Asbestos, once the miracle mineral, now it’s known as the “hidden killer”.

The word ‘asbestos’ seems to instil hysteria, particularly when the media gets involved. There is no denying asbestos is a serious and significant health hazard, but we need to think before we react. We need to consider what the actual risks are.

In April 2016, regulations regarding the management of asbestos came into force. This meant a Person in Control of a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) with management/control of a workplace, must ensure that asbestos or asbestos containing materials (ACMs) in the workplace are identified.

What makes asbestos such a significant health hazard? When the material is disturbed or damaged, and fibres are released into the air and inhaled.

When asbestos degenerates it releases microscopic fibres (smaller than hair and visible only by microscope). Once inhaled, the fibres can lodge in delicate lung tissue. Over time, with repeated exposure to asbestos, fibres build up damaging the lung tissue and lining. Eventually, the lungs can be badly affected by asbestos-related diseases e.g. mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and diffuse pleural thickening. All of which are unpleasant (and that’s an understatement), and some are killers. To put this into perspective, according to WorkSafe New Zealand, asbestos is New Zealand’s number one killer in the workplace; around 170 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases.

But just how much of a risk does asbestos actually pose? The majority of the current fatal cases related to asbestos are associated with very high exposures from past industrial processes and installation of asbestos products. Workers involved in refurbishment, maintenance and other similar trades, could still be at risk of exposure to asbestos during their work. So in reality, what is the risk from asbestos if you don’t fit into either of the categories above?

Based on recent data on asbestos in the environment (by US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health), levels of asbestos in the ambient air are lower than in the past. This suggests that the level of lifetime risk from airborne asbestos is about 1 in 100,000, or even lower. Such a level of risk is exceedingly small and represents an “acceptable rare-event”, like the cancer risk from the cosmic radiation adsorbed when flying across the Atlantic or from eating charcoal broiled meat, or the risk of being killed by lightning. Don’t you love science?

What should YOU do?

If you think asbestos may be present, report it, ask to see the Asbestos Register and the Asbestos Management Plan, and follow the procedures therein – and remember, don’t panic!

Ideally, all exposure to asbestos should be avoided, but that doesn’t mean you should worry about a single one-off exposure – it’s not true that one single fibre kills. If however, you think asbestos or ACMs are in your working environment, stop work and report it. Assume it’s an asbestos hazard until testing confirms otherwise. Follow correct safety procedures. Make sure the area is cordoned off and signed. Don’t try to test and/or remove asbestos, this needs specialist and authorised providers. Limit inadvertent exposure, by consulting asbestos registers as these show where asbestos or ACMs have been identified. Protect yourself and wear the correct PPE.

We all know and accept that asbestos poses a serious health hazard, but unless you’re actually working with the material or are in an environment where fibres are released, then don’t panic. Assess the actual risk, not the hazard.

Don’t forget that PCBUs now have a duty to identify asbestos, keep a register and have a plan. The point being, if you think asbestos may be present, remember to ask. Get some proper advice – speak to your local, friendly health and safety team. And remember – don’t panic, it’s only a bit of asbestos!

Bruce Campbell

About the Author
Bruce Campbell

Senior Associate - Health & Safety (& Environment)

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