Asbestos has been valued throughout much of human history for its versatility (it’s a fibrous mineral that you can spin into cloth!) and its unusual properties (it’s fireproof! And very strong!). It has been used in building materials and insulation, car parts, and clothing. Unfortunately, because asbestos dust can cause chronic lung disease and cancer, its risks eventually came to outweigh its benefits, and it has been phased out of many former uses.
But its durability means that it is still around—and workers are still exposed to it. Because of this, asbestos is heavily regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Those regulations are frequently cited, too. Here are three areas where employers go wrong when dealing with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in the workplace.
Failing to inform workers
When OSHA inspected a post office facility in West Baden Springs, Indiana, in June 2016, it found that workers had not been told that there was asbestos in the facility. ACMs were present in the box lobby and service lobby, work room, furnace/rest room area, and loading dock vestibule, but the post office had not provided awareness training to workers or labeled the ACM.
Workers at a coke production facility operated by U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh were left similarly uninformed. According to OSHA, seven workers were assigned to perform tasks that exposed them to asbestos, on two separate occasions less than 1 month apart—but they never participated in an asbestos training program. OSHA discovered the violation when it inspected the facility in March 2016.
Action item: Make sure that employees who work in areas where ACMs are present participate in asbestos awareness training.
Failing to clean up ACM
At the West Baden Springs post office, damaged and broken floor tiles and mastic were exposed in two different areas–but for more than 2 months, nothing was done to repair the damaged floor. Worse, the housekeeper was cleaning broken and damaged tile and mastic using dry sweeping methods, which can generate airborne dusts. At U.S. Steel, workers used compressed air to clean dusty materials containing ACM. In addition, they vacuumed debris with ordinary vacuums rather than with high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA)-filter equipped vacuums.
Action item: If there is ACM in your facility that becomes damaged and friable (capable of giving off dust), be sure to clean it up quickly in accordance with applicable regulations.
Being careless about worker exposures
Employers that decide to remove and replace small amounts of insulation, flooring, ceiling, or soundproofing material—usually as a part of routine maintenance—often either neglect to properly determine whether these are ACMs or fail to implement safe work practices for handling ACMs. This allegedly occurred at U.S. Steel, where workers were chipping away thermal system insulation without using drop cloths, miniature enclosures, or glove bag systems to prevent the dispersal of ACM dusts, and without using wet methods for ACM removal. Worse, they didn’t place the ACM in sealed, labeled, impermeable bags for disposal, which put other employees at risk of exposure.
Action item: If you need to remove some ACM in order to perform maintenance, make sure that workers have the training and equipment they need to follow safe work practices.
Asbestos exposure might seem like such an old issue that you wouldn’t need to think about risks or compliance; unfortunately, as these employers discovered, there are enough materials out there that contain asbestos to make compliance a very present concern for some employers.
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