What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a generic term for a mineral rock made out of naturally occurring mineral silicate fibres which belong to either the serpentine or amphibole mineral groups.
Asbestos has been used in a wide number of products due to its excellent thermal, acoustic and mechanical properties. Until the mid 1980s asbestos was used widely in Australia in such industries as:
- Building and construction (for strengthening cement and plastics and for insulation, fireproofing and sound absorption eg. Fibro sheeting and Villaboard)
- Milling and mining
- Shipbuilding (insulation of boilers and steampipes)
- Automotive industry (vehicle brakeshoes and clutch pads).
Why do employers/principal contractors have to worry about asbestos?
Asbestos is a carcinogenic substance. Health risks arise from the inhalation of asbestos fibres into the lungs. All types of asbestos can break into tiny fibres so small they can only be identified using a microscope. They are often so small that once they get into the air, they can be inhaled deep into the lungs, making it difficult for the body to remove.
The types of health problems associated with asbestos exposure include:
- Pleural plaque
- Asbestosis – this is not cancer but is a serious disease. It takes ten years or more after asbestos exposure to develop. It causes scarring of the lungs and may lead to disability or even death
- Lung cancer – This may not develop until decades or more after exposure, and is much more likely to develop in smokers and people with asbestosis
- Mesothelioma – This is a fairly rare cancer that is very strongly linked with asbestos exposure. It can take thirty or forty years after exposure to develop. The most common type starts in the pleura of the lungs.
Employers and principal contractors have an absolute duty to ensure the health and safety of workers and the public at their workplace. Protecting them from asbestos comes under this duty.
What laws are in place concerning asbestos?
A national ban on the importation, manufacture and use of all products containing chrysotile (white) asbestos came into effect on 31 December 2003.
The following is a brief explanation of uses of asbestos that are not covered by the ban.
Bona fide research including the display of chrysotile containing items in historical and museum displays.
Analysis includes laboratory testing of samples of asbestos fibres.
Removal or disposal of asbestos includes replacement of chrysotile ‘in situ’ (in place) with a non-chrysotile product.
‘In situ’ means that all raw materials or products already in place by 31st December 2003 can stay in place until they need to be replaced or are disturbed. In these situations the chrysotile asbestos does not constitute a significant risk to the safety and health of users until the chrysotile component is replaced or disturbed. Examples include:
- Linings in the brake shoes of in-service motor vehicles
- Existence of asbestos deposits in the ground;
- Presence of asbestos components in electrical meter boards; and
- Receptacles used for the storage of acetylene gas under pressure.