Working Safely with Asbestos

By Roy Maurer Mar 10, 2014

Asbestos—the generic name for a group of naturally occurring mineral fibers that were formerly used in building materials and other products because of their strength and ability to resist heat and corrosion-—is well-recognized as a health hazard and is highly regulated.

Some materials are presumed to contain asbestos if installed or made before 1980, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The following are examples of these materials as well as other presumed asbestos-containing materials:

  • Thermal system insulation.
  • Roofing and siding shingles.
  • Vinyl-floor tiles.
  • Plaster, cement, putties and caulk.
  • Ceiling tiles and spray-on coatings.
  • Industrial-pipe insulation.
  • Automobile brake linings and clutch pads.

Workers could be exposed to the hazard while manufacturing asbestos-containing products, performing brake or clutch repairs, renovating or demolishing buildings or ships, cleaning up from those activities, having contact with deteriorating asbestos-containing materials, or cleaning up after natural disasters. Heavy exposures tend to occur most in the construction industry and in ship repair, particularly when workers remove asbestos materials during renovation, repairs or demolition.

Breathing asbestos fibers can cause a buildup of scarlike tissue in the lungs and result in loss of lung function, which often leads to disability and even death. Asbestos also causes cancer of the lung and other diseases, including mesothelioma.

Standards and Requirements to Protect Workers

OSHA has regulations to protect workers from asbestos hazards, categorized by type of workplace:

  • General industry rules cover exposure during brake and clutch repair, maintenance work and the manufacture of asbestos-containing products.
  • The construction standard covers construction, alteration, repair, maintenance, or renovation and demolition of structures containing asbestos (except for work in shipyards, which is covered by the shipyard standard).

The regulations include requiring employers to do the following:

  • Ensure that no one is exposed above the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air as an eight-hour time-weighted average, or above an excursion limit (EL)—the maximum exposure that an individual may have in 30 minutes—of 1.0 asbestos fiber per cubic centimeter.
  • Assess workplaces covered by the standards to determine if asbestos is present and if the work will generate airborne fibers.
  • Monitor worksites to detect if asbestos exposure is at or above the PEL or EL. Under the construction and shipyard standards, assessment and monitoring must be done by a competent person, defined by OSHA as “one who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous or dangerous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.”
  • Use feasible engineering controls and work practices to keep exposure at or below permissible limits. When engineering controls and work practices cannot guarantee worker protection at the exposure limits, businesses must reduce the exposures to the lowest level achievable and then provide the proper respiratory protection to meet the PEL. The construction and shipyard standards contain control methods that depend on work classification, and the general industry standard has specific controls for brake and clutch repairs.
  • Communicate the hazard with warning signs in areas that have exposures above permissible limits. Employers must ban smoking, eating and drinking in these areas and provide proper protective equipment for workers to use to prevent exposure.
  • Provide separate decontamination and lunch areas to workers exposed above the PEL to avoid contamination.
  • Provide training based on workplace exposure and classification. All workers exposed at or above the PEL must be trained before starting work and yearly thereafter. Training must be conducted in a manner and language in which the workers will understand. Those who perform housekeeping operations in buildings with presumed asbestos-containing materials but not at the PEL must also take asbestos-awareness training.
  • Provide medical surveillance based on the industry. Employees who engage in certain classifications of work or who are exposed at or above the PEL in construction and shipyards must undergo medical surveillance. In general industry medical exams are required for workers who are exposed at or above the PEL.
  • Keep records on exposure monitoring for asbestos for at least 30 years and worker medical-surveillance records for the duration of employment plus 30 years. Training records must be kept for at least one year after the last date of employment.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy


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