What's asbestos?

Asbestos is a mineral found in nature that is made up of millions of fibres. Until the mid to late 1980s, asbestos was included in building materials because it’s resistant to heat and corrosion. Asbestos was also included in plant and equipment manufactured and imported up to 2003. Asbestos is still commonly used in some countries.

 

What are the risks of asbestos?

The risk of disease from asbestos depends on how often and how long a person has been exposed. Asbestos fibres become dangerous when they become airborne and can be breathed in, causing:

  • asbestosis (scarring of lung tissue)
  • mesothelioma (cancerous tumours that develop around the intestine or lungs)
  • pleural plaques (thickening of membranes around the lungs)
  • cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary.

Symptoms of asbestos-related diseases include breathing difficulties and scarring of the lung that can be detected by x-ray. For more information on the key chemical and health facts of asbestos, view the Australian Government Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency key facts document here.

 

How do I manage the risks? 

It’s your duty to manage the risks of asbestos to protect your workers and others from illness. So you need to make sure that you're aware of any asbestos or asbestos containing materials (ACM) at your place of work. Following a four-step risk management process will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws.

 

Step 1. Identify the hazard

Identifying asbestos and ACM in your place of work is the first step. This must be done by someone with the proper training, qualification and experience.

The Queensland Government has a dedicated asbestos website with useful information covering where to look for asbestos and information on high-risk prohibited work such as the prohibited use of high-pressure water spray on ACMs. The website also has information on asbestos registers. You must keep an asbestos register if there's asbestos or ACM in your place of work. Buildings constructed after 31 December 1989 don't need an asbestos register unless asbestos has been identified at your place of work.

You must also make an asbestos management plan if asbestos has been identified. This will help you to set out how you’re going to manage asbestos or ACM in your place of work. Asbestos management plans and registers must be updated at least every five years.

 

Step 2. Assess the risk

If asbestos has been found, the next step is to make a risk assessment. This will help you figure out:

  • if there is a risk that your workers could be exposed to airborne asbestos
  • whether any effective control measures are in place
  • what actions you can take to control this risk
  • how urgently you should act.

It’s important to know that asbestos or ACM that’s in good condition and left untouched is relatively low risk. Asbestos is most dangerous when it’s deteriorating, damaged, or disturbed. This is when the harmful asbestos fibres become airborne.

When deciding if there’s a risk, you must consider whether the asbestos is:

  • in poor condition
  • likely to deteriorate or be damaged
  • likely to be disturbed due to work carried out in your place of work in an area where workers are exposed to the material.

You can find more information on assessing the risk of asbestos in the How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace Code of Practice 2021.

 

Step 3. Control the risk

After assessing the risk of exposure to airborne asbestos in your place of work, you’ll need to use a control measure. You may need to use a combination of these controls in order to meet your responsibilities under WHS laws.

  • Eliminating the risk

If the asbestos or ACM in your place of work is posing a serious risk, you should remove it. The How to Safely Remove Asbestos Code of Practice 2021 sets out how to remove asbestos including requirements for inspections, removal, transport and disposal. You can read more about the laws, methods and requirements that apply to your situation when you remove and dispose of asbestos in the legislation and codes of practice. Make sure you understand what asbestos notifications you must make to Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, as well as when and how to submit your notifications.

  • Isolating the risk

If it's not reasonably practicable to remove the asbestos, you can isolate it. This is done by enclosing, encapsulating or sealing up the asbestos. Only using the correct tools and equipment when working around the asbestos will also help you minimise the chance of creating airborne asbestos.

  • Using administrative controls

You must also use administrative controls if there’s still a risk after you’ve tried to reduce it with other control measures. Administrative controls protect your workers by working in ways that reduce their exposure to a hazard. These are covered in safe work procedures.

  • Using personal protective equipment (PPE) 

Your workers will need to use PPE in combination with other effective control measures when working with asbestos. Your selection and use of PPE should be based on your risk assessment. PPE includes disposable coverallsglovesrespirators and protective eyewear.

Note: this information should be read together with the How to manage and control asbestos in the workplace Code of Practice 2021.

 

Step 4. Review risk controls

Risk management should be an ongoing process in your business and you should review your control measures regularly. Don’t wait until something goes wrong.

As part of your ongoing risk management, health monitoring is required for workers under certain circumstances.

Work health and safety laws require you to review controls:

  • when you become aware a control measure is not working effectively
  • before a change that might give rise to a new risk
  • when you find a new hazard or risk
  • when your workers tell you that a review is needed
  • after a health and safety representative requests a review.

Asbestos management plans and registers must be updated at least every five years.

The How to Manage Work Health and Safety Risks Code of Practice 2021 includes a list of questions to help you identify any issues.

 

Should I remove my own asbestos?

Although it is possible for the average homeowner to remove small quantities of asbestos, it is highly recommended that a professional is hired for any and all asbestos removal. Even a single, small exposure to asbestos fibres can have drastic and even fatal consequences later on in life. 

A licensed asbestos removalist has the training and the equipment needed for the safe handling, removal and disposal of asbestos. They are also comprehensively insured to cover any incidents as a result of work involving asbestos. It is frequently cheaper to hire a professional, as they already own the equipment required for safe asbestos removal. For more information on this, view the ASEA Asbestos Safety for Householders and Home Renovators here.

 

Major Red Flags for Asbestos Removal

Queensland laws prohibit the use of certain tools and work methods when working with asbestos-containing materials (ACM) as they can generate dangerous airborne asbestos fibres. It is illegal to use high pressure water spray equipment on asbestos, including asbestos cement roofs, fences and walls. High pressure water spray equipment destroys the binding matrix of ACM, leaving cement debris and asbestos in the air. This results in widespread contamination putting people’s health at risk.

Similarly, it is illegal to use any kind of abrasive material (i.e scrubbing, sanding or grinding) to clean ACM. You cannot use brooms or brushes to sweep asbestos-containing dust, use high-speed power tools to cut/grind/sand/drill ACM, or use compressed air to clean ACM, in addition to the prohibition of water spray equipment.

However, some businesses have been known to - either through incompetence, ignorance, or negligence - break these regulations, which will incur heavy fines (up to $10,000 for homeowners + clean-up costs, with potentially higher costs for businesses). Should you observe or become aware of any person(s) or business acting unlawfully as to asbestos regulations, regulating bodies state you must call 13 QGOV (13 74 68).

Always ensure that anyone you hire to remove asbestos over 10 square metres has an asbestos removal license. Contact Workplace Health and Safety Queensland with the contractor's license number to verify their details. Educate yourself on asbestos removal and never be afraid to raise a complaint if you believe regulations are not being followed.

 

For further information on Asbestos in general, view the WorkSafe Queensland page on Asbestos here