occasionally mined with the intent of being used for insulation products and construction materials.
  5. Tremolite - A type of asbestos that was never used commercially, however it did appear as a contaminant in other materials.
  6. Actinolite - Almost exactly the same as Tremolite, with the major difference being that Tremolite has a higher concentration of magnesium, whereas Actinolite has a higher concentration of iron.

There are multiple methods of categorising asbestos, such as;

  • By their mineral structure: Serpentine and Amphibole
    • Serpentine asbestos contains fibres that are curly. Chrysotile asbestos is the only form of asbestos that falls into this category, as it is the only one to have curved fibres on its surface.
    • Amphibole asbestos fibres are thin, short, stiff and needle-like. This means that amphibole asbestos is easier to inhale. As a result, it takes less exposure to amphibole types of asbestos to cause cancer.
  • By their material groups: Friable and Non Friable
    • Friable asbestos products contain loosely packed asbestos fibres and can be crushed easily in the hand.
    • Non-friable asbestos (also known as bonded asbestos) means that the asbestos fibres in the product are held within a solid matrix (e.g. cement in asbestos cement sheeting) and are therefore less likely to become airborne, unless the product is damaged or has deteriorated.

How is asbestos dangerous?

When asbestos fibres are breathed in, asbestos poses a significant health risk. Unless the material is broken, deteriorated or disturbed in a manner that produces airborne asbestos fibres, asbestos in building materials generally does not present a health risk. 

Breakage of asbestos-containing materials through methods such as drilling, sanding, or cutting with power tools can cause the asbestos fibres to spread where they are inhaled by people in the surrounding area.

As a result, you should only have qualified professionals handle materials that might contain asbestos, while adhering to the asbestos management precautions outlined in your workplace. 

It is difficult to tell whether a building material contains asbestos, and the only way to be certain is to have a sample of the material tested by an accredited laboratory. If the material is not tested, it should be treated as though it contains asbestos.

Does asbestos cause cancer?

Asbestos exposure has been proven to have carcinogenic effects, having been linked to a range of diseases including:

  • Pleural plaques, in which thickened patches of scar tissue form on the pleura (lining) of the lung
  • Asbestosis, in which progressive scar tissue forms inside the lungs, resulting in impaired breathing
  • Lung cancer which can develop decades after asbestos exposure, and is particularly susceptible amongst smokers and people with asbestosis
  • Mesothelioma, which is a type of cancer that affects the pleura (the covering of the lung and lining of the chest wall and diaphragm), and can also develop decades after asbestos exposure

What is the history of asbestos manufacturing in Australia?

Due to its particularly potent resistance to heat, Asbestos was used as insulation for a wide range of building products throughout Australia for several decades from the 1940s to the 1980s, including:

  • flat and corrugated sheeting
  • cement pipes
  • insulation
  • floor tiles
  • adhesives
  • roofing
  • automobile parts such as brake pads
  • textiles
  • textured paints

Because Australia was one of the highest users of asbestos per capita, we continue to find it in construction parts to this day. However, products containing it were phased out during the 1980s, with a national ban on products and importation coming into effect in 2003.

How do I manage asbestos in my workplace?

Managing asbestos in the workplace consists of multiple different procedures, all of which complement each other. If you want to keep your business and workers safe from asbestos, you should ensure that all of these different steps are being equally met.

Identification

The first step towards managing asbestos in your workplace is identifying materials in your building where asbestos may be present.

  • Use a competent person with relevant training and experience in asbestos identification to confirm the presence of asbestos
  • Test suspected asbestos containing materials using a NATA-accredited laboratory.
  • Identify the presence of asbestos using warning labels.

If you find materials that contain substances that you cannot confirm nor deny may be asbestos, your best course of action is to assume that it contains asbestos.

Removal

Once you have discovered and had the asbestos in your workplace evaluated, your next course of action is to have it removed.

  • Use wet, non-destructive methods. Saturation and water injection may be needed during friable asbestos removal. 
  • Dry removal should only be used when wet spray methods are not suitable (e.g. near electrical equipment). 
  • Negative air enclosures, glove bag methods or continuous misting sprays may also be needed.

Enclosure

You need to enclose the asbestos that you can’t remove, so that your workers can’t risk exposure to it.

  • Completely cover, seal and prevent access to the material. 
  • Only use on non-friable asbestos where removal is not possible and asbestos is at risk of damage from work tasks. 
  • Seal with resilient matrix or protective coating that prevents the release of asbestos fibres. 
  • Never use dry sanding or water blasting to prepare surfaces for sealing.

