Asbestos: Still the invisible, silent assassin

New Zealand’s number one workplace killer has a frightening track record, is grossly misunderstood, and is even invisible to the naked eye.

Asbestos, a naturally occurring, fibrous, silicate-based mineral is the killer in question with people dying each year from asbestos-related diseases.

New Zealand’s asbestos history predates the second world war, however the history of and the use of the ‘Miracle mineral’ dates back thousands of years.

In Ancient Egypt, asbestos based cloth was used to embalm bodies and keep them from deteriorating.

In Ancient Rome, it was sewn into garments, tablecloths and napkins which could be cleaned by passing them through a roaring fire, from which they came out unharmed and essentially whiter than when they went in.

Some sources claim the word asbestos actually originated from the ancient Greek term ‘Sasbestos’, meaning unquenchable or inextinguishable.

The Greeks and Romans, while making the most of asbestos and its miracle properties, also documented its harmful effects on miners and makers working with the mineral, proving the knowledge and danger associated with asbestos has been known for ages.

Despite the thousand-year-old warning signs, asbestos is still widely used in the modern world in over 6,000 different building materials, and it wasn’t until 2016 that the importation of asbestos was banned in New Zealand.

The asbestos ban was phased in alongside the new Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations 2016 and places the onus on Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) to implement and maintain appropriate controls on asbestos in the workplace. This includes the requirement for Asbestos Management Plans (AMPs) and greater competency requirements on the asbestos removal industry.

The extent of a PCBU’s duty to manage asbestos-related health and safety risks depends on their ability to influence and control the matter. This means the more power the PCBU has over an asbestos health and safety risk, the more responsibility they are likely to have regarding asbestos control in the workplace.

Renovations, refurbishments and demolition

The risk of exposure to asbestos will depend on the kind of work to be carried out. Any work that will cause the release of asbestos fibres from a material will present a health and safety risk from the inhalation of the fibres. For example, drilling, sanding, cutting, or even slight disturbance of an asbestos containing material can be harmful.

The Health and Safety at Work (Asbestos) Regulations 2016 requires that a PCBU with management or control of the workplace, or of the structure or plant, to identify asbestos or asbestos-containing material before any demolition or refurbishment work on a structure or plant is carried out at a workplace if:

· it was constructed or installed before 1 January, 2000

· asbestos has been identified, or

· asbestos is likely to be present

Intertek asbestos services

Contracting an asbestos surveyor is recommended so as to properly assess the property and carry out the appropriate asbestos survey. Intertek Asbestos Surveyors are trained to assist with the preparation of the required AMP.

“At Intertek we follow the guidance in Section 9 of the WorkSafe approved code of practice on management and removal of asbestos.

“All of our asbestos surveyors are expertly trained and have the qualifications, knowledge, experience and ability to identify or assume the presence of asbestos.”

They are trained to take and handle asbestos samples safely and have the knowledge and experience to identify suspected asbestos and work out the risk and control measures.

They are familiar with building and construction practices and can figure out where asbestos is likely to be present, meaning they are able to confirm that material may be friable or non-friable asbestos, and evaluate its condition.

Often the people who play a pivotal role in designing a structure (eg, architects or engineers) won’t know what materials were used during construction. While the original building specifications may not have included the use of asbestos or ACM, builders and sub-contractors may have subsequently used them throughout the years as the building was renovated or repaired.

Asbestos management plans

Having an asbestos management plan (AMP) is essential. WorkSafe New Zealand says: “A PCBU must have an AMP in place for a structure where asbestos is found or is likely to be found at a workplace.”

The workplace PCBU will make a copy of the AMP readily accessible to workers and their representatives, and ensure a copy of the plan is always available on site.

The workplace AMP is under constant review by the PCBU and if necessary is subject to change if necessary under the regulations.

Representatives for workers on site may also request a review of an AMP if they have grounds under the regulations.

Having an AMP will ensure that a PCBU can manage risks in situations where people at the property – such as unit owners, tenants, workers, or visitors – could be exposed to respirable asbestos fibres (fibres able to be breathed in).