HPAC Magazine

Be Aware Of Potential Risks

Just how much of a threat is asbestos to mechanical contractors?

October 1, 2014   By MICHAEL GLASCO

Asbestos – the word itself may bring to mind debilitating diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. It does not seem right that a naturally occurring mineral can do such harm. Well, it does…and it does not.

It does cause these diseases if workers are overexposed to airborne fibres released from asbestos-containing materials over long periods of time.

It does not cause these diseases if asbestos-containing materials are properly managed in-place, kept in good condition, or if workers are adequately protected.

In the past, asbestos was added to a variety of building materials to strengthen them, provide insulation, or to improve fire resistance. Materials that are known or found to contain asbestos are called ACMs – asbestos containing materials. In most products, asbestos is combined with a binding material so that it is not readily released into the air unless physically disturbed or damaged. These materials would be called non-friable. Other ACMs have the potential to more readily release fibres because they are fluffy or fibrous – these are called friable ACMs.

If asbestos becomes airborne and is inhaled, it can remain in the lungs for a long period of time, producing the risk for severe health problems that do not appear until many years later. Asbestos can cause asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs that leads to breathing problems and heart failure. Workers who manufactured or used asbestos products and have high exposures to asbestos were often affected with asbestosis. Inhalation of asbestos can also cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the chest and abdomen lining.

The regulation of asbestos in Canadian workplaces falls under the jurisdiction of the each individual provincial workplace safety authority. Their requirements are quite similar though. (see below)

How can these occupational health and safety requirements affect the heating, plumbing and air conditioning community? Imagine a project where you are working in an older building (1990 or earlier). You would be acting in the best interests of your employer, yourself and building management if you requested the updated asbestos inventory for the building prior to your planned work on site.

If they have an inventory you should review it and see if your planned work will impact any ACMs. If your work will impact ACMs, or if you will need to work in close proximity to an ACM, asbestos mitigation efforts may be required. If your work will not impact ACMs, then it may proceed without any special mitigation efforts but you should always keep in mind the materials that contain asbestos in the building.

If they do not have an inventory and your work could impact potential ACMs, it is actually your obligation to not proceed with your work until those potential ACMs are accessed. Having to deal with an asbestos issue after it is discovered during a project only adds significant project delays and potential penalties. Imagine coming across a suspect material that has been damaged and one of the trades becomes concerned that the material contained asbestos. Testing confirms that it does contain asbestos… now there is a worker (or workers) exposed to asbestos and the regulators are knocking on the door.

It is important to understand that just because a building is old and contains asbestos does not mean that all the asbestos must be removed. Through implementation of an effective asbestos management program that meets the requirements of the local occupational health and safety regulation, a group of trades can work in the vicinity of asbestos-containing materials without concern.

For the heating, plumbing and air conditioning community, it is advisable that awareness training be provided so that these groups know what building materials can contain asbestos, what a proper asbestos inventory looks like and what a proper risk assessment is. This information would provide them the tools to work safely in buildings where asbestos may be present.

As with any health and safety program element, documentation is the key. Documenting your review of an asbestos inventory is as important as is documenting your team’s discussions about the ACMs on that particular site.

If the asbestos issues are taken care of properly from the beginning, then the worker, employer, building manager and regulator are happy. <>

Michael Glassco, ROHT is president of Sterling IAQ Consultants Ltd. in Vancouver, BC. He can be reached at michael@sterlingiaqconsultants.com. 

Summary of Workplace Safety Requirements

• An inventory of all asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) should be current.

• ACMs should be identified by labels, signs, or other effective means.

• A risk assessment needs to be conducted by a qualified person on all ACMs in the inventory.

• Friable ACMs are controlled.

• Proper procedures are in place for work with or in the vicinity of ACMs.

• Worker exposures to airborne ACMs are assessed.

• All workers at risk of exposure to asbestos receive adequate training. 

Asbestos Containing Materials

Some of the more common ACMs include, but are not limited to:

•Structural sprayed-on fireproofing •Mechanical insulation (e.g. on pipes and boilers)

• Duct insulation • Acoustical and decorative spray • Drywall joint compound

• Ceiling tiles • Cement board • Transite pipes • Paper products

• Roofing felts • Adhesives • Roofing asphalt

• Floor tiles and vinyl sheet flooring • Gaskets • Cement pipes

• Caulking puttiesb• Plasterb• Duct Sealants • Vermiculite

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