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Protecting Contractors and Workers from Asbestos Exposure

asbestos exposureWhenever contractors are hired to perform a job, their managers and the operations and maintenance, or O&M, managers of the property owners at a job site have to make sure that safety is a priority. Depending on the task at hand, this can mean several things: reviewing structural blueprints, going over the layout of the electrical wiring, using power tools cautiously and so on.

If a building was constructed before the 1980s, odds are that asbestos exposure will also be an issue. However, there are several federal policies that contractors must follow to protect their employees and other workers from coming into contact with this hazardous material.

What products put workers at risk?
In the U.S., asbestos use was more rampant during the 20th century, when it was added to construction materials in order to make them stronger, fireproof and friction-resistant. However, a growing number of responsible companies acknowledged that scientific evidence linked asbestos exposure to deadly diseases such as malignant mesothelioma.

While this led to a decrease in the use of asbestos, the federal government has yet to ban the material altogether. Furthermore, buildings that have been constructed before the 1980s are still likely to contain products tainted by asbestos. Typically, the health of individuals is not at risk as long as these products are in good condition. However, demolition or renovation work can disturb these materials and release asbestos fibers into the air, making them more likely to be inhaled.

Contractors and their workers should know that the list of products containing asbestos includes, but is not limited to:

  • Roofing felt
  • Roof coatings
  • Non-roofing coatings
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Pipeline wrap
  • Cement shingles
  • Cement corrugated sheets
  • Cement flat sheets
  • Gaskets

If a job site has any asbestos-containing materials, workers need to avoid activities such as sawing, sanding or drilling. Additionally, they have to keep items adequately wet, use only power tools that are equipped with special local ventilation attachments, use mini-enclosures and isolate affected areas.

What other measures are in place to protect employees?
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has several policies to help protect workers from asbestos. The agency lists permissible asbestos exposure limits at 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter of air averaged over eight hours, or 1 fiber per cubic centimeter averaged over 30 minutes. If contractors know that their workers will be exposed to asbestos concentrations higher than these, they must provide employees with protective clothing and other equipment.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency also lists several work practices that contractors and their employees must use as needed, based on the likelihood that asbestos will be disturbed. These include consulting an asbestos project manager, modification of the HVAC system, the need to contain a work area, respiratory protection, protective clothing, wetting methods and use of a HEPA vacuum.

O&M managers usually have to file paperwork control/permit paperwork in case any on-site jobs can disturb asbestos, as listed by the EPA. This paperwork also extends to jobs carried out by contractors, and has several considerations for proof of workers’ notification of the presence of asbestos, documentation of respiratory protection, notification to tenants and visitors of any abatement activity, provision for inspections and other factors.

Experts from the Environmental Working Group estimate that asbestos-related diseases – malignant mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and others – claim more than 9,900 lives in the U.S. every year. That figure isn’t expected to peak for another 10 years or so. One of most frustrating aspects of these illnesses is that they don’t show any noticeable symptoms until they are well into their advanced stages. For these reasons, it’s important for contractors to comply with government policies that can protect their workers from asbestos exposure.

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