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Although asbestos had its heyday in America half a century ago, asbestos exposure remains a major health risk and financial liability for construction professionals. One study estimates that at least 1.3 million construction industry workers are still at risk for occupational asbestos exposure.

Up until the 1980s, U.S. manufacturers mixed asbestos into thousands of construction products. Asbestos is a unique mineral that can be worked into flexible fibers while still retaining its durability and heat resistance. Unfortunately, the fibrous nature of asbestos also makes it highly toxic.

This article provides an overview of what construction professionals need to know about asbestos, including:

  • potential long-term health consequences of asbestos exposure for workers and short-term financial consequences for employers;
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration asbestos regulations;
  • how to identify and safely remove asbestos-containing materials; and
  • what people should do if they have a history of asbestos exposure.

Consequences of Asbestos Exposure

In the long run, asbestos exposure can cause debilitating, incurable diseases such as lung fibrosis and cancer. It also creates an immediate business risk because failing to control asbestos exposure at a construction site can lead to legal costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Asbestos exposure is a subtle hazard. Microscopic asbestos fibers cannot be seen or smelled, and inhaling them causes no instantly noticeable symptoms. Workers can breathe in toxic asbestos dust without realizing it, inhaling asbestos regularly during their day-to-day work.

It takes decades for asbestos-related diseases to develop, which is why many people have been dismissive of the risks. But when a diagnosis finally comes, asbestos diseases advance quickly.

A progressive condition called asbestosis causes the lungs to scar until they can no longer expand to take in oxygen. Asbestos-related malignancies, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, are worse. These often spread throughout the body within months of the patient first noticing symptoms.

This is why employers can face harsh legal penalties if they do not protect workers from asbestos exposure. In 2018, for example, a real estate developer in Florida was sentenced to four years of probation and ordered to spend $250,000 to set up a treatment and monitoring program for 90 workers he had hired for a renovation project. The developer had directed them to remove asbestos-containing popcorn ceiling texture from hundreds of apartments without providing the training and safety equipment required by national standards.

Overview of Asbestos Regulations

OSHA’s “Asbestos Standard for the Construction Industry” defines the safety requirements for demolition, renovation and maintenance jobs involving asbestos-containing materials. This exhaustive resource explains:

  • how to assess and monitor asbestos exposure risks;
  • requirements for training employees and posting warning signs;
  • technological methods for controlling asbestos exposure levels;
  • what types of protective equipment to provide employees;
  • how to establish decontamination protocols;
  • how to properly clean up and dispose of asbestos waste; and
  • when to provide medical surveillance to employees.

There are different safety requirements depending on what types of asbestos-containing materials are involved in a project. Before starting an operation, construction managers should determine which sections of the OSHA Construction Standard they need to comply with.

Surveying a Building for Asbestos-Containing Materials

If a building was constructed before 1981, then workers should assume there is asbestos present. The OSHA Construction Standard defines four classes of asbestos work, with Class I requiring the most advanced safety procedures and equipment:

  • Class I Asbestos Work - removal of thermal insulation, acoustic materials, decorative plaster or sprayed-on fireproofing installed before 1981;
  • Class II Asbestos Work - removal of wallboard, flooring, roofing, siding or construction mastics installed before 1981;
  • Class III Asbestos Work - repair and maintenance work likely to disturb asbestos-containing materials; and
  • Class IV Asbestos Work - clean-up of asbestos-containing waste and contaminated areas.

American manufacturers once mixed asbestos into nearly every type of construction material, which is why the OSHA Construction Standard takes such a cautious stance. However, if laboratory analysis proves the materials involved in a project do not contain asbestos, then OSHA’s asbestos regulations do not apply.

Technology Required to Detect Asbestos

There is no chemical reaction that can easily reveal asbestos, so technicians must use special microscopes to detect asbestos fibers. Laboratory technicians can use phase contrast microscopy to measure the concentration of microscopic fibers in a material or an air sample. This technique is relatively inexpensive and useful for monitoring levels of asbestos contamination, but it cannot differentiate asbestos fibers from other fibers.

If phase contrast microscopy reveals the presence of microscopic fibers in an old material, construction professionals should assume they are asbestos fibers. To confirm whether or not the fibers in a sample are asbestos, technicians have to use more expensive techniques such as transmission electron microscopy.

Safety Guidelines for Working with Asbestos

If a project falls into one of the four classes of asbestos work defined by the OSHA, then construction managers must refer to the detailed requirements in the OSHA Construction Standard.

Best practices for preventing harmful levels of asbestos exposure include:

  • Secure the Work Area. Cover and seal off the work area with plastic sheets. Turn off the HVAC system. Run an air purifier with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
  • Provide Safety Equipment to Workers. Each worker should wear a half- or full-face mask respirator with a HEPA filter as well as disposable coveralls.
  • Control Asbestos Dust. Whenever possible, keep asbestos materials damp to stop toxic fibers from going airborne, and use solvents or heat to remove adhesives instead of scraping them. Any power tools used should have ventilation systems for trapping dust. 
  • Decontaminate Clothing and Tools. Wash tools and gear in a designated decontamination area. Prevent workers from bringing asbestos dust into their cars or homes.
  • Clean Up and Dispose of Asbestos Separately. Clean the work area with wet wipes, a mop or a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. Collect asbestos waste in clearly labeled and sealed plastic bags. Make an appointment to dispose of asbestos at a landfill that can accept it.
  • Check the Air Quality. Before removing plastic sheeting from the work area, test whether the air is safe to breathe. Stir up the air with a blower, collect a dust sample in an air filter and send the sample for analysis.
Recommendations for Workers Exposed to Asbestos

Often, when construction professionals learn about the dangers of asbestos exposure, they worry about past jobs they did where they may have inhaled asbestos.

This should not be a cause for panic. A person’s risk level depends on the amount of their lifetime exposure, and only a fraction of people who are exposed to asbestos go on to develop a related disease.

Workers who have a history of asbestos exposure can minimize their risk by avoiding additional exposure going forward. They should also talk to their doctor about it to ensure this risk factor is noted in their medical records.

If it has been many years since their asbestos exposure, they should ask their doctor if regular cancer screening is appropriate for them. Asbestos-related diseases are easier to treat when caught early.

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