Despite well-documented dangers, there’s a sense of apathy across the property sector about asbestos, says CLARE COLLINS.
Once hailed as a ‘miracle’ material for its heat and water resistant qualities, asbestos has also been responsible for causing the deaths of thousands of Australians. Having long been woven into the very fabric of our society, integrated into homes and workplaces, today, asbestos often remains concealed in products and locations most people wouldn’t expect and, if disturbed, can have deadly consequences.
Although a total ban came into force at the end of 2003, asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) remain in one-third of Australian homes and can lurk unseen in many commercial and non-residential properties built or refurbished prior to 2004.
But, importantly for facility managers, thousands of ACMs remain in commercial properties, posing an ever-present danger if fibres are released during maintenance, refurbishment, removal or demolition. If inhaled, the fibres can lead to life-threatening asbestos-related diseases including lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma.
While it will be many years before all ACMs can be removed and disposed of safely, as long as asbestos remains among us in our homes, properties and workplaces, increasing awareness, improving education and providing useful information on how to manage asbestos safely are the only means we have of preventing exposure to asbestos-related diseases, and reducing deaths from them.
Laws and guidelines throughout Australia define effective management, control, removal and disposal of ACMs to minimise fibre exposure. And while there may be slight variations in regulations across the states, the important principles governing asbestos management remain consistent, existing for a single purpose – to save lives.
However, we’re still seeing a sense of apathy across the commercial and non- residential property sector, with some saying it’s because they find the regulations vague or too complex and opt instead to ignore the issue. This is something that facility managers, smaller contractors, property owners and tradespeople who lack knowledge of asbestos and asbestos management regulations should be on guard against.
John Batty, managing consultant in Occupational Hygiene and Hazardous Materials for risk management consultancy Prensa, says risks remain high. “There are still many occasions where uncontrolled work in the commercial and non-residential property sector is being undertaken on ACMs that have not been identified prior to the works commencing,” he says.
“This is often due to a lack of understanding by property owners, facility managers and contractors about the need to identify ‘all’ ACMs prior to work on the materials (e.g. refurbishment). Relying on asbestos registers that are non-intrusive in nature, or have not included the specific locations where the works will be undertaken, is a recipe for exposure.
“There are multiple barriers currently preventing compliance when it comes to effective asbestos management, particularly for facility managers who often have control and management of properties.”
As a general rule, facility managers are responsible for managing maintenance, including engaging tradies and contractors to work on commercial and non-residential properties. However, many are unfamiliar with the specifics of the legislation, often finding the regulations complex and challenging to implement.
“Referring to multiple, cumbersome regulatory documents and searching for information across multiple websites just to gain a fundamental understanding of responsibilities and legal requirements can be confusing and time consuming,” Batty says.
“One of the primary barriers to compliance has been an overall lack of knowledge of asbestos and the regulations required to manage it safely. And although awareness of asbestos and the mandatory requirements has improved across the board, we’re still seeing the ‘she’ll be right mate’ attitude. Too many contractors continue to ignore warnings because the risk of death from asbestos exposure isn’t as immediate as it is for other high-risk licensed work such as working with electricity.
“The cost associated with asbestos management can also be a barrier. While facility managers won’t hesitate to engage a licensed electrician to do essential electrical work, they forget that asbestos can be as big a risk, and may baulk at engaging the expertise needed to identify and manage asbestos in line with regulations.
“While few understand the purpose and application of Asbestos Management Plans, the primary issue we see is the lack of Asbestos Registers or the appropriate management of a register that documents all confirmed or suspected ACMs in any commercial and non- residential property built or refurbished prior to 2004,” adds Batty.
“Although Asbestos Registers are mandatory and must be current and accessible to anyone working on a property, including contractors, tradies or maintenance workers, all too often they’re ‘missing in action’ because they either haven’t been developed or were lost over time. Existing registers are also often inaccurate and not kept up-to-date, meaning those working on a site can unknowingly disturb materials that could contain asbestos, putting their health and the health of others at risk.
“Asbestos is not a thing of the past. It’s very much an ever-present hazard and facility managers should make it their business to take advantage of the Asbestos Management Handbook for Commercial and Non-residential Properties. They’ll find it a valuable tool to help improve their knowledge of asbestos and increase compliance across the sector.”
The topic of asbestos has been causing quite a stir lately, with President Trump’s endorsement of asbestos materials in the US. Asbestos and all products containing asbestos are banned in Australia, and FM supports this standpoint.
Clare Collins is the managing director of Insight Communications and the director of the Asbestos Aware campaign.
This article also appears in the April/May issue of Facility Management magazine.
Image: 123Rf’s Chris Pole © 123RF.com