Asbestos awareness high. Safety? Not so

On 15 February 2010 Safe Work Australia (SWA) released a report entitled “Asbestos Exposure and Compliance Study of Construction and Maintenance Workers“.

It found, according to the SWA media release:

  • “Most tradespersons were aware of the potential health risks of asbestos.
  • This high level of general awareness is not accompanied by the knowledge of how to recognise asbestos or control the risks when working with it.  Although tradespersons believe they can identify asbestos materials, in practice their ability to reliably identify them was limited.  This was generally because their identification skills were insufficient, asbestos registers were often absent or inaccurate and few premises had labelling of materials or areas containing asbestos.
  • Almost all tradespeople surveyed thought they could protect themselves from the risk of asbestos.  However, the overall level of compliance with safety procedures was much lower than was estimated by these workers.
  • There was inappropriate disposal of asbestos and contaminated materials.
  • Atmospheric monitoring of a limited number of selected work tasks showed that all exposures were below the workplace exposure standard.

In relation to the last point, any workplace exposure standard that sits above zero for this substance remains contentious.

The use of asbestos has been banned in Australia since 2003 and the training of plumbers, carpenters, electricians and painters has included information of the hazards of this material for decades.  Yet

“In general, it was clear that the high level of awareness and confidence of tradespeople in being able to protect themselves from asbestos was not matched by putting the necessary safety precautions into place.”

This SWA report is very useful for its literature review and the risk perception data and the report makes some recommendations (below) but the study illustrates the gap between an awareness of a hazard and action to control or avoid a hazard.  (Given the events over the last fortnight, a study of foil installation installers would be interesting but would prove to be only of curiosity value.)  This activity gap is one with which all OHS regulators are struggling – what turns knowledge into action?

In this context the report fails but the question was not in the scope of this project.  The question must be placed front and centre in all of the governments’ policy development on occupational health and safety.  In the case of asbestos, the Tasmanian Government is showing action on the removal of asbestos from government buildings.  It has almost embraced the hierarchy of controls on asbestos is in a social setting and looked to the long term. (This decision was made well before the announcement on 12 February 2010 of an election for the State.)

The recommendations of the SWA report are fairly bland as they sit within the “administrative controls” level of the hierarchy.  They mostly reflect programs that are already in place and do little to reduce the risk of asbestos in workplaces, in practice, or, as the older styles OHS legislation aimed for, to reduce workplace risks “at the source” – an omission in new Australian OHS legislation that is a major step backwards.

  • “Asbestos awareness campaigns be conducted to:
    • maintain current level awareness of the risk of asbestos
    • increase awareness of the requirements and the roles of asbestos registers, and
    • increase awareness that improving skills in identification of ACMs [asbestos containing materials] is essential for safe working with ACMs.
  • Measures are implemented to ensure that up-to-date and accurate asbestos registers are kept and appropriate labelling of ACMs are displayed in the required premises.
  • Industry and trade specific guidance be developed on working safely with asbestos, including illustrated guidance on identification of ACMs.
  • All jurisdictions take an integrated approach with their legislation for asbestos risk management so that it covers all premises, including domestic premises.
  • More practical options for disposal of small quantities of asbestos be developed jointly by municipalities, environmental authorities and the trade associations.
  • All future trade training incorporates asbestos training specific to the trade and that all existing tradespeople receive an information pack on identification and safe work practices for asbestos that is developed jointly by OHS authorities, trade associations and trade licensing boards.”

Kevin Jones

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