During the course of their daily activities, workers in heavy industries such as mining and construction may be exposed to asbestos hazards.
September 26 is Mesothelioma Awareness Day and it provides an opportunity to talk about the dangers and how it impacts these industries to create long-term health impacts.
Both populations are at risk of developing asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma because of their potential high exposure. While the use of asbestos has been banned since 2003 in Australia, it can still be found in existing structures, machinery, products, and is always a hazard in mines.
In this article, we discuss asbestos and where it can be found, the symptoms of mesothelioma, which is rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, and the safety measures you can use to reduce the exposure risk.
What is Asbestos and Where is it Found?
Asbestos is dangerous at any level of exposure, even in trace amounts. It is a naturally occurring carcinogenic mineral that can be found in mines all around the world. While the mineral is no longer actively mined, talc, coal, or vermiculite mines may contain traces of asbestos.
It is also found in building materials and during excavation processes where particles can be present in the soil and become airborne dust as it is excavated.
In the past, it was used in Australia in more than 3,000 different products including fibro, flue pipes, drains, roofs, gutters, brakes, clutches and gaskets.
Asbestos-contaminated soil comprises non-attached pieces of asbestos cement products and other material containing asbestos, uncovered in the soil during other work activities.
Asbestos can also be found in materials made before 1980 such as:
- Mining machinery
- Ceiling and floor tiles
- HVAC materials
- Cement roofing or shingles.
What is Mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is rare cancer whose sole cause is exposure to asbestos.
This cancer is caused when the fibres are breathed in and embed themselves in the lining of the lungs. They can cause the lungs to become inflamed and scarred, which in turn leads to mesothelioma tumours forming.
The tumours lead to mesothelioma symptoms that can appear anywhere from 10-50 years after exposure. As such, diagnosing mesothelioma can be a challenge because of its long latency period. Once symptoms arise, the next step to properly diagnose the disease is to have a biopsy.
If you are diagnosed with mesothelioma, there are three primary treatment options for mesothelioma; surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Many doctors advise a multimodal approach. While there isn’t a cure, treatment can greatly improve life expectancy.
How Can You Reduce the Risk of Exposure?
A total ban on asbestos came into effect in Australia on 31 December 2003. It is illegal to make it, use it or import it from another country.
Workers must not handle asbestos unless they have been trained and hold a licence that is current and appropriate for the type of work being done.
Safe Work Australia has developed a Code of Practice, HOW TO MANAGE AND CONTROL ASBESTOS IN THE WORKPLACE.
There are three areas that you should focus on to reduce the risk of exposure of your employees to asbestos.
- You must wear the appropriate personal protective equipment based on the level of contamination, and have in place decontamination procedures for workers and equipment to prevent workers from bringing asbestos home on their hair, clothes or skin.
- Train your employees on the dangers of asbestos is a critical step in their understanding of the risks.
- When undertaking mining or excavation work, if the material or soil is suspected of containing asbestos, cease work immediately. A competent person should take samples of the material for analysis to confirm or refute that assumption.
See the Asbestos Health Monitoring Guides.
What Should You Consider When Identifying Asbestos?
There are a number of factors that may be taken into account to identify or assume that asbestos is present in your workplace. Some of the questions you should ask include:
- When was the building constructed? Before 31 December 2003?
- Were there any refurbishments or additions to the building before 31 December 2003?
- What type of material was used to construct the building?
You should also:
- Talk to designers, manufacturers or suppliers of plant, or refer to design plans
- Talk to workers who have worked at the workplace for a long time
- Visually inspect the workplace to identify asbestos, asbestos-contaminated material (ACM), and inaccessible areas
- Take notes and photographs.
If the presence of asbestos is confirmed, control measures must be implemented to minimise the release of airborne asbestos. You must prepare an asbestos management plan for the site setting out the boundaries of the contamination as determined by an independent licensed assessor or competent person.
Isolate and secure the removal work site using signs and barriers. Ensure that there is minimal disturbance of the contaminated soil until the management procedures have been implemented. Use dust suppression techniques such as water and wetting agents, to control any dust, and sample and monitor the air.
Exposure to asbestos or asbestos-contaminated material creates long-term health risks that can result in asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Often, symptoms occur 10-50 years after exposure.
Workplaces should follow the Code of Practice to safeguard workers from exposure. Wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment, training about the dangers and what to look out for and ceasing work immediately if the materials or soli are suspected of containing asbestos. Only a competent and licensed asbestos assessor can determine and set the appropriate safe boundaries and remove the asbestos for safe disposal.
Let’s remind our workers on September 26, Mesothelioma Awareness Day, about the dangers and how asbestos impacts their industries to create long-term health impacts.