Waste is an unavoidable component of construction, yet many professionals in the field are still neglectful of hazardous waste materials. The risks of asbestos in particular have been known for decades, and the Asbestos Education Committee, an arm of Advocacy Australia, wants the entire industry to be aware of its dangers.
By Alice Collins, Director, Advocacy Australia.
Despite asbestos being banned in Australian commercial and non-residential properties since the 1980’s, asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) continued to be used in multiple locations in the non-residential built environment until the end of 2003. With a wide range of ‘legacy’ ACMs remaining in a significant number of properties, it’s not only a legal obligation for people to manage and dispose of asbestos safely; it may well save their lives.
Clare Collins, Chair of the Asbestos Education Committee (AEC), Director of the annual National Asbestos Awareness Month Campaign and of asbestosawareness.com.au says currently around 4,000 Australians die annually from preventable asbestos-related diseases. These include mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis and are a result of exposure to asbestos fibres in past decades.
“The AEC was founded to help prevent today’s workers from becoming tomorrow’s deadly statistics by increasing awareness of the dangers of asbestos and providing a wide range of practical resources,” says Collins.
“Developed in association with industry experts and government regulators, all AEC resources are free to download from asbestosawareness.com.au.”
Asbestos can be located anywhere in commercial and non-residential properties built prior to 2004 – including in the more well-known locations such as walls, ceilings, roofs and vinyl floor coverings. But it can also be found in less obvious locations such as soils, electrical switchboards, service risers, fire protection and mortar products, bitumen-based water proofing, adhesives, sealants, heaters and boiler gaskets, fire doors, lift shafts and plant rooms. Asbestos could be anywhere.
When asked about the issues associated with asbestos in non-residential properties, Phillip Smith, a member of the AEC and Group Executive for Environment, Health, Safety and Quality at SHAPE Australia, says complacency and a lack of knowledge are among the major factors resulting in mismanagement and illegal dumping of ACMs.
“Although work health and safety (WHS) legislation and Codes of Practice are in force nationally to protect workers and anyone nearby from exposure to dangerous asbestos fibres; in the commercial and non-residential space, improper handling, non-compliant removal, illegal disposal and dumping of ACMs is alarmingly common – due to people either not knowing or not understanding their obligations,” says Smith. “There are also those who deliberately breach regulations trying to minimise costs.”
However, Smith says poor and illegal asbestos management can come at a hefty price. “Breaching regulations not only puts people’s lives at risk, but it can also lead to work disruptions, project delays, budget blowouts and even the closure of commercial and non-residential properties,” Smith adds. “Significantly, breaches can also lead to legal liabilities and financial penalties with building owners, employers and contractors facing fines, legal action and damage to their reputations and businesses as a result.”
“Adherence to regulations including the WHS Act and asbestos Codes of Practice is absolutely critical.”
Among the dangers associated with poor asbestos management are increased occupational health and safety risks for building occupants and workers, such as electricians, plumbers, and other contractors who may unknowingly disturb asbestos while carrying out their work.
“Implementing strict asbestos management policies and procedures is the starting point of a process that includes developing an Asbestos Management Plan (AMP) and an Asbestos Register which must be updated at least every five years,” says Smith. “Engaging an occupational hygienist or a licenced asbestos assessor or removalist will help identify various ACMs and assist in developing a mandatory Asbestos Register.”
“The Register must record ACMs that have been identified or are assumed while the person responsible for the site must ensure the Asbestos Register is maintained, reviewed and revised as required.
“This includes whenever additional ACM locations are identified, when asbestos is removed, disturbed, sealed, enclosed or labelled, and importantly, the Register must be stored on site and be accessible to contractors, workers and their health and safety representatives.”
Smith says it’s also important to note that while some Australian state legislation allows certain types and quantities of ACMs to be legally handled, managed and removed by tradies and/or property owners – such as bonded asbestos – he strongly advises against it. This is because the risks of exposure are significantly higher when the work is not carried out by licenced professionals.
When asbestos is disturbed, its microscopic fibres become airborne and can be inhaled or settle on clothing and equipment. These fibres can easily be spread throughout properties and transferred to family homes. These can pose significant health risks to anyone who comes into contact with them, including children. Smith says the only way to ensure the safety of workers and families is to engage licenced professionals.
Bret Baker of the AEC is President of the Asbestos and Hazmat Removal Contractors Association of NSW (AHRCA) and the Managing Director of Beasy. When it comes to the most common breaches of asbestos regulations in commercial and non-residential properties, Baker says there’s a range of significant issues that must be addressed to effectively manage the asbestos hazard and prevent deaths caused by inhaling asbestos fibres.
“Often Asbestos Registers are not updated after asbestos is removed, and many Registers are not always accessible to tradespersons who need to enter the site when the person responsible is unavailable,” says Baker. “To address the issue, we encourage state and local governments nation-wide to adopt a policy of making all Asbestos Registers readily available digitally via a QR code located in the site’s power box or via a website.”
“This would be a simple and highly effective method of giving access to all those who enter the site such as trade workers.
“Significantly, it would also be available to emergency services attending the site including firefighters.”
While providing access to digital registers can be easily solved, the 10-square-metre rule is the primary issue that can impact the health of property owners, managers and visitors. In some states where it’s permitted to remove up to 10-square-metres of bonded asbestos; some are doing small amounts of asbestos removal work themselves rather than engaging a licenced contractor.
While some may have Asbestos Awareness training, they’re often not licenced asbestos removalists armed with the right knowledge, skills or equipment (such as an H Class vacuum) to remove asbestos safely in accordance with regulations. Abolishing the 10 square-metre rule as has been done in the ACT will go a long way towards preventing avoidable exposure to asbestos fibres due to mismanagement.
Baker says illegal removal and dumping also poses severe risks to anyone who comes into contact with ACMs. “To enable tracking of all asbestos removal and ensure it’s disposed of according to regulations, we’d like to see a more coordinated approach between state regulators and waste disposal facilities,” he says.
“This can be done through an integrated system incorporating SafeWork/WorkSafe’s compulsory notification of asbestos removal and Environmental Protection Authority systems that record transportation and disposal of asbestos waste.
“This combined system would enable effective regulation of all licenced asbestos removal and disposal to minimise its illegal dumping.”
Clare Collins says the AEC will continue to increase awareness of the dangers of asbestos and develop vital resources which are freely available from the Asbestos Awareness website as long as asbestos remains in the built environment, to help save lives. The website, asbestosawareness.com.au, was launched in 2011 and provides an extensive source of asbestos information and resources available to homeowners, renovators, tradies and owners and managers of commercial and non-residential properties. By visiting the website, property managers can download the free Asbestos Management Handbook for Commercial and Non-residential Properties and user-friendly templates to develop an Asbestos Management Plan, Asbestos Register and model Asbestos Policies for managers, contractors and builders to ensure they manage asbestos safely in line with regulations.
Additional information on best practice for asbestos management can be sourced from:
Asbestos and Hazmat Removal Contractors Association of NSW (AHRCA). www.ahrcansw.arcansw.asn.au
SHAPE Minimum Standards for Asbestos Management.
SHAPE is also available from mobile device app stores – search for SHAPE Minimum Standards to download the free app.
The Asbestos Education Committee is the Asbestos Awareness arm of the registered charity, Advocacy Australia.
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