Asbestos has been a major issue in Australia for a number of years, especially because we have recorded some of the highest numbers of asbestos related diseases such as Mesothelioma in the world here.
When unqualified or inexperienced workers attempt to remove asbestos or are exposed to building materials that contain asbestos, they can present a risk to others and themselves. They do this by allowing the hazardous asbestos fibres to enter and contaminate the air, causing it to be inhaled by people and cause a health problem later on.
One of the biggest issues surrounding asbestos in the construction industry is sprayed or friable asbestos which was previously used in building materials until the 1970s. Construction workers and tradespeople may become exposed to high concentrations of asbestos fibres during renovations and repairs to older buildings. If they have not received the appropriate training, they should not attempt to work with or move this material. The environment and work methods of these occupations are more difficult to control than fixed workplaces. However, most tradespeople are trained in the proper handling of materials that contain asbestos.
Even workers who have not received the appropriate general construction safety training may present a risk because asbestos containing material may be disturbed during renovations which can be released into the atmosphere to be inhaled or digested and affect other workers as well. This is why all workers must undergo their White Card, general construction safety training and only qualified workers should be tasked with its removal.
Numerous risks also exist for workers in the construction industry who are not informed before work begins that asbestos may be present. Previously workers in these industries were exposed to 100 – 1,000 times more asbestos than today’s workers are, thankfully now strict standards limit workers’ exposure. The ban of most asbestos has minimised the risks of exposure for construction workers but during renovations and rebuilds the risk still exists.
Employers must warn workers in advance if the site they are working on may contain asbestos materials. If the asbestos fibres stay enclosed or tightly bound in a product, health risks are dramatically reduced. But when these fibres are disturbed and released they can be deadly over time.
Asbestos poses health risks only when fibres are present in the air you breathe. How exposure to asbestos can affect you depends on the amount of asbestos fibres in the air, how long your exposure lasts, how often you were exposed, the size of the asbestos fibres inhaled, amount of time since your first exposure and the type of asbestos fibre inhaled.
Over time asbestos that you were previously exposed to may cause a terminal illness. When inhaled in significant quantities asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, lung cancer and cancer of the larynx.
Asbestosis is when scarring of the lungs occurs and makes breathing difficult. Mesothelioma, another common asbestos related disease is an otherwise rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity. Lung cancer, cancer of the larynx and ovarian cancer can also result over time.
Those workers who are smokers are particularly at risk if smoking is combined with asbestos inhalation because it contributes to lung cancer.