Asbestos - Frequently asked questions
This page contains frequently asked questions on asbestos.
I’m not sure which WA agency would best help me with my asbestos query.
See the 'Asbestos Issues: Who to call' brochure.
What products might asbestos be found in?
- Asbestos cement products such as building materials ('fibro'), fences, switchboards and roofing
- Sprayed on insulation and acoustic applications
- Buildings, ships and other structures
- Vinyl asbestos tiles
- Laboratory tabletops
- Heater banks (air-conditioning ducts)
- Roofing felts
- Suspended ceiling tiles
- Friction materials (brake pads, shoes, etc)
- Industrial gaskets
- Naturally occurring ores/soils
- Fire doors and other fire resistant materials
- A variety of other building materials and plant components – refer to the Code of Practice for the Management and Control of Asbestos in Workplaces [NOHSC: 2018(2005)] for a comprehensive list. Asbestos materials may also be found in soil due to past land uses.
To check if a material contains asbestos, you can have a sample tested by a NATA accredited laboratory. Fees and analysis times may vary between laboratories.
What is friable asbestos?
Friable asbestos is asbestos in the form of a powder, or which is soft and crumbles under hand pressure. Examples include asbestos pipe insulation and the backing on asbestos backed vinyl sheet flooring. Non-friable asbestos containing material, such as asbestos cement sheet, can become friable in some circumstances (eg if involved in a severe fire).
Is asbestos banned in Australia?
Yes, the importation and use of asbestos in Australia was banned from December 31st 2003. All uses of asbestos are banned except for the following:
- asbestos containing materials that are in the same place and used in the same way as they were before 1 January 2004;
- bona fide research or analysis with the approval of the WorkSafe Commissioner;
- handling for removal or disposal purposes; and
- asbestos in its natural state and location.
What are the health risks from asbestos exposure?
Exposure to airborne asbestos fibres can cause diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The risk depends on factors such as the concentration of respirable asbestos fibres inhaled, the frequency of exposure, fibre type and genetic factors. Asbestos – a guide for householders and the general public is a national publication on asbestos, providing information on risk and safe handling. This is a risk management document is designed to assist householders reduce the risks associated with exposure to asbestos fibres. It was developed by the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth), in consultation with technical experts and with input from other government agencies. Below is an extract from this publication on Asbestos-related risk of disease.
Removal and disposal
Do I require a licence to remove asbestos at a workplace?
Ten square metres or less of bonded (non-friable) asbestos can be removed without a licence. More than 10 square metres must be removed by a licensed and trained individual or business. Safe work practices, in accordance with Part 9 of the Code of Practice for the Safe Removal of Asbestos, apply in either case.
Removal of any amount of friable asbestos must be done by a person or business with an unrestricted asbestos removal licence.
How do I dispose of asbestos products?
Transport and disposal of asbestos waste must be in accordance with all relevant State legislation and guidelines. Regulation 5.52 requires that asbestos waste is disposed of in accordance with Part 11 of the Code of Practice for Management and Control of Asbestos in Workplaces [NOHSC: 2018(2005)]. The Waste Management division of the Department of Environment Regulation can advise on disposal sites; contact (08) 6467 5000.
What is the minimum level of personal protective equipment required to people to
remove asbestos products?
All people involved with asbestos removal should wear coveralls, easy to clean boots, and a class P1 or P2 disposable respirator. Section 9.7 and Appendix C of the Code of Practice for the Safe Removal of Asbestos 2nd edition [NOHSC: 2002(2005) contains further guidance on selection of personal protective equipment for different tasks involving asbestos.
If washable coveralls are used, they must be washed at work and safe work procedures used for handling the unwashed clothing.
Can power tools be used to remove bonded asbestos products?
Tools used to remove bonded asbestos products such as asbestos cement sheeting must be non – powered or be a portable power tool incorporating dust suppression or dust extraction attachments designed to collect asbestos fibres. Further information on tools is available in part 9 of the Code of Practice for the Safe Removal of Asbestos 2nd edition [NOHSC: 2002(2005).
Power tools can be used to cut metal fixings provided the cutting edge does not contact the asbestos containing material.
I have had asbestos removed and fragments have been left behind. What can be done
to have this cleaned up?
Firstly, speak with the contractor who conducted the removal work if possible, explain the situation and ask if they can return to remove the fragments. If they refuse to do so, and the issue is minor, the most practical way forward is to collect the fragments as outlined below. If there is a significant amount of debris remaining, and the removal was conducted by a paid worker or contractor, you can report the concern to WorkSafe.
After an asbestos removal job, WorkSafe recommends the asbestos removalist and client walk through the removal area together, so that both parties are satisfied the site is visually clear of asbestos containing material.
