Hazards in the Workplace
Fact Sheet: Asbestos - The Fatal Fibre
Large numbers of Australian workers are still being diagnosed with asbestos related
illnesses, many years after they were exposed. Many of these workers will die.
While the use of any form of asbestos is being phased out in Victoria, it is still
present in many workplaces and buildings built before the mid 1980's.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a silicate mineral, mined from the earth in much the same way as any other
mineral. The wide use of asbestos over thousands of years is due to its resistance to heat and
Types Of Asbestos:
WHITE ASBESTOS (Chrysotile)
Its fibres are curly and difficult to separate. They are white to grey in colour.
BROWN ASBESTOS (Amosite)
It is type of asbestos found most often in sprayed insulation materials.
BLUE ASBESTOS (Crocidolite)
Use of this material has been either banned or restricted. It will still be encountered in
maintenance and removal work. Its fibres are straight and coloured dark blue.
In Australia, asbestos has been in commercial use since 1920. Asbestos currently used in
manufacturing is CHRYSOTILE (White asbestos). Australia imports 1500 to 2000 tonnes per
year of Chrysotile. However, State and Federal Governments have recently agreed that the
importation and use of asbestos is to be banned in 2003. There will be some exemptions to
this, the conditions of which are currently being worked through.
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However, significant quantities of both CHRYSOTILE and CROCIDOLITE (blue asbestos) remain
in installations and exposure can still occur.
What are the health effects of asbestos exposure?
Asbestos is known to be very toxic, especially following prolonged exposure. The ill health
effects of exposure to asbestos arise from breathing in, and retention of, very small fibres
The finest asbestos fibres, with a diameter of less than 8 millionths of a metre, penetrate deep
into the lungs of exposed workers and are never removed. The longest of the fibres defy the
body’s normal defence and clearance mechanisms. Over time, the diseases caused by asbestos
Progressive scarring (fibrosis) of the lung, leading to pain, breathlessness, and, eventually
death. The first symptoms can appear 15 to 20 years after exposure. There is no known
Tumours of the bronchial tubes and lungs, occurring up to 25 to 30 years after first
exposure, and normally fatal. The risk increases greatly in workers who smoke. The ICFTU
estimate that at least one case of lung cancer in 10 is caused by exposure to asbestos.
Is a cancer of the lining of the chest (pleura) or of the abdomen (peritoneum). This tumour
thickens the lining and may eventually totally enclose the lung. Painful and invariably fatal.
Of the larynx, stomach, large intestine and possibly of ovary, breast, kidney and bone
These cancers and, in particular mesothelioma, have been produced in humans and in animals
BY ALL FORMS OF ASBESTOS. Therefore they should all be regarded as being equally
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hazardous. The scientific literature reports that mesotheliomas develop on average 27 years
after exposure, even when that exposure has been minimal.
Other indications of asbestos exposure are:
pleural plaques - patches of thickening of the lining of the chest wall and over the
pleural effusion - collection of fluid within the chest but outside the lung.
What has Asbestos been used for and where is it found?
Most asbestos went into buildings or ships as pipe and boiler lagging, fire insulations panels and
asbestos cement sheets. There are hundreds of other asbestos products and processes,
Insulation – sprayed onto structures; fire blankets, gloves, pads; string, tape, paper;
Friction Materials – clutches; disc brake pads; brake linings;
Reinforced Products – asbestos cement slabs, sheeting, pipes; floor tiles; composite
board; roofing felt; underseals, paints; gaskets, washers, valve-packing.
Asbestos is likely to be in a building if:
It was built or refurbished between 1950 and 1980 in particular;
It is also has a steel frame; and/or
It has boilers with thermal insulation.
OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY (ASBESTOS) REGULATIONS 1992
The Regulations impose responsibilities and duties on employers, occupiers, self-employed
people, designers, manufacturers, importers, suppliers and employees. New, updated,
Regulations are due in February 2003. It is also expected that a number of Codes of Practice
will be developed to provide further guidance on activities such as asbestos removal.
The Regulations ban the use of amosite, crocidolite and other forms of asbestos (other than
chrysotile) in all work processes.
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The Regulations cover in situ asbestos, demolition and refurbishment, and asbestos processes.
In these Regulations where an obligation is placed on more than one person, each person must
meet the obligation to the extent to which they are capable.
The Exposure Standard
The Exposure Standard sets out the time weighted average fibre concentration in the air
breathed by a worker calculated over an eight hour working shift.
For removal of asbestos from any building, structure or ship, the exposure standard is 0.1
fibre/millilitre of air when measured in the breathing zone over a minimum period of 4 hours in
accordance with the Membrane Filter Method*.
