How to Protect Yourself from Asbestos

Though asbestos is now banned in Ireland, the toxic mineral remains in many buildings constructed before the 1980s. Be sure you and your employer take the proper steps to minimise your risk of asbestos exposure.

Occupational asbestos exposure is the leading cause of mesothelioma and other life-threatening asbestos-related diseases. The prognosis for mesothelioma is particularly unfavourable, so preventing the initial exposure to asbestos is the best course of action. Government regulations require employers to provide training and protection to workers who may come into contact with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). Certain equipment and methods can reduce the risk of exposure during light work on ACMs, but major work on ACMs must be left to specially trained professionals.

Importance of Asbestos Safety Training

The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act of 2005 require every business to give its employees adequate information about potential asbestos exposure and instruction in how to keep themselves safe. The amount of training required depends on each worker’s risk level — for example, a worker who will intentionally disturb ACMs as part of their job must receive more in-depth training than others.

The Health and Safety Authority’s “Practical Guidelines on ACM Management and Abatement” is freely available to read or download online.

Avoid, Remove or Encapsulate: Options for Dealing with Asbestos Materials

There are three ways to minimize the risk of asbestos exposure from an ACM in your workplace:

  1. Avoid: If the material is durable, such as an asbestos-containing cement wall panel, then it should not release any dangerous asbestos dust as long as it is left alone. Keep people away from the material as much as possible, and make sure the material is not cut, sanded or drilled into.
  2. Remove: A friable material is any solid weak enough to be damaged by hand pressure. A friable asbestos material, such as crumbling old pipe insulation, can release large amounts of toxic asbestos dust into the air. The removal of friable ACMs must be left to certified asbestos abatement professionals.
  3. Encapsulate: In some cases, a friable ACM can be made safe by coating it with a special compound that will prevent any asbestos fibres from escaping into the air. However, this is not always a good long-term solution. As with removal, asbestos encapsulation must be carried out by a professional abatement service.

Protective Equipment and Safe Practices for Light Work on Asbestos Materials

Major work that may disturb asbestos is subject to strict regulations, but the Health and Safety Authority also recognizes some jobs involve only occasional low-risk work on or around ACMs, and hiring an asbestos abatement service would be impractical in these situations. “Low-risk work” refers to brief maintenance activities on nonfriable, undamaged ACMs. A task involving an ACM can only be deemed low-risk by carrying out a written risk assessment — see the Health and Safety Authority’s guidelines for their full criteria.

When low-risk work on an ACM cannot be avoided, the following practices can reduce the risk of occupational asbestos exposure:

  • Do not use power tools on ACMs because power tools increase the amount of dust in the air. Cover the surfaces around the workspace with plastic sheeting to collect all the asbestos-containing dust and debris.
  • Wear a respirator with a particulate filter. A simple dust mask does not offer enough protection from microscopic asbestos fibres.
  • Wear disposable coveralls or launder your clothes at work to avoid bringing asbestos dust home with you.
  • Do not use a regular vacuum cleaner or a broom to clean asbestos-containing debris because this will scatter more dust into the air.
  • Keep ACMs damp and clean the work area with wet wipes to prevent asbestos dust from getting into the air. You can also use an H-type vacuum cleaner, which is designed to trap toxic dust
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