Caution for non-compliant contractors working with Asbestos | Legal Articles


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Caution for non-compliant contractors working with Asbestos

Asbestos has been used commercially for many years because of its desirable properties in the building industry. 

Non-compliant contractors working with Asbestos

However, due to many non-compliant contractors who are endangering the health of workers and clients, this material has come under intense scrutiny. 

Asbestos removal

This is because inhaling the asbestos micro fibres generally leads to a whole array of serious illnesses such as lung cancer etc. 

This highlights the importance of approved asbestos handlers being used by contractors. 

Asbestos is in the process of being done away with, but many commercial buildings still have the material in different states of disintegration. 

Getting rid of asbestos

Getting rid of asbestos is a slow and difficult process and is not as simple as lifting and replacing. 

Contractors have to ensure they comply with strict asbestos controls when handling any materials containing asbestos. If the asbestos sheeting is in good condition it poses relatively low risks. 

However, the material releases harmful fibres when it deteriorates or is damaged. This in turn, can affect people in and around the buildings and exposes them to asbestos related diseases. 

Shop, office and factory workers are also at risk if they are in or near buildings with deteriorating asbestos roofing, and so the need to have it replaced is high.

Tenants and international investors demand buildings that conform to health and safety standards, and so building owners who are replacing asbestos for safer materials are under pressure to move towards becoming asbestos. 

This is especially in the case of certain industries, such as the food and beverage industry which require strict health and safety compliance and need buildings that are asbestos-free. 

Banks are more likely to approve of bonds for asbestos-free buildings where anchor tenants are primarily involved in the food industry. This is because the costs for replacing roofing can generally be high. 

As has already been established, the removal of asbestos sheeting must be done safely. Ground workers keep the asbestos sheets wet to reduce asbestos fibres spreading. This process should ideally be done at a time when the factory is closed.

Replacing asbestos roofing

When replacing roofing with environmentally safe materials, building owners must be sure to soundproof the roof against excessive noise created by heavy rain or hail. Also, factory floors and the exterior of the building must be kept clean to reduce risks of airborne fibres being spread.

A health and safety officer must be present to ensure the safety of all workers, and protective clothing and precise disposal methods must be adhered to at all times when handling asbestos.

Asbestos compliance certificates

Contractors are legally required to be asbestos compliant before accepting projects that involve handling asbestos. 

They must go through a rigorous application process annually to renew their asbestos compliance certificates so as to comply with the regulations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. 

Building owners who do not contract approved asbestos handlers may be jointly liable in the case of injury or harm to workers or the public.

Unfortunately there are still too many non-compliant contractors putting the health of their workers and clients at risk.

Answers to common questions regarding asbestos

What is asbestos and why should you know about it?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material that has been extensively used in buildings because of its fire protection and thermal insulation properties. 

However, it also presents a serious risk to health and still causes many deaths due to these risks. 

Although now banned in South Africa and other countries, it is a legacy hidden in various shapes and forms that will threaten the lives of many at home and at work for years to come.

Where is Asbestos found?

The material was often mixed with cement and can be found in roofs, gutters, pipes, boilers, ceiling tiles, insulation boards, sprayed coatings and many other products. 

It was so popular at one stage that more than 3000 different products contained it, of which some are still found in their original forms in our homes and work environments.

What danger does it pose?

If inhaled, the micro fibres may cause a range of serious lung diseases, including asbestosis (scarring of the lung), lung cancer and mesothelioma (a malignant and fatal tumour that grows on the lining of the lung). 

Early symptoms of disease may include chest pain and shortness of breath, leading in more advanced stages, to respiratory failure, cardiac arrest and death. 

The disease may lie dormant for 15 to 50 years from the first contact with asbestos, and when the disease is finally diagnosed it is fatal. This is because there is no cure.

How widespread is this problem?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that worldwide there are more than 100 000 asbestos related deaths per year and that, currently, 125 million workers are exposed to the deadly fibre. 

In the United Kingdom, the death toll is estimated at approximately 3 500 per year and, in the USA, 10 000 per year. 

In South Africa about 200 mesothelioma cases are reported per year but this is most likely an underestimate considering the magnitude of mining and processing that took place in a country that was a leading global supplier of all types of asbestos. 

Considering the figures, it can be be considered a widespread epidemic.

How does one recognise asbestos materials?

Fibres might be visible in the friable form (such as loose insulation material) but are seldom seen in asbestos-cement and similar products. 

However, it is not really possible to identify asbestos by visually examining products and laboratory analysis is often required. 

Asbestos has been banned in South Africa since March 2008, and so it will unlikely be found in building that were built after that year. 

But, if you are in doubt, you should generally assume that the material contains asbestos just to be safe and take precautionary measures to have it removed.

How can a person be exposed to asbestos?

The material is only a health risk when its fibres are dispersed into the air and inhaled into the lungs. 

Materials that are made from pure asbestos or that contain high percentages of asbestos, such as insulation and lagging material, are far more dangerous than products that contain less, such as asbestos-cement products. 

However, any work or process that disturbs the fabric of the asbestos-containing material and that releases fibres, such as drilling, cutting, high pressure cleaning, demolishing or even natural deterioration and weathering of the material, introduces a serious threat to human health.

Who is at risk?

A person working on asbestos or on materials that contain it are at risk. Also people that are in the vicinity when such work is taking place are at risk.  

People who are particularly at risk are in the building and construction related professions such as roofing contractors, heating and ventilation engineers, building and demolition contractors, electricians, plumbers, joiners, tradesmen, carpenters, painters, etc.

What are the legal requirements related to asbestos?

The South African Department of Labour Asbestos Regulations (No.155 of 2002) prohibit an employer or a self-employed individual from carrying out work that will put any person at risk from asbestos exposure.

The Regulations also require that, where asbestos forms part of a building, plant or premises, steps are taken to ensure that the asbestos is identified and that potential exposure of any person to the fibres is prevented or adequately controlled.

No work is allowed to take place on asbestos or on materials containing it before a written work plan has been devised and the necessary precautionary measures have been taken.

Demolition or removal of asbestos and of materials containing it can only be carried out by an approved asbestos contractor.

To find out more, refer to the South African Department of Labour Asbestos Regulation.

How can a person prevent any risks?

Don’t start work if:

  • You are unsure or suspect that the material you will work on might contain asbestos;
  • Asbestos is present but you have not been trained to work safely with it and you don’t have the proper safety equipment;
  • You suspect that high risk material (e.g. lagging, insulation material, sprayed coatings) is present – only approved asbestos contractors can work on these.

Only work with asbestos if:

  • You have been properly trained; 
  • The risk to health has been assessed and there is a written work plan;
  • You have the correct equipment and tools to minimise dust, which includes the means to wet the material, hand tools instead of power tools, vacuum cleaner with the correct dust filtering system and appropriate means of decontamination and waste disposal;
  • You have the correct protective equipment, including a properly fitted and suitable respirator, suitable disposable gloves and overalls. You will also need boots without laces, or disposable boot covers

Don’t create dust or use compressed air for cleaning. Smoking, eating or drinking in the work area should be avoided at all times.

You should avoid disturbing asbestos if you can help it!

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