For all other activities, the exposure standard when measured in the breathing zone over a
minimum period of fours hours in accordance with the Membrane filter Method is:
1. for all forms of asbestos other than chrysotile, 0.1 fibre/millilitre air; and
2. for chrysotile, 0.5 fibres/millilitre of air; and
3. for any mixture of the forms of asbestos specified in (i) and (ii) above or where the
composition is unknown, 0.1 fibre/millilitre of air.
It is anticipated that revised Asbestos Regulations will set the same exposure level for all forms
of asbestos - 0.1 f/ml of air.
refer to National Occupational Health and Safety Commission Asbestos Code of Practice and
Guidance Note, 1988.
EMPLOYERS are required to identify, assess and control both in situ asbestos and asbestos in
asbestos processes. This involves requirements in the design or workplaces and plant, labelling,
notifying WorkCover in certain circumstances, controlling the exposure, providing training and
consulting with employees and health and safety reps.
OCCUPIERS also have requirements to identify, assess and control asbestos, in design and to
DESIGNERS, MANUFACTURERS, IMPORTERS AND SUPPLIERS have design and labelling
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EMPLOYEES have certain duties with regard to the wearing of required personal protective
There are a number of PROHIBITIONS specified in the Regulations:
spraying of asbestos;
production of asbestos textiles;
use of compressed air and certain cleaning methods;
use of amosite, crocidolite, actinolite, anthophyllite or tremolite in work processes (only
white asbestos or chrysotile is allowed to be used);
improper removal of protective clothing from the workplace;
smoking in an area where any asbestos process is being carried out;
removal of asbestos affixed to any building, structure or ship by person(s) other than by
approved removalists. (see the VTHC list of Approved Removalists on this site)
APPROVALS the Regulations allow for approvals of analysts, removalists, medical
(for details on the above, go to Summary of the Asbestos Regulations on this site)
VTHC POLICY AND RECOMMENDATIONS ON ASBESTOS
A strategy to prevent work related injury and illness must be aimed at modifying the workplace
- controlling the hazard at source - rather than modifying, screening or excluding workers from
The VTHC position on the exposure standard is that an interim standard for maximum allowable
concentration of 0.1 fibres/ml be set for all forms of asbestos, pending elimination of all uses of
asbestos and progressive elimination of all asbestos insulation in buildings. (This is not
recognised by the VTHC as a ‘safe’ level, because all forms of asbestos cause cancer and there
can be no ‘safe’ level of exposure.)
INDUSTRIES WHERE ASBESTOS IS USED OR HANDLED
Phasing out the use of asbestos by product substitution is the only acceptable method of
control. (Asbestos used in insulation can be replaced by use of other mineral or synthetic
fibres, while asbestos used in building materials can be replaced by use of wood fibre
cement. Note that hazards of substitutes need to be investigated prior to their introduction.)
Asbestos is still used in the manufacture of brakes, clutches and gaskets.
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While substitution is pending:
1. Detect and monitor levels by sampling the air with an asbestos filter device;
2. Reduce airborne concentrations by:
a) enclosure (placing a physical barrier between workers and the asbestos fibres);
b) local exhaust ventilation (efficient, vacuum induced, as close to source as possible);
c) modify tooling (use of manual saws to cut asbestos cement sheets; use of high pressure
water streams to cut asbestos materials);
d) environmental monitoring to check effectiveness of above methods;
3. Provide personal protective equipment and introduce administrative measures:
a) full body suit;
b) airline fed helmets/cartridge masks;
c) half shifts while wearing gear;
d) 15 minutes rest break every hour;
e) medical monitoring to check effectiveness of above methods.
4. Maintain a register of all personnel exposed to asbestos.
The health and safety representatives to be fully involved at every stage
AREAS (BUILDINGS OR STRUCTURES) WHERE WORKERS ARE IN CONTACT WITH
OR NEAR IN SITU ASBESTOS PRODUCTS
1. Keep the workforce informed
Workers are often very concerned if asbestos is found where they work, or if they think they
are working with or near asbestos. Safety reps can:
Give them the facts about asbestos;
Tell them whether management plans for dealing with the issue are adequate;
Provide an opportunity for workers to express/register their concerns – by holding
meetings and conducting opinion surveys;
Inspect the workplace regularly; and
Encourage workers to report to management and safety reps if asbestos is found to
have been disturbed (or if they think it has).
