Asbestos was once used in Australia in more than 3,000 different products including fibro, flue pipes, drains, roofs, gutters, brakes, clutches and gaskets.
Asbestos becomes a health risk when its fibres are released into the air and breathed in. Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
- The risk of contracting these diseases increases with the number of fibres inhaled.
- The risk of lung cancer from inhaling asbestos fibres is greater if you smoke.
- Those who get health problems from inhaling asbestos have usually been exposed to high levels of asbestos for a long time. Symptoms don’t usually appear until 20 to 30 years after initial exposure.
A total ban on asbestos came into effect in Australia on 31 December 2003. It is illegal to make it, use it or import it from another country.
Workers must not handle asbestos unless they have been trained and hold a licence that is current and appropriate for the type of work being done.
Asbestos: a definition
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral and can typically be found in rock, sediment or soil. It has strong fibres that are heat resistant and have good insulating properties.
- You can’t see asbestos fibres with the naked eye and because they are very light, they can be blown long distances by the wind.
Because of its properties, which are described as being either ‘non-friable or ‘friable’, asbestos was seen as being very useful for building products.
- Friable asbestos is a material containing asbestos that when dry, is in powder form or may be crushed or pulverised into powder form using your hand. This material poses a higher risk of exposing people to airborne asbestos fibres. Friable asbestos was commonly used in industrial applications rather than the home, although loose-fill asbestos has been found in homes in NSW and the ACT, where it was sold as ceiling and wall insulation.
- Non-friable or bonded asbestos products are solid and you can’t crumble them in your hand—the asbestos has been mixed with a bonding compound such as cement. If non-friable asbestos is damaged or degraded it may become friable and will then pose a higher risk of fibre release.
November is an important time to raise awareness of how to work safely with asbestos and know your responsibilities under the law.
If you manage, or are in control of, a workplace, you have a responsibility to protect anyone that works with asbestos.
Use this checklist:
- You must have an asbestos register
- You must have asbestos management plan
- You must control asbestos in your workplace
- You must hold the right training and licensing
- You must monitor your workers’ health
We’ve also developed the following resources to help you work around asbestos safely:
- Infographic: Asbestos related claims 2010-11 to 2014-15
- Asbestos basics for duty holders video
- Personal protective equipment for airborne contaminants
- Managing chemical hazards using the hierarchy of controls
Managing the risks associated with asbestos
Managing the risks associated with asbestos involves:
- identifying asbestos and asbestos containing material at the workplace and recording this in an asbestos register
- assessing the risk of exposure to airborne asbestos
- eliminating or minimising the risks associated with asbestos by implementing control measures
- reviewing control measures to make sure they are effective.
If you manage or control a workplace, it’s your responsibility to ensure an asbestos register is prepared, maintained and kept at the workplace.
- An asbestos register is a document that lists all identified—or assumed—asbestos in a workplace.
The asbestos register must:
- record any asbestos that has been identified or is assumed to be present at the workplace
- record the date when the asbestos was identified
- record the location, type and condition of the asbestos
- be maintained to ensure up-to-date information
- be given to the employer or business (or other PCBU) when there is a change of management or controller of the workplace.
An asbestos register may also contain information such as:
- details about asbestos that is assumed to be present at the workplace
- analysis results confirming whether asbestos is at the workplace
- details of inaccessible areas.
Where possible asbestos must be labelled. For example, a label can be placed in the electrical meter box indicating that the building contains asbestos and the location of the register.
Photographs or drawings are useful for showing the location of asbestos in the workplace.
An asbestos register is not required for a workplace if:
- it was a building constructed after 31 December 2003
- no asbestos has been identified in the workplace
- no asbestos is likely to be present at the workplace from time-to-time.
A person who has management or control of the workplace must ensure that an asbestos management plan is prepared if asbestos has been identified.
The asbestos management plan must:
- Identify the location of asbestos and any naturally occurring asbestos.
- Include decisions—and reasons for them—about the management of asbestos at the workplace, for example safe work procedures and control measures.
- Outline procedures for incidents and emergencies involving asbestos, including who is responsible for what.
- Be maintained with up-to-date information.
- Be reviewed at least every five years or when requested by a health and safety representative, or when asbestos is removed, disturbed, sealed or enclosed, or when changes to a control measure are made or when the plan is no longer adequate.
- Be accessible to any worker or the PCBU who has carried out or intends to carry out work at the workplace and any health and safety representatives who represent workers at the workplace.
- Provide information, consultation and training responsibilities to workers carrying out work involving asbestos.
Other information that could be included in the asbestos management plan includes:
- An outline of how asbestos risks will be controlled, including consideration of appropriate control measures.
- A timetable for managing risks of exposure, including dates and procedures for the review of the asbestos management plan and activities that could affect the timing of a review.
- Identify those with responsibilities and their responsibility under the asbestos management plan.
- Air monitoring procedures at the workplace, if required.
When choosing the most appropriate control measure, you should consider:
- Eliminating the risk, for example removing the asbestos.
- Substituting or isolating the risk or applying engineering controls, for example enclosing, encapsulating, sealing or using certain tools, using administrative controls, for example safe work practices.
- Using PPE.
