Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral composed of soft and flexible fibers that are resistant to heat, electricity and corrosion. Because of this, it served a wide variety of industrial and manufacturing uses, including insulation and thousands of other products. In buildings, it is used for insulation, fireproofing, and soundproofing, as well as in roofs, ceiling tiles, and paint.
Unfortunately, the same properties that make asbestos a highly desirable construction and manufacturing material also make it toxic to humans. Although asbestos is banned in more than sixty countries, the U.S. is not currently one of them. In fact, the import of asbestos into the U.S. increased in 2018.
The government implemented some asbestos regulations in the 1970s. The issue, however, is that asbestos was so widely used that identifying, removing and replacing it has become an almost herculean task.
The Health Risks of Asbestos
Asbestos is the number one cause of work-related deaths around the world. Asbestos-related diseases kill more than 39,000 Americans every year. Those workers most at risk include people working in construction and manufacturing. Since asbestos was still widely used when the World Trade Center’s North Tower was built, it’s collapse in the 2011 terrorist attacks resulted in mass amounts of asbestos being released into the air. Thousands of first responders and those responsible for site cleanup were exposed and are at risk for developing asbestos-related diseases.
Numerous chronic and fatal diseases, including cancer, are linked to asbestos exposure. The majority of these diseases occur when asbestos is disturbed, and workers inhale tiny particles which then embed in the lungs. These diseases can result in impairment and permanent damage. The three most prevalent and damaging conditions resulting from asbestos exposure are:
Asbestosis – Inhalation of asbestos fibers over a long period of time cause this chronic lung disease. This exposure results in scarring of lung tissue and shortness of breath. Symptoms range from mild to severe, and it is rarely detected until many years after exposure. Most cases of asbestosis occurred before the regulatory changes in the 1970s.
Cancer – Asbestos is a known carcinogen and can cause lung, larynx, and ovarian cancer. Half of all occupational cancer deaths worldwide are attributed to asbestos, according to the World Health Organization.
Mesothelioma – Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, which is an extremely aggressive form of cancer that occurs in the linings of the lungs, abdomen or heart. Symptoms can include chest pain, shortness of breath and general fatigue, and it is almost always fatal.
Protecting Your Workers
Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have regulatory responsibility for the protection of workers exposed to asbestos. The EPA’s role in worker protection from asbestos lies in extending OSHA standards to state and local employees not covered by OSHA Asbestos Standards.
Both of these agencies have established standards and rules that must be followed by employers.
OSHA maintains three separate standards that cover General Industry, Shipyards and Construction. These standards set out specific protections that employers in these industries must have in place for their workers. These standards include:
Permissible Exposure Limits (PEL)
As an employer, you must ensure that no one at your workplace is exposed to asbestos above a specified limit, known as the permissible exposure limit. That limit is 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air as an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA), with an excursion limit (EL) of 1.0 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter over a 30-minute period. An excursion limit is the maximum exposure an individual may have to a particular chemical – in this case, asbestos – over a short period.
Employers covered by these standards must conduct an assessment of their workplaces to determine if asbestos is present and if the work that takes place is likely to generate airborne fibers. The specific methods of assessment vary for each of the three separate standards.
The expectations under these standards do not end with assessment. Workers must be continually monitored to detect any change in acceptable PEL or EL limits. The frequency of this monitoring depends on which of the three standards applies.
Practices and PPE
If exposure is above PEL or EL limits, employers must provide protections through changes to engineering controls or work practices. You must also reduce exposures to the lowest level possible and then offer respiratory personal protective equipment (PPE) to meet PEL limits.
Communication and Signage
You must post warning signs with specific language in areas that exposure levels above PEL or EL limits.
Decontamination and Break Rooms
No smoking, eating, or drinking can occur in areas that have asbestos limits above PEL or EL. You must provide separate decontamination and break rooms for rest breaks that are equipped with appropriate hygiene practices.
The training you provide to workers depends on the levels of asbestos in your workplace and on the work that is performed. Training is mandatory for all workers exposed at or above PEL. This training must be provided when the work begins and every year after that. Ensure your training is easy to understand and delivered in a language your workers are comfortable with. Custodial workers in buildings with asbestos at any level must also receive asbestos awareness education.
Medical testing, including chest x-rays and pulmonary function tests must be provided to employees exposed to asbestos in conjunction with additional testing and surveillance. All examinations and procedures must be conducted by or under the supervision of a licensed physician at no cost to the employee.
As an employer, you must also keep your asbestos level monitoring records for at least 30 years and employee medical surveillance records for the duration of employment and then another 30 years. Training records are maintained for one year after the employee’s last day with the company.