To prevent work related injury and illness the workplace must be modified - the hazard must be controlled at the source - rather than modifying, screening or excluding workers from the workplace.
1 - Where workers are in contact with or near IN SITU asbestos or asbestos products
Depending on the age of your workplace, assume that walls, ceilings and lagging contain asbestos unless certain they don't.
OHS Reps should negotiate with management to ensure the following happens:
- A suitably qualified occupational hygienist (you can find one on our Register of Consultants) undertakes an audit/survey to discover where the asbestos is; where it is likely to crumble or be disturbed; what state the asbestos is in and where fibres are likely to be breathed in by workers. The audit should not simply be a measurement of airborne concentration of fibres. A copy of the audit must be provided to all OHS reps. This information should also go into a workplace Asbestos register, and all areas labelled appropriately. The register must be kept current at all times: it must be reviewed at least every five years and whenever there may be changes to the state of the asbestos.
- An action plan is implemented for the control of any asbestos identified (specific action which will depend on the results of the audit).
The action that must be taken depends on what is known about the asbestos, where it is, and what condition it is in. Where the asbestos is known about, the employer must monitor its condition. Where there is accidental exposure, for example during renovation work, then different action is necessary.
a - Where the asbestos is known about and it's in a good condition
Where the asbestos is in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed:
- It can be left intact if fibres cannot be fed into workers' breathing zones.
- If it is unlikely to be disturbed it can be encapsulated or deep sealed.
- If the asbestos is left intact or sealed, it must be labelled.
- The employer must regularly review the state of the surface of all in situ asbestos, at least every 5 years or whenever it is disturbed.
b - Where the asbestos is known about and it's in a poor condition
Where the asbestos is in poor condition, that is where the surface is damaged or crumbling, or if is likely to be disturbed, eg by maintenance work, then:
- It must be removed safely by an approved Class A removalist, ie by a removalist company licensed by WorkSafe AND approved by the VTHC. (Use the VTHC List).
- 'normal' work activities in the area should be suspended, and those workers relocated while the removal work is being undertaken.
- If there is any chance that the workers have been exposed to asbestos, the employer should arrange regular medical checks and exposure letters for all exposed workers. The exposure letter acknowledges that workers have been exposed to asbestos in case diseases develop later and compensation claims are to be made. The VTHC has a Standard Asbestos Exposure Letter for exposures to asbestos in all situations. Download the letter here. Make sure that your union gets copies of the signed letter.
In both of the above situations, keep your co-workers informed by:
- Giving them the facts about asbestos;
- Telling them whether management plans for dealing with the issue are adequate;
- Providing an opportunity for them to express/register their concerns - eg in a meeting or through a survey;
- Inspecting the workplace regularly; and
- Encouraging them to report to you any concerns about asbestos that may been disturbed.
c - Where there has been accidental exposure
'Accidental exposure' can occur where asbestos has been discovered during maintenance, renovation or demolition work. In these situations, the health and safety rep should:
- Stop any work activities in the area.
- Demand the employer secures the area so that no other people are exposed.
- Call your union (and any other relevant unions).
- Negotiate with the employer to bring in a qualified hygienist - make sure the hygienist is on the VTHC Consultants' register. · Negotiate a plan with the employer for the removal of the asbestos by an approved removalist.
- Monitor how management is following the agreed removal plan.
- Inform management/inspectors/the union if there are breaches of the law or the management action plan.
- Insist that all work with asbestos complies with the asbestos section of the Occupational Health And Safety Regulations 2007.
- Arrange for the employer to issue all exposed workers with the Standard Asbestos Exposure Letter for exposures to asbestos in all situations. Download the letter here.
- Ensure all exposed workers on the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency's National Asbestos Exposure Register.
- Keep the workforce informed of progress.
Where any removal work is being done, health and safety reps should also:
- Contact the workers involved in the removal or maintenance and their safety reps;
- Take up with management any concerns raised by the workforce or contractors.
