Asbestos In The Workplace

Asbestos disease in Ireland is expected to rise in the near future, despite increased efforts to combat the toxic mineral.

Beware of the continued dangers.

Asbestos fibres are the primary cause of malignant mesothelioma, the rare and aggressive cancer with no definitive cure. They also can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and a variety of respiratory illnesses.Ireland’s National Cancer Registry reports that 30-35 deaths annually were attributed to mesothelioma in the past decade and predicts as many as 70 deaths in 2020. Almost twice that many lung cancer cases will be attributed to asbestos, according to one expert.

Occupational exposure remains the No. 1 cause. Workers should remain vigilant to the threat. Although asbestos was banned nationally in 2000 as part of European Union regulations, it remains very much a part of the Irish culture today. Asbestos was used extensively throughout the country from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, valued for its ability to resist heat, insulate and strengthen most anything with which it was mixed. It was used in thousands of products, including cement sheets, floor tiles, stucco, furnaces, pipe insulation, caulking, wall coverings, roofing materials and appliances.

Any commercial or residential structure built before the mid-’80s is likely to contain asbestos products, which become more dangerous and release microscopic fibres into the air as they age. Anyone involved in a renovation, remodelling or demolition of an older structure is particularly at risk today. Even though asbestos has not been used much in new construction for almost 30 years, it remains a threat to many in the workforce.

It’s still a problem,” said Darren Arkins, senior inspector at Ireland’s Health and Safety Authority. “There is this misperception here that asbestos has gone away, but that’s just not the case.” The continued rise in asbestos disease, in part, can be related to the lengthy latency period (20-50 years) between first exposure and diagnosis of mesothelioma cancer. The problem begins when asbestos fibres are inhaled or ingested. They become trapped in the thin membrane surrounding the lungs or abdomen, cause inflammation and eventually scarring, which later can lead to cancer.

Jobs with the biggest risk include:

  • Shipyard workers. Anyone involved in the demolition, construction or repair of a vessel should be cautious. Asbestos was once used extensively in this industry to prevent overheating.
  • Firefighters. Fires can damage asbestos products quickly, sending fibres into the air and mixing with the smoke that covers a firefighter doing his job.
  • Industrial workers. Machine operators, chemical workers, trade labourers and industrial insulators encounter asbestos products continuously.
  • Construction workers. Roofers are at particular risk today because of all the roofing products that still contain asbestos. Cement workers, plumbers and electricians working in older buildings should be aware.
  • Power plant workers. Asbestos once was invaluable for its heat resistance at power plants. Products like fireproofing spray and pipe insulation are still common in these jobs. Cutting old asbestos pipes can be dangerous without the proper protective gear.

Precautions are being taken. Everyone in the building industry is required to take Safe Pass training, where general construction dust, and asbestos, in particular, is discussed. The classes have helped younger workers, who never worked with asbestos in new construction, become more aware.

By law, when a certain level of asbestos is found in a structure that is about to be renovated, the Health and Safety Authority must be notified. The notifications have doubled since 2010. “There’s a big push to have a healthier workplace today,” Arkins said. “We’re always trying to get the word out. But we still have ways to go.”