Asbestos cement sheets have been taken down and left on site, is this acceptable?
Asbestos cement sheets, once removed, should be wrapped and disposed of promptly. However, during the removal and disposal process it may be necessary to leave materials on site in the short term. If such materials have been left for some time, this can be reported to local government (for domestic or public locations) or WorkSafe (for workplaces). As the fibres are usually still well bonded in a non-friable cement matrix (as they were before the sheets were removed), health risks of such material are very low unless significantly disturbed or broken up.
I need to remove asbestos from my home. Should I do it myself or employ a licenced asbestos removalist?
WorkSafe recommends you employ a licenced asbestos removalist, as these contractors have the skills, knowledge and equipment to do the work safely. However, if you decide to do the work yourself, don’t put yourself or your family at risk, or risk contaminating your house or land. Get the right information and equipment before you start. Information sources include:
- Online asbestos awareness education “kNOw asbestos” on the Cancer Council website;
- Asbestos – A guide for householders and the general public online booklet; and
- The WA Department of Health.
Asbestos removal is occurring nearby and I am unsure if it is being done safely. What can I look out for?
Workers using personal protective equipment such as disposable or washable coveralls and face masks (particulate respirators)
- Work area restricted and signs used where practical
- Wet work methods or sealing of ACM prior to removal
- Minimal breakage of material (note: some breakage may be unavoidable)
- Removed product wrapped in plastic or placed in lined bin/container
Why do asbestos removal workers wear extensive personal protective equipment, while others near the workplace don’t need to?
Asbestos risks are influenced by how often a person may be exposed to airborne fibres. As such, asbestos removal workers are required to take extra care to avoid inhaling fibres, as they work with asbestos daily, and one way they do this is using personal protective equipment. Fibre release is also controlled during asbestos removal by the use of safe work methods and by the bonding effect of cement or other binders, for most asbestos containing materials.
People outside the asbestos work area should not have significant exposure if standard safe work practices are being used. Air monitoring at such boundaries commonly finds fibre levels below the detection limit.
Soil at the workplace has been classified as asbestos contaminated and is to be removed to a hazardous waste landfill. Does the person doing the removal need an asbestos removal licence?
No, however an asbestos removal control plan should be in place.
Management of asbestos in workplaces
I have asbestos cement building materials at my workplace. Is there anything I need to do about that?
Regulation 5.43 of the Occupational Safety and Health Regulations 1996 requires that the employer, main contractor, self-employed person or person in control of the workplace identifies the presence and location of asbestos at the workplace, and assesses the health risks. This identification and assessment is to be in accordance with the Code of Practice for Management and Control of Asbestos in Workplaces [NOHSC: 2018(2005)].
This information will be recorded on the asbestos register. If the asbestos containing material (ACM) presents a health risk, the employer or person in control of the workplace has a duty of care under the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 to implement controls.
The asbestos register is used to communicate the hazard before work is done on the asbestos containing material. A safe system of work must be used for tasks that may disturb the asbestos containing material (eg cleaning, painting or other maintenance).
Information must also be provided to workers in relation to asbestos containing materials at the workplace. The level of information needs to suit the person’s role; for example workers who do not have a direct involvement with the asbestos containing materials may only require awareness that the workplace contains asbestos and that there is an asbestos register; however workers who maintain such materials or organise contractors to work on them need an understanding of asbestos hazards and the asbestos management system. Labels and signs must be used where practicable, as part of a safe system of work.
How often must a review be undertaken of asbestos containing materials at a workplace?
Asbestos management is based on appropriate management of risk; and some asbestos containing material (ACM) products are known to have a very long and stable effective life. A competent person may reasonably consider that ACM in very good condition and with low risk of disturbance requires less frequent review and assessment than the 12 months stated in the asbestos management Code of Practice. Reduction in review and assessment frequency must be supported by:
- the written recommendation of a competent person based on risk; and
- adequate systems at the workplace to report any damage, disturbance or work involving the ACM that occurs during the interval until the next risk assessment and register review.
In any event, the register of ACM and associated risk assessments must be reviewed at least every three years.
Should asbestos building materials be labelled?
Warning signs and labels supplement the information on an asbestos register and must be used where practicable, as part of a safe system of work. A competent person can advise on the placement of labels and signs.
There are cracked or broken asbestos cement sheets at my home or workplace,
how should this be managed?
Cracked asbestos cement sheets are usually still in non-friable (hard) condition and fibres are bonded in the cement matrix, so the health risks are generally low. Options to manage such sheets include replacing the sheet with non-asbestos material, or if that is not practical, the cracked or broken edges can be painted or sealed to further bond the fibres. Information on painting asbestos material is available in the Code of Practice for Management and Control of Asbestos in Workplaces [NOHSC: 2018(2005)].