What not to do
When you’re working with or near asbestos you must not use high-pressure water sprays or compressed air, brooms or anything else that might release asbestos into the air. You also need to control the use of power tools.
Unless you’re removing less than 10 square metres of non-friable asbestos, you must be licensed to remove asbestos. If you are removing less than 10 square metres of non-friable asbestos it is still recommended that you engage a licensed removalist and undertake asbestos awareness training.
Under the model WHS Regulations, two licences have been established: Class A and Class B.
- Businesses with a Class A licence are permitted to remove all types of asbestos, including both friable and non-friable forms.
- Businesses with a Class B licence can only remove non-friable asbestos.
Anyone who removes asbestos is required to be appropriately trained and to hold the relevant licence.
- The Commonwealth, state and territory WHS regulators administer licences for asbestos removal within their jurisdictions.
Transitional arrangements for existing licence holders are being established in jurisdictions that have implemented the model WHS Regulations and you should speak to your local regulator for details.
Businesses must provide and pay for health monitoring for all those working with, or exposed to, asbestos.
- Before removing asbestos, you must arrange and pay for health monitoring by a medical practitioner for all asbestos removal workers or workers who may be exposed to asbestos during the removal process.
The monitoring should identify any changes in a person's health because of exposure to asbestos.
- All health records must be kept for 40 years and the worker must receive a copy of the report. You will need to notify the regulator of any changes to a worker’s health.
Work health and safety duties
The model WHS Regulations set out a framework for managing asbestos materials in workplaces and cover:
- training all workers who might come into contact with asbestos
- naturally occurring asbestos
- removing asbestos
- licensing and competency requirements for asbestos removalists and assessors.
Model Code of Practice
The model Code of Practice: How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace has information on identifying asbestos, creating an asbestos register and managing the risks of asbestos in the workplace.
Managing importation of asbestos into Australia
Despite being a prohibited import in Australia, goods containing asbestos are still being located at the Australian border and in Australian workplaces.
A fact sheet on managing the importation of goods and materials containing asbestos is available and covers:
- How the importation of asbestos is regulated at the Australian border and the products at particular risk of containing asbestos.
- What businesses importing material must do to ensure the imported products do not contain asbestos.
- What verifications exist for Australian importers or consumers to show those imported materials do not contain asbestos.
Prohibited asbestos at a workplace
The model WHS Act has been amended to ensure WHS regulators have appropriate powers to deal with asbestos fixed or installed in a workplace after the prohibition on asbestos came into effect on 31 December 2003. This asbestos is referred to as ‘prohibited asbestos’.
If the WHS regulator reasonably believes that prohibited asbestos is present in a workplace, they must issue a prohibited asbestos notice.
These changes ensure greater certainty in the regulation of prohibited asbestos by ensuring WHS regulators issue a notice in relation to prohibited asbestos, even if the asbestos is discovered long after any work involving it has been completed. Existing provisions for improvement notices and prohibition notices already cover many cases where prohibited asbestos is identified. However, there was some uncertainty that the conditions for those notices meant some cases could only be addressed through a prosecution. These changes fulfil the intention that a notice be issued in all cases where prohibited asbestos is identified, to ensure the risks it poses are promptly addressed.
As this new form of notice is simply addressing uncertainty about a possible unintended gap in existing powers to regulate prohibited asbestos under the model WHS laws, a public consultation process was not undertaken. Consultation was undertaken with Commonwealth, state and territory governments, employer and worker representatives, through Safe Work Australia’s usual processes.
The regulator will determine who the relevant person is to receive the notice, recognising that there may be various people with responsibility for prohibited asbestos at a workplace because of different workplace arrangements and the complexity of modern supply chains. For example, the person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) at the workplace at the time the prohibited asbestos is discovered may not have caused the asbestos to be fixed or installed at the workplace, or be most able to comply with the notice and carry out measures to deal with the prohibited asbestos.
In some circumstances, a regulator may issue multiple notices in relation to the same workplace.
Importantly, there is flexibility for a regulator to determine what measures a relevant person is required to take in relation to the prohibited asbestos. While immediate removal of asbestos is the ideal outcome, removal may not always be appropriate. For example, there may be circumstances where the prohibited asbestos does not present a risk to health and safety in its current state, but its removal may create a health and safety risk to workers or others at the workplace.
A notice will specify a period for compliance. The period must be reasonable in the circumstances.
For more information about these changes to the model WHS Act, go to the Explanatory Memorandum.
Please note that these changes to the model WHS Act will not apply in a jurisdiction (that is, the Commonwealth, states and territories) until they are enacted in that jurisdiction.
Rapid Response Protocol
The Rapid Response Protocol has been developed by the Heads of Workplace Safety Authorities.
- The Protocol helps government agencies work cooperatively and efficiently across jurisdictions and portfolios when imported products have been identified as containing asbestos, and there is concern they may cross or have crossed state borders.
The Protocol makes sure all government agencies with an interest in a particular incident share pertinent information, and it enables a nationally uniform compliance and enforcement approach for future incidents.
SWA is not a regulator and cannot advise you about asbestos laws in your jurisdiction. If you need help, please contact your state or territory work health and safety authority.