Asbestos has received and continues to receive a significant amount of media attention, and as such awareness of its potentially fatal effects are now well known.
Asbestos was discovered 4,000 years ago and has been widely used for its strength and unique physical properties. In Australia, the proliferation of asbestos use in construction as well as other industries occurred between 1945 and 1980. There was increasing concern regarding the dangers of asbestos during the 1970s and consequently mining of asbestos ceased in 1983. The use of asbestos was phased out in 1989 and banned entirely in December 2003.
It became increasingly popular among manufacturers and builders during this time because of its sound absorption, tensile strength, resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage, and affordability. The versatility of asbestos had made it attractive in many industries and is thought to have more than 3,000 applications worldwide.
Australia was one of the highest users per capita in the world up until the mid-1980s. Approximately one third of all homes built in Australia contain asbestos products which can still be seen building wall and roof cladding.
Asbestos-containing materials can be categorised as friable and non-friable. Non-friable asbestos is the type most commonly found in the built environment and it is mixed with other materials such as cement.
Both friable and non-friable asbestos pose a significant health risk to all workers and others if the materials are not properly maintained or removed carefully. The risk of exposure from the built environment is broad, with the potential to impact the entire Australian community.
Despite an Australia-wide ban on asbestos being sold, reused and/or imported into the country after December 31, 2003, some has inadvertently been imported into Australia and such products are still found in many residential and commercial settings and continue to pose a health risk to workers and building occupants.
The main route of entry for asbestos is through inhalation. When inhaled, the respiratory system cannot effectively filter or clear out these fibres because of their small size. Once inhaled, these fibres begin to penetrate the lining of the lungs, resulting in various types of lung diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis, which is the scarring of the lungs.
The problem and associated risk with asbestos is so great that a National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Awareness and Management was developed in consultation with Commonwealth, State and Territory, local governments and a range of non-governmental stakeholders.
While the responsibility for the regulation of asbestos spans all levels of government, the Australian Government is responsible for the regulation of import and export laws as they apply to asbestos. Asbestos in the workplace is primarily regulated by state, territory and local governments and work, health and safety regulators in each state or territory.
While jurisdictions have taken steps to minimise exposure, predominantly in the workplace, this is the first time a national approach to asbestos eradication, handling and awareness is being pursued.
It is a high level document that establishes a framework within which jurisdictions work both cooperatively and independently to achieve set objectives. The plan aims to prevent exposure to asbestos fibres in order to eliminate asbestos-related disease in Australia.
State based Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations contain specific obligations for a number of duty holders in relation to safely removing asbestos, including requirements for asbestos removalists to be licensed.
The model Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations set out a framework for the management of asbestos materials in workplaces including:
- the training of all workers at risk of encountering asbestos during their work;
- naturally occurring asbestos;
- removal of asbestos; and
- the licensing and competency requirements for asbestos removalists and assessors.
The Model WHS Regulations also create a new license category for asbestos assessors. The role of the licensed asbestos assessor is to carry out air monitoring and clearance inspections following removal of friable asbestos.
Detailed Information on identifying asbestos and managing the risks of asbestos in the workplace can be found in the Safe Work Australia’s model Code of Practices: How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace. Also, each state and territory work health and safety regulator has detailed information on the requirements for working with asbestos under the WHS legislative framework.