I am concerned that asbestos cement building materials at my workplace (or a nearby building) are getting very weathered and may release fibres.
Over time, asbestos cement structures deteriorate as the cement slowly breaks down and asbestos fibres are washed and blown away. Even if an asbestos cement material is in poor condition, it is not likely to pose an increased risk to your health. Released fibres rapidly disperse into the air and their concentration reduces within a short distance from the structure. Air testing near the ground has shown the concentration of fibres is very low – the same as if the asbestos cement structure was not there.
Asbestos cement roofs can be left in place until they are no longer water tight. However, they can pose an increased risk to health when they are disturbed or being worked on or when the roof gutters are being cleaned. Safe work methods must be used for these tasks; refer to the Code of Practice for Management and Control of Asbestos in Workplaces [NOHSC: 2018(2005)].
I sometimes need to drill or work with asbestos materials as part of my trade (eg electrical or plumbing work, handyman work). How can this be done safely?
Detailed information on the following tasks associated with asbestos containing materials are available in Appendices D-H of the Code of Practice for Management and Control of Asbestos in Workplaces [NOHSC: 2018(2005)].
- Gutter cleaning
- Replacing cabling
- Switchboard work
This Code also contains general advice on working safely with asbestos. There are also detailed work instructions for many tasks on the UK HSE website. Regulations are different in the UK, however the safe work practices are relevant to Australia.
In general the use of water or gels (such as shaving cream) can help to reduce dust (note that wet methods cannot be used if there is an electrical hazard). Non-powered tools should be used as they make larger (less hazardous) dust particles than power tools. High speed abrasive power or pneumatic tools must not be used. Personal protective equipment and cleanup equipment is required.
Employees should discuss asbestos work with their employer if the safe work procedure is unclear.
We have asbestos containing material at our workplace that may be friable (eg pipe lagging, low density board, severely fire damaged asbestos cement sheet, vinyl flooring with a soft asbestos backing). How should this be managed?
A competent person (such as an occupational hygienist with asbestos experience) can provide advice on such material and confirm whether or not it is friable. Options for managing such material include:
- Removal – for high risk material that is very soft, likely to be disturbed, or material no longer in functional condition.
- Management in place – for material such as the backing of a vinyl floor in intact condition, or other inaccessible ACM, management through an asbestos management plan is feasible. However, management is likely to be more complex than for non-friable asbestos containing materials.
- Cleanup – sometimes minor damage to material has resulted in some pieces becoming detached, and cleanup and repair is an option. However if the risk of future disturbance is high, removal is the preferred option.
We have asbestos cement building materials at our workplace. Should we do surface testing to test for fibres in the dust?
Asbestos fibres in settled dust are indicators of workplace cleanliness rather than health risk. Settled fibres are often larger than the tiny respirable fibres associated with health risk. There are no standards available to compare settled dust fibre levels against.
Fibres are commonly detected in settled dust in asbestos cement buildings, especially in seldom disturbed areas such as the top of roof beams.
Such testing should only be undertaken with a clear understanding as to what action will be taken if fibres are detected, and is not generally required.
I have found fragments of asbestos cement material, what should I do?
For small quantities of asbestos cement fragments, no licence is required to dispose of the material.
The fragments should be collected, placed in a labelled heavy duty plastic bag or wrapping and taken to a suitable landfill or Local Government asbestos collection point. This should not be delayed especially if there is the possibility of the material being disturbed or damaged such as by traffic or lawn mowers. Normally disposable or washable rubber gloves and good personal hygiene are sufficient for collecting the material. However, if there has been extensive fragmentation or abrasion, then a well-fitted P1 or P2 respirator should be worn and the material wetted with water before collection, or services of a licensed asbestos removalist sought.
For larger quantities of fragments found in soil, refer to this guide from the Department of Health, or contact the Department of Health to discuss cleanup and possible reporting requirements.
During excavation work at our workplace, materials that may be asbestos (such as pipes or sheets) have been found. What should we do?
If the material is not in use, you can either presume the material is asbestos-containing and dispose of it as for asbestos (using a licensed removalist if there is more than 10 m2 material), or have a sample tested to see whether or not asbestos is present.
If the material is still in use (eg pipes), avoid further damage. Repairs can be made using safe work methods as outlined in the Code of Practice for Management and Control of Asbestos in Workplaces [NOHSC: 2018(2005)].
Can I re-use asbestos material at my workplace, for example take down an asbestos fence or a wall temporarily, and then replace it?
No, regulation 5.32A of the Occupational Safety and Health Regulations 1996 prohibits such re-use. Once the asbestos material has been removed from its in situ location it must be disposed of in the proper manner.
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