Contractors are at risk of exposure to asbestos, the main cause of mesothelioma.
In the United States, construction and manufacturing industries have used asbestos in a variety of applications since the early 19th century. These industries valued the naturally-occurring mineral for its fireproofing and insulating capabilities, and used it in a variety of products to construct houses and office buildings.
Americans began to realize the danger caused by asbestos in the 1970s. As a response to this growing awareness, the EPA enacted several regulations culminating in the “Asbestos Ban and Phaseout Act of 1989.” In 1991, however, the Fifth Circuit Court of appeals lifted the blanket ban on asbestos. While their ruling prohibited any “new uses” of asbestos, it allowed several commercial uses of the mineral to continue.
Asbestos in Homes
According to the EPA, asbestos-containing materials are present in millions of older homes in the U.S., and are still used legally in several commercial applications:
- Cement corrugated sheet
- Pipeline wrap
- Cement flat sheet, pipes and shingles
- Vinyl floor tile
- Roof and non-roofing coatings
Danger to Contractors
- If a house was built before the mid 1980s, it will undoubtedly contain asbestos.
- Houses built between the mid 1980s and 1990 will contain less asbestos, though the mineral may be present in materials like ceiling panels, floor tiles and sheet vinyl products.
- After 1990, the usage of asbestos in manufacturing dropped considerably – houses manufactured after that point will most likely not contain asbestos.
Contractors perform services, ranging from simple repairs to tear-downs and rebuilds, on properties of all types, including those built before the 1980s. This increases their risk of exposure to asbestos, a risk that can cause mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease.
Asbestos is dangerous because it is highly friable – its microscopic fibers become airborne very easily when disturbed – and contractors can unknowingly inhale large amounts while they’re on the job.
After they are inhaled, asbestos fibers accumulate in the respiratory system and protective lining of the body’s major organs. Over time, the fibers cause irritation, inflammation, and scarring, all of which lead to mesothelioma.
According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. If a job requires demolition, minimize the creation and spreading of dust that can contain asbestos fibers. Ask for an asbestos assessment report for a property you suspect may contain asbestos; if a prospective job site does contain asbestos, remember that most states require anyone who inspects, repairs, and removes asbestos-containing materials to be accredited.
For a comprehensive look at the U.S. Department of Labor ’s standards regarding asbestos, familiarize yourself with OSHA Standards.
Safety Tips for Contractors
If you’re a contractor, you should know if the materials your team is removing or repairing contain asbestos. If you find asbestos in your worksite, knowing what to do will keep you and your team safe.
- If you or a crew member find asbestos-containing materials, seal the work area from the rest of the house with plastic sheeting and duct tape. Turn off the heating and air conditioning systems to prevent the circulation of asbestos fibers.
- Avoid tracking dust or debris that may contain asbestos though other areas of the site.
- Avoid breaking removed material into small pieces, as this can release hidden asbestos fibers into the air.
- Provide respirators with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters for yourself and your workers—disposable dust masks will not protect you from asbestos exposure.
- Never use a regular vacuum to clean asbestos-containing materials.
- Spray popcorn ceiling with a fine mist of water before you remove it. This speeds up removal and helps prevent asbestos fibers from becoming airborne.
- Wearing a set of disposable clothing and change out of it before leaving the job site. This protects your friends and family from secondary asbestos exposure.
- Ensure that your crew has proper clothing and respiratory equipment.
Contractors are the first-line of defense against asbestos exposure. They create healthy, safe places for consumers to live by using quality, asbestos-free building materials; and safeguard workers lives by adhering to OSHA-standard safety regulations.