How to Build Asbestos Awareness

May 4, 2000
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Most on-the-job hazards are obvious -- leaking machinery, dangerous chemicals, slippery floors. However, there are other hazards -- silent killers -- with practically no visible signals that they are present at all. One such hazard is asbestos. While you often can't see, taste or smell it, prolonged periods of exposure to asbestos can cause lung disease, cancer, and even death. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is convinced that many of the problems associated with asbestos exposure in the past have been due to lack of employees' knowledge about the proper methods needed to handle asbestos and asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). This is why the Standard requires that workers who don't work directly with asbestos, but who may have 'incidental exposure,' receive at least 'asbestos awareness' training. The agency published a ruling for the asbestos standard in August 1994 and made several revisions in June 1995. This regulation, 29 CFR 1910.1101, 'Occupational Exposure to Asbestos' requires that all employees who come in contact with materials that might contain asbestos be given appropriate training on working safely in these situations. Employees who work in 'maintenance and custodial activities' or who clean up waste and debris containing these types of materials, make up the largest group of workers who must have this training.Most on-the-job hazards are obvious -- leaking machinery, dangerous chemicals, slippery floors. However, there are other hazards -- silent killers -- with practically no visible signals that they are present at all. One such hazard is asbestos. While you often can't see, taste or smell it, prolonged periods of exposure to asbestos can cause lung disease, cancer, and even death. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is convinced that many of the problems associated with asbestos exposure in the past have been due to lack of employees' knowledge about the proper methods needed to handle asbestos and asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). This is why the Standard requires that workers who don't work directly with asbestos, but who may have 'incidental exposure,' receive at least 'asbestos awareness' training. The agency published a ruling for the asbestos standard in August 1994 and made several revisions in June 1995. This regulation, 29 CFR 1910.1101, 'Occupational Exposure to Asbestos' requires that all employees who come in contact with materials that might contain asbestos be given appropriate training on working safely in these situations. Employees who work in 'maintenance and custodial activities' or who clean up waste and debris containing these types of materials, make up the largest group of workers who must have this training.

How it harms

Simply put, asbestos is a mineral, which, because of its insulating and fire retardant characteristics, has been used mainly in building materials as insulation for pipes and walls or in fire proofing, and in brake linings in cars and trucks. It can break down into small fibers like 'strands' in a rope. These asbestos fibers are so small and light that they can float in the air, and when inhaled, be extremely hazardous to the lungs and other parts of the body.

So, why has asbestos been used so widely if it is so hazardous? It is only in recent years that the true dangers of asbestos have been recognized. For example, a disease, 'asbestosis,' is the result of damage to the delicate tissues inside the lungs. Asbestosis can cause shortness of breath, enlargement of the heart, and sometimes, death.

Protecting employees

Supervisors should tell their workers where asbestos is located in the workplace. This information must be recorded and made available to everyone in your facility. For instance, in buildings built before 1980, parts of the heating system (the boiler, utility pipes, and duct work) may have been covered with insulation that contains asbestos. There might be ceiling tiles or paneling that contain asbestos.

Materials such as sprayed-on fire-proofing which contain asbestos are referred to as 'friable.' This means that they are rough, brittle and can crumble easily. How many times have you walked by pipes or heating ducts and noticed a pile of debris below? That is a sure warning sign that friable asbestos material may be present.

At other times, however, the signs of asbestos aren't as obvious. Have you ever looked up at a ceiling tile and noticed a water stain? That stain could be a warning that the material has been weakened. And if the tile contains asbestos, fibers could be lurking, ready to disperse.

The most important rule in preventing exposure is: 'Do not disturb materials that may contain asbestos.' OSHA defines a 'disturbance' as any activity that 'crumbles, pulverizes, generates visible debris or otherwise disturbs an asbestos-containing material.' Vinyl and asphalt flooring installed before 1980 often contains asbestos. It should never be cut, ground, or sanded because it could release asbestos fibers. If floors need to be stripped, employees should use what's referred to as 'wet methods.' Wet methods dampen the materials so that fibers are less likely to become airborne.

Dust and debris that contain asbestos fibers must also be handled with extreme caution. OSHA says not to sweep or shovel these materials if they are 'dry,' but instead to use wet methods here as well. This type of debris shouldn't be cleaned up with an ordinary vacuum cleaner. Either only HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) vacuums should be used for this type of work. HEPA vacuums have filters that prevent the release of asbestos. Remember, you can't throw asbestos in the trash. Seal the asbestos in asbestos disposal bags and have it hauled to a licensed landfill.

This information should be documented in your facility's Asbestos Management Plan. The plan must show where employees can expect to find asbestos and ACMs, how they should deal with asbestos-related hazards should they encounter them, and what they should do if they must handle or work around asbestos.

There are many videotaped programs as well as interactive CD-ROM programs and other training tools out there that teach workers about asbestos awareness. Make sure your employees get the training they need before it's too late! Simply follow these steps:

  • Know where asbestos is present in your workplace. Inform and train your employees how to deal with it when they encounter it. For example, wear appropriate personal protective equipment, etc.

  • Inspect these areas regularly and be on the lookout for problems.

  • Don't disturb asbestos-containing materials unless absolutely necessary.

  • Take the steps necessary to prevent contamination when employees are working with asbestos.

  • Always have your employees 'decontaminate' after coming into contact with materials that may contain asbestos.

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