Tools and Equipment

In order to effectively remove asbestos, you need to use the correct tools and equipment to make sure that you do not risk exposing your workers to asbestos fibres during said removal.

  • Use manually operated or low-speed battery-powered tools. 
  • All low-speed battery-powered tools should be fitted with exhaust ventilation dust control hoods. 
  • Do not use high-powered tools.

Isolation

Once you have enclosed areas that contain asbestos, the goal is to isolate them so that nobody can access them and risk exposure.

  • Limit access by displaying warning signs and installing barricades around asbestos work areas. 
  • Close windows and doors if working inside. 
  • Put up enclosures if required. 
  • Notify others of asbestos work in the area. 
  • When preparing the work area, items that are not needed should be removed to prevent contamination and make the clean up easier.

Cleaning

Once the materials have been isolated, the goal is to clean the area.

  • Use wet clean up methods (water misting or wet wiping only). 
  • Do not sweep asbestos-contaminated material. 
  • Use an approved asbestos vacuum cleaner (not domestic). For commercial removal, clearance inspections are compulsory before re-occupation.

Disposal

The disposal of materials containing asbestos requires delicacy and care.The best course of action is to consult professionals who fully understand the best practices for safely disposing of materials with asbestos in them.

  • Wet asbestos waste. 
  • Double bag or wrap in 0.2 mm polythene bags (sheeting for large materials) no greater than 1200 mm long and 900 mm wide. 
  • Seal with tape using the ‘gooseneck’ method for bags. 
  • Half fill waste bags to avoid tearing and put on warning labels. 
  • Clean the outside of bags or sheets before removal. 
  • Place in labelled waste bins for secure storage and disposal, or remove immediately from site using a licenced carrier.

Management and Registering

Registering asbestos materials plays an important role in spreading awareness about asbestos materials and allowing your workplace to maintain safe practices.

  • Implement a management plan to identify and control workplace asbestos risks. 
  • Keep an updated register that identifies the location of asbestos (include: date identified, type, condition, locality maps, photos, drawings, etc). 
  • Make sure workers are aware of, and have access to, the register.

Training

Training workers is important for allowing them to operate safely in a workplace where asbestos may be present.

  • Train workers about the asbestos risks, how to identify them, and how to manage asbestos dangers. 
  • Ensure workers who do or could work with asbestos-containing materials get the proper level of training. 
  • Specialised training and licences are required for asbestos assessors, removalists and supervisors.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

When workers need to dispose of asbestos material, it is important that they are provided with effective PPE so that they are safe from possible exposure to asbestos.

  • For friable removal, wear air supplied or air purifying respiratory protection that filters asbestos fibres, fitted for each worker individually. 
  • For non-friable removal, class P2 respirators are needed. 
  • For all asbestos removal use disposable coveralls with fitted hoods that prevent penetration of asbestos fibres (type 5, category 3), impermeable gloves, gumboots (not laced boots), boot covers and eye protection. 
  • Seal wrist and ankle openings with tape.

Decontamination

In the aftermath of contaminated material removal, decontamination is needed to ensure that nobody is exposed to asbestos fibres.

  • Wipe down protective clothing using a wet rag. 
  • Remove all PPE in a specified order: remove coveralls first and wipe down and remove boots, gloves and goggles. 
  • Any clothing worn under coveralls must be disposed of or bagged for laundering where disposable clothing is not possible (e.g. emergency services clothing). 
  • Remove the respirator last. 
  • All waste, wet rags, PPE and cleaning materials must be double bagged, sealed and labelled before disposal.

Planning

Once the materials have been removed, and decontamination has taken place, it is necessary to develop a staged plan for the replacement of all identified asbestos containing materials.

How can I make the process of asbestos management as efficient and effective as possible?

Because asbestos management is such a multifaceted process, a simple software solution such as Octfolio is a valuable asset for your business. Octfolio contains every function that you need in order to successfully handle all aspects of asbestos management services, including;

  • Asset management
  • Report management
  • Compliance management
  • Document management
  • Maintenance management
  • Digital asbestos register
  • Field data collection
  • Automated reporting
  • Workflow automation
  • Risk calculator
  • Asbestos mapping software

Octfolio gives you full control over the asbestos management of your business. Get started with Octfolio by booking a meeting or starting a free trial.