Asbestos in the Workplace

By Tom O'Connor | May 15, 2017




Asbestos is a well-known hazard because of attorney solicitations for clients exposed to it, public media messages and the material’s widespread use. Unfortunately, most people know much less about the details of asbestos—where it is found, the associated health hazards, and practical measures and regulatory requirements to control this danger. In fact, many believe there is a universal ban on asbestos. 

While myriad federal and state laws govern it, asbestos is still found in some products. It has been used for decades in thousands of commercial products because the minerals that make it up possess high tensile strength, flexibility, resistance to chemical and thermal degradation, as well as electrical resistance. Therefore, it remains in place for employers to deal with when maintenance, repairs and demolition are needed.

Asbestos is a commercial name refering to a variety of six naturally occurring fibrous minerals, including chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, actinolite and any of these materials that have been chemically treated or altered. The fibers of these materials can separate into microscopic particles that remain in the air and are easily inhaled. It is the inhalation of these fibers that is hazardous. The term “friable,” which means it can be crumbled, pulverized or reduced to powder by the pressure of an ordinary human hand, is used in regulatory text and determines the level of precautions that will apply when faced with asbestos.

Linemen, wiremen and electricians typically encounter asbestos in two ways: Fibers may be released when existing asbestos-containing construction materials are cut or removed, or they may be released when working on older equipment, such as turbines, generators, heating units and hot water tanks. 

The date of the materials is a factor. Asbestos use was limited in the mid-1970s, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deemed asbestos so dangerous that it issued a regulation that banned its use in most products manufactured or built after 1989. 

Asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, ovarian cancer, testicular cancer and pleural plaques. The severity of these illnesses differ, but all usually take a long time to develop.

For example, mesothelioma can take up to 45 years. Fibers penetrate the lung, stomach or abdomen walls and cause cancer in the lining. It is aggressive, and survival rates are low. Similarly, with the other cancers, the fibers enter that organ and affect the cells. Asbestosis occurs over a period of 10–20 years. Fibers accumulate in the lung and cause scarring. Over time, the lung tissues thicken, causing pain and restricting breathing. Pleural plaques are patches of thickening in the lining of the chest wall. They are a symptom of asbestos exposure but are benign and usually don’t cause any pain.

To protect workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established regulations specific to asbestos for both construction and general industry. The information is available in OSHA standard 1910.1001, Toxic and Hazardous Substances. The regulations are comprehensive in nature and dependent on the type of exposure. As mentioned earlier, the friability of the asbestos-containing material (ACM) and percentage of asbestos in the material are major factors. 

However, the most important factor is the permissible exposure limit (PEL). According to 29 CFR 1926.1101, “The OSHA PEL for asbestos fibers ... is an 8-hour TWA airborne concentration of 0.1 fiber (longer than 5 micrometers and having a length-to-diameter ratio of at least 3 to 1) per cubic centimeter of air (0.1 fiber/cm3), as determined by the membrane filter method at approximately 400× magnification with phase contrast illumination. No worker should be exposed in excess of 1 fiber/cm3 (excursion limit) as averaged over a sampling period of 30 minutes.” 

Protection must be in place to ensure exposure above this level does not occur.

If there is a possibility that asbestos exists on a job site, all affected employees must be trained to identify it. If discovered, a special removal process is often required. The process measures will be dependent on the ACM’s nature. Monitoring must be performed to ensure asbestos exposure is below the PEL. A record of the monitoring must be kept for at least 30 years. Engineering controls and work practices must be implemented—to the extent feasible—to keep it below that level. When this is not possible, these controls must be supplemented with proper respiratory protection.

Asbestos work areas must be demarcated with warning signs. Smoking, eating or drinking are prohibited in these areas. Training must be provided based on the workplace exposure and classification. Training records must be kept for at least one year beyond the last date of employment. Medical surveillance may be required. All medical records must be kept for the duration of employment plus 30 years.

More information is available at

About The Author

O’CONNOR is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm. Reach him at [email protected].

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