3 Ways to Minimize Asbestos Exposure at Work
What was once a popular building material is now well-known for being carcinogenic and the subject of class-action lawsuit commercials. Asbestos was frequently used in cement, plastic, insulation, roofing, vehicle brakes and shipyard buildings before being phased out in the 1970s and 80s.
Asbestos is not fully banned. Many commercial, industrial and residential buildings still contain asbestos to this day. The EPA does prohibit the manufacturing of multiple asbestos products but some items like brake pads are still in production.
Workplaces like construction and the maritime industry, which were at high risk for asbestos exposure prior to the EPA’s regulations, still pose a danger to workers. Many buildings built before protections were in place could still contain asbestos.
While a majority of people who come into contact with asbestos or inhale traces of it never develop cancer, research shows that all forms of asbestos can potentially cause a form of cancer called mesothelioma. It is also linked to lung cancer, making it even more crucial for tobacco smokers to avoid asbestos exposure.
Asbestos is out there, Environmental Hazards Services (EHS) can test hundreds of thousands of samples each year to help identify it in samples taken from bulk materials, air, vermiculite and soil.
Here are three things you can do to try and limit exposure:
1. Ensure Your Workplace Has Proper Ventilation
The dust from asbestos insulation can build up in areas without adequate ventilation. This means in places like ships or ship building facilities people are at-risk of inhaling increased levels of asbestos dust.
The engineering of the HVAC system in areas like this are crucial in order to filter out contaminants and prevent the air from becoming stagnant.
Another engineering control suggested by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is to isolate the source of the asbestos. You can design your HVAC system with separate exhaust ducts for contaminated areas. It’s up to building owners and management to ensure that if there is a known area with asbestos, then the air, dust and materials should not be able to travel to other sections of the building.
2. Use PPE and Good Hygiene
There are two main types of personal protective equipment that the EPA recommends for workers dealing with asbestos. The first is protective clothing that workers do not take home with them.
These protective layers could be items such as coveralls, a head cover, gloves or synthetic fabric foot covers.
The other kind of recommended PPE is respiratory protection. The EPA says workplaces should have respirators available for instances of unlikely contact. In instances where there is possible accidental disturbance or disturbance is likely, employers should have all employees wearing respiratory protection.
According to the EPA respirators need to have either:
- “A half or full facepiece, negative pressure, air-purifying respirator with replaceable high-efficiency filters.
- A half or full facepiece powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) with replaceable high-efficiency filters. This has a battery powered pump which assists breathing and provides positive pressure in the facepiece.”
Workers should also take care to shower and wash their hands thoroughly when they believe they’ve been exposed to asbestos. This will help prevent dust traveling from place to place and also keep them from transferring it into their mouths.
3. Limit Time Spent in Exposed Areas
One key method to keeping workers from developing health issues due to asbestos exposure is to prevent contact with the material as much as possible. OSHA warns that people can develop cancer linked to asbestos after just a few days of exposure.
Employers are tasked with ensuring their employees do not spend time in the presence of asbestos unprotected. If there are known areas where workers could be exposed, they should have restricted access.
There is no established safe level of asbestos for anyone and just because time is limited, it does not mean the exposure isn’t risking your employees’ health. That is why time limits and tracking employee exposure should be combined with the two other prevention methods.
Think of your prevention measures as slices of Swiss cheese. Each tactic has holes or shortcomings that can lead to dangerous exposure. However, when you layer multiple methods at a time, you can cover the holes left by individual mitigation strategies.
Test Before It’s Too Late
In order to keep yourself and your employees safe from asbestos in the workplace, you need to identify if it is present.
EHS can test your bulk materials, air samples and soil samples for asbestos. Our labs provide four kinds of testing:
- Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM) to distinguish asbestos from non-asbestos fibers in bulk materials
- Phase Contrast Microscopy (PCM) to measure fiber concentrations of air samples
- Soil and Sediment to find asbestos using qualitative and EPA methods
- Vermiculite to find but not quantify amphibole asbestos
Learn more about our asbestos testing services and take the first step towards protecting your workplace. You could potentially save yourself millions down the road in worker’s compensation claims by taking precautions to protect your employees from carcinogen exposure in the workplace.