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2. Risk management Action Plan
Safety reps should urge management to:
Undertake a survey by suitably qualified occupational hygienists should be undertaken to
discover where asbestos has been used; where it is likely to crumble or be disturbed; what
state the asbestos is in and where fibres are likely to be breathed in by workers. (It is not
desirable to rely exclusively on measurement of airborne concentrations, as these are
normally low, and their measurement takes the focus away from the essential point, which
is the PRESENCE of asbestos and its LIKELIHOOD OF EMITTING AIRBORNE FIBRES.) This
information should go into a workplace Asbestos register, and all areas labelled
Implement a program for the control of any asbestos identified which will involve
(depending on the results of the survey):
1. Leaving the asbestos intact (but labelled) if it is in good condition and unlikely to be
disturbed and unable to feed fibres into workers’ breathing zones;
2. Encapsulating or deep sealing the asbestos, if it is in good condition and unlikely to be
3. Safe removal of the asbestos by approved removalists (use the VTHC list), if its surface is
damaged or crumbling, or it is likely to be disturbed, e.g. by maintenance work.
If the asbestos is left intact or sealed, there should be regular reviews of the state of the
surface. It should also be labelled for future identification purposes.
If exposure has been serious, regular medical checks should be arranged for all exposed
The employer should formally acknowledge in writing that workers have been exposed to
asbestos in case diseases develop later and compensation claims are to be made. As rep,
ensure that “Asbestos Exposure Letters” are completed for all exposed workers. There are
three Standard Asbestos Exposure Letters which can be downloaded:
1. Letter for exposures to in situ asbestos
2. Letter for exposures to asbestos materials during removal operations
3. Letter for exposures to asbestos materials which were required to be handled
as part of the job
Make sure that copies of the signed letter are given to your union.
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Where asbestos has been discovered or disturbed, safety reps should:
Be involved by management in the process of dealing with it;
Monitor how management are following their plan;
Ensure that contractors are on the VTHC List of Approved Removalists, comply with the
law and with the management plan;
Keep the workforce informed of progress.
Safety reps should also:
Contact the workers involved in the removal or maintenance, or their safety reps;
Take up with management any concerns raised by the workforce or contractors;
Inform management/inspectors/the union if there are breaches of the law or the
management action plan.
4. Returning to work
When asbestos has been dealt with, safety reps should:
Be consulted before a site is declared fit for re-occupation (including joint oversight of
Inform and reassure the workforce that the problem has been dealt with;
Ensure that “Asbestos Exposure” letters (attached below) have been completed for
everyone who may have been exposed; and
Ensure health monitoring and counselling for people who want it (see below).
Action Plan for Health and Safety Representatives:
Keep the workforce informed at all times.
Make sure management identify asbestos, develop an action plan to deal with it and
stick to that plan.
Assume that walls, ceilings and lagging contain asbestos unless certain they don’t.
Insist that all work with asbestos complies with the Occupational Health And Safety
(Asbestos) Regulations 1992 (nb: these Regulations are due to will be updated and
replaced in February 2003. Make sure you check this site for updates.)
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Make sure that any OHS Committee meeting minutes record all matters relating to
asbestos issues, and that these records are kept in a safe area for future reference.
What should you do if you have already worked with or been exposed to asbestos?
Make sure your employer, your doctor and your union have a record of your asbestos
exposure, and if you get any of the asbestos diseases, contact your union for assistance in
seeking compensation. There are three different letters available:
1. Letter for exposures to in situ asbestos
2. Letter for exposures to asbestos materials during removal operations
3. Letter for exposures to asbestos materials which were required to be handled as part
of the job
Asbestos diseases usually take many years to appear, so medical checks straight after
exposure may detect nothing. Such checks will not cure asbestos diseases – they just help
to identify some of them earlier. However, some workers may benefit from stopping further
work with asbestos if disease is detected, and some ill-health can be helped by early
detection. Regular medical check-ups must be according to the National Occupational Health
and Safety Commission’s “Guidelines for Health Surveillance”. You must tell your doctor how
you have been exposed to asbestos dust, where and for how long.
If you smoke, try to stop or cut down. Your risk of lung cancer begins to drop the day you
Asbestos: Code of Practice and Guidance Note (National Occupational Health and Safety
Summary of the Asbestos Regulations
Occupational Health And Safety (Asbestos) Regulations 1992 (Victoria)For full text of
Victorian legislation, click here.
“Asbestos Kills” – a publication from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union
Other union publications
o Asbestos in the home - some advice to householders on what to do if they suspect they
have asbestos products in their homes.
o Premises licensed to accept waste asbestos as it is illegal to dispose of asbestos unless
the premises are licensed
o List of VTHC Approved Licensed Asbestos Removalists
This Fact Sheet is courtesy of The Workers Health Centre
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