Asbestos: steps to keep workers safe

In use for thousands of years, asbestos was first discovered in ancient times and hailed as a miracle substance. Its name is Greek in origin and means "inextinguishable" because it refused to burn and was exceptionally resistant to fire. In fact, until very recently, it was still a popular material because of its strength, flame resistance, and insulation properties.

Unfortunately, scientists have since discovered that asbestos poses significant health risks to people who live near it and those who work around it. It is actually a mineral composed of microscopic fibers, which can be spread through the air and enter the lungs, causing lung scarring (asbestosis), inflammation of the chest cavity (pleuritis), and cancers. As a result, employers must be very careful at worksites that may have asbestos or when they task personnel with cleaning it up.

Prior to a few decades ago, asbestos was commonly used for insulating pipes, on wall panels, in floor tiles, in spray ceiling coatings, and as packing material. Asbestos in all of these forms poses a threat, but it's most dangerous to people who tear it down.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines dictate that companies must adhere to a strict permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 0.1 fibers of asbestos per cubic centimeter of air in a given enclosed space over the course of eight hours. It is also required by OSHA to provide workers with the proper breathing protection. Depending on the level of exposure, employers must provide workers with half-mask or full-facepiece air purifying respirators equipped with high efficiency filters. For greater exposure, full-facepiece supplied air respirators or a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) may be required.

Companies must also perform initial and periodic exposure assessments which monitor the level of asbestos in a given area when work begins and routinely throughout its removal. It is also important to regulate and limit access to areas where this work is taking place because of the danger that asbestos presents. This can be accomplished with signs marking restricted or off-limit areas.

Because asbestos is made of tiny particles, it should never be swept or wiped with dry rags that can release more particulates into the air. Instead, asbestos should be cleaned using wet methods or wetting agents that reduce its ability to break apart and contaminate the air. Vacuum cleaners equipped with HEPA filters need to be used to collect all asbestos-containing or presumed asbestos-containing debris and dust.

Never attempt to clean up or handle asbestos without accreditation from the EPA or other regulatory agency. The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act of 1986 requires large-scale efforts to remove asbestos be undertaken only by those who have been trained to handle it. With the right education and training, as well as the proper safety supplies, companies can efficiently remove this dangerous substance from their worksites.  

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