Returning to work
When the risk of exposure to asbestos has dealt with (either through encapsulation, sealing or removal) the health and safety rep/s should:
- Be consulted before a site is declared fit for re-occupation. This includes being given a copy of the hygienist report, having the opportunity to jointly oversight air monitoring and carrying out an inspection);
- Inform your fellow workers that the exposure has been adequately controlled if you are satisfied with the outcome of the asbestos control plan;
- Call the union/s if you are NOT satisfied, or if there are any issues of concern;
- Check that the Asbestos Exposure letters have been completed for everyone who may have been exposed;
- Check that the employer has arranged for health monitoring and counselling for people who want it; and
- Ensure that any OHS Committee meeting minutes record all matters relating to asbestos issues, and that these records are kept in a safe area for future reference.
What should workers do if they have already worked with or been exposed to asbestos?
Workers should make sure their employer, their doctor and their union have a record of their asbestos exposure, and if they have contracted any of the asbestos-related diseases, they should contact their union for assistance in seeking compensation.
2 - Industries where Asbestos is used or handled
There are many workers the nature of whose work will potentially expose them to asbestos. Historically, workers who mined and milled the raw material, in the construction trades, and those engaged in manufacturing or using products containing asbestos were those with the greatest risk of asbestos exposure. However, secondary exposure occurs when people not working directly with asbestos were exposed to fibers as a result of sharing workspaces where others handled asbestos. For example, electricians who worked in shipyards were exposed when asbestos was used to coat the ships' pipes and hulls. Now we find that trades people like electricians, plumbers and carpenters are being exposed because they are working in buildings and in spaces which contain asbestos. More information (from a U.S. site): Occupations At Risk From Asbestos Exposure
As of January 1, 2008, white asbestos (chrysotile) can no longer be used in the re-lining of brakes, clutches and in certain gaskets. However, there continue to be asbestos-related activities carried out in workplaces. (see Division 8 of Part 4.3 (Asbestos) of the 2007 Regulations). Under this division, the employer has a duty to eliminate the risk of exposure to airborne asbestos fibres, or if this is not practicable, reduce the risk as far as practicable. The employer should:
- Detect and monitor levels by sampling the air with an asbestos filter device;
- Eliminate or reduce airborne concentrations by:
a) enclosure (placing a physical barrier between workers and the asbestos fibres);
b) local exhaust ventilation (efficient, vacuum induced, as close to source as possible);
c) modify tooling (use of manual saws to cut asbestos cement sheets; use of high pressure water streams to cut asbestos materials);
d) environmental monitoring to check effectiveness of above methods;
- Provide information and training to all workers working with asbestos containing materials;
- Provide personal protective equipment and introducing administrative measures:
a) full body suit;
b) airline fed helmets/cartridge masks;
c) half shifts while wearing gear;
d) 15 minutes rest break every hour;
e) medical monitoring to check effectiveness of above methods.
- Maintain a register of all personnel exposed to asbestos, and has issued all exposed workers with the Standard Asbestos Exposure Letter. (Download the letter here)
The health and safety representatives must be fully involved at all times.
What should workers do if they have already worked with or been exposed to asbestos?
Workers should make sure their employer, their doctor and their union have a record of their asbestos exposure, and if they have contracted any of the asbestos diseases, they should contact their union for assistance in seeking compensation.
National Asbestos Hotline
The Comcare asbestos hotline provides information and advice on asbestos related concerns: 1800 888 468 Monday to Friday between 8.30 am and 5.00 pm (AEST). Comcare will investigate the report and advise the person making the report of the outcome. Comcare will take enforcement action if there is any breach of work health safety laws within the federal jurisdiction. If the incident relates to a state or territory jurisdiction Comcare will refer the matter to the relevant work, health and safety regulator.Also, the previous Labor government established Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, which also administers the first National Asbestos Exposure Register. The register captures the details of members of the community who think they may have been exposed to asbestos containing materials (ACMs). Everyone who thinks they may have been exposed to asbestos should ensure they enter their details on the National Register.
- Summary of Part 4.3 - Asbestos, 2007 Regulations
- From the UK's TUC - guidance for health and safety representatives: Asbestos - time to get rid of it. (May 2016). This short guide provides useful tips for HSRs.
- Much more information including guides, etc on this page.
Last amended May 2016