Breathing easy, part two
Exposure to asbestos is an ongoing concern, but there are some younger members of the industry who have no idea what to look out for or just how widespread the problem is.
“Asbestos is a major hazard for electricians,” Essential Energy environmental specialist Robert Walker says.
“The problem is that the latency period of disease stemming from asbestos is about 20 years; something you inhale today isn’t going to give you a disease for two decades.
“You never see someone get knocked over by asbestos, or electrocuted, so some guys don’t understand why they need the respirators. That’s a big problem for young blokes – they don’t know what’s coming down the track.”
Of course, the most well known health hazard surround the inhalation of asbestos is mesothelioma – a cancer that mostly affects the lining of the lungs and develops between 20 and 50 years after inhaling asbestos fibres. There is no cure and the average survival time after diagnosis is 10-12 months.
Inhaling asbestos fibres may also cause other diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis and benign pleural disease.
Since 2003, approximately 600 Australians have been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma each year and experts have estimated that there were at least another 1,350 Australians with lung cancer caused by asbestos.
It is estimated that these figures will continue to rise in the coming decades.
It’s a scary truth that asbestos could be anywhere: under floor coverings such as carpets, linoleum and vinyl tiles, behind wall and floor tiles, in cement floors, internal and external walls, ceilings and ceiling space (insulation), eaves, garages, roofs, around hot water pipes, fences, extensions to homes, garages, outdoor toilets, backyard and farm sheds, chook sheds and even dog kennels.
Asbestos products can also be found buried beneath and around homes leftover from the original construction when it was common practice for builders and labourers to bury broken asbestos materials on building sites which can now be exposed when digging, gardening or redeveloping land.
In many coastal regions, ‘weekenders’ were often built from fibro (bonded asbestos cement sheeting) as low-cost holiday homes. In rural settings many buildings were constructed from fibro as a cost-effective means of housing farm equipment and stock. It was also widely used to construct ‘sleep-out’ additions to farmhouses and workers accommodation.
This means electricians need to be on high alert while working in older buildings.
“There are so many domestic switchboards mounted to asbestos sheeting that dealing with it is an almost daily occurrence for a lot of guys,” Robert says.
“This, of course, depends on the type of work you do – heavy industrial premises, for example, are typically upgraded far more regularly than domestic premises, so it may not be as common. But, for domestic guys, you’ve not only got to deal with switchboards but conduit and ACM sheeting on internal walls as well.”
Asbestos building materials are described as either ‘friable’ or ‘non-friable’.
Friable asbestos is any material containing asbestos and is in the form of a powder or can be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to powder by hand pressure when dry.
Friable asbestos was mainly used in industrial applications.
Non-Friable asbestos is any material (other than friable asbestos) that contains asbestos. Non- friable asbestos cannot be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to a powder by hand pressure when dry.
Common uses for non-friable asbestos in buildings include: flat (fibro), corrugated or compressed asbestos cement sheets; water, drainage and flue pipes; and floor tiles.
Products made from bonded asbestos cement include electrical switchboards.
So, what do you do when you come face to face with asbestos? And how do you know that is in fact asbestos you’re dealing with?
“Safe Work Australia has developed a range of quite useful tips for tradespeople working around asbestos – and how to identify it,” Robert says.
“With switchboards, if they have a black, tar-like appearance and smell then they probably include asbestos. On the back of the board there’s quite often a stencil that says either Lebah, Zelemite, Miscolite or Ausbestos. Some aren’t marked, but if you pinch it and smell your fingers, you can smell a very strong bitumen smell. That’s a real indicator that you’re working on an old board that features asbestos.”
To remove it, Robert explains that you can do so with some very common tools.
“If you accidentally drill into asbestos and need to clean up a small amount of dust, a wet paper towel or rag should be adequate,” he says.
“The important part is that if you break or drill into asbestos sheeting, you have to seal it. This can be done by painting it, or using a solution of Aquadhere and water.
“If you need to remove sheeting, though, you need to wear a respirator and disposable overalls, and you need to use a non-powered hand drill.
“There’s been a lot of work done with industry, unions and Safe Work Australia to get the Safe Work Method Statement right.”
All electricians should have a bag in their van that has ‘asbestos’ written on it, for large quantities, Robert says.
“You can dispose of up to 10m² of non-friable asbestos without a licence. You can take it to the local asbestos-licensed landfill and they’ll bury it for you. For larger quantities you need to use a licensed removalist.
“However, you can’t put asbestos that has been taken out of service back into service. So, you can mount a new load control centre into an existing asbestos switchboard – that’s ok, but you can’t replace that switchboard and then use the old switchboard as a sub-board on the customer’s sheet.
“You also can’t reuse the sheet, say, from a bathroom to patch up a bit that is missing in a different room.”
Independent contractors and electricians are strongly recommended to undertake a training course on how to properly deal with asbestos. NECA Victoria, for example, offers an online course that takes about 90 minutes to complete. NECA NSW offers a face-to-face course that looks at the theoretical and practical components of drilling and handling asbestos material.
Have a look at www.trainingdiary.com.au for a list on upcoming dates in your state.
“Safety around asbestos is of utmost importance,” Robert says.
“If you have any doubts about its presence, it’s sometimes best just to assume that it’s there.”