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Unwelcome Surprises

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2016

By Michael Halliwell


A recent article in The Globe and Mail (“Asbestos revealed as Canada’s top cause of workplace death”) brought to light a disturbing trend in work-related fatalities in Canada.

© iStock.com / Brasil2

Although not usually reported as a workplace fatality the same way a fall or struck-by incident is, one in three workplace death claims were tied to asbestos exposure, according to reports.

Although not usually reported as a workplace fatality the same way a fall or struck-by incident is, this was a significant killer. One in three workplace death claims were tied to asbestos exposure—about 10.5 per million people and representing almost one-third of the annual claims in Canada.

In the United States, it’s about the same, with Asbestos.com indicating an age-adjusted death rate due to asbestos exposure of 12.8 per million.

Still Present

It’s just the “old timers,” right? After all, asbestos was banned, right?

Wrong!

In fact, in both the U.S. and Canada you can still find products containing asbestos for sale and in use. In both countries the use of asbestos has been greatly reduced since the 1980s, but it’s still here and not banned.

For those working in the construction and coatings industries, it’s not that uncommon to come across older buildings with asbestos present. Old drywall and joint compounds, transite panels, asbestos cement pipes, drywall, stucco, plaster and so many other common materials had asbestos present.

© iStock.com / Mr_Prof

In both the U.S. and Canada you can still find products containing asbestos for sale and in use. In both countries the use of asbestos has been greatly reduced since the 1980s, but it’s still here and not banned.

Unfortunately, the current mortality rates from asbestos-related illness show that what we didn’t know then could still kill us today.

A Textbook Case

So the numbers should be dropping, right?

The assumption, thanks to a common misconception that asbestos is banned, is that more modern buildings (say post-1990) are “safe.”

I recently came across an educational institution that proved that isn’t the case. Four of the main buildings on this particular campus were built between 1991 and 1993. All were finished with beautiful thick tile flooring meant to last a long time.

Unfortunately, the green amphibole rock used for some of that flooring is commonly found in the same geologic conditions as amphibole types of asbestos (like actinolite, amosite and tremolite). In fact, these particular tiles, present in highly used floors throughout the buildings, contained a low level of asbestos.

© iStock.com / fiveheart

The green amphibole rock used for some floor tiles is commonly found in the same geologic conditions as amphibole types of asbestos (like actinolite, amosite and tremolite).

Additionally, the tiles had been stripped of the factory seal so they could be regularly stripped and waxed. Not the greatest situation and one that could lead to exposure of the maintenance workers and potentially the students and staff as well.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the same campus had assorted railings and painted features with lead well above the current guidelines.

Vintage to Modern

So, isolated events, right? Nope.

Over the past few years, I’ve been through a variety of buildings from ’40s vintage to “fully renovated” older buildings to newer construction (i.e., within the last 20 years) and come across lead, asbestos and several other hazardous products.

These buildings have ranged from residential homes and apartment buildings to amusement parks and retail stores to commercial/industrial office and shop buildings—pretty much everywhere you could think of and in a wide variety of markets.

Proceed with Care

Now, I’m not trying to scare you or make you think that you need to wear a respirator 24/7 to protect yourself. Instead, I’d like to offer a reminder to be vigilant when it comes to asbestos and lead paint.

Asbestos and lead exposure are not like a confined space, working at heights or the electrical or chemical hazards typically encountered in the workplace.

© iStock.com / ScottKrycia

There is no rule that says you can’t be extra safe, and it’s far better to grab the extra gear now than to deal with the consequences many years down the road.

These other examples are a lot more like skydiving: if something goes seriously wrong, you’re going to go “splat” pretty quickly. Things like H2S can pretty much kill you where you stand, and a fall from heights is a lot like skydiving without a parachute.

On the flip side, exposure to asbestos and lead can be innocuous at first, but have significant health impacts years down the road.

So how do you deal with something that you may not be able to tell is exposing you to a dangerous substance?

Well, my skydiving friends have a very appropriate adage: “When in doubt, whip it out.”

Use common sense and ask questions. If you have a concern or your “gut” is telling you something isn’t right, bring it up instead of brushing it off. Get suspect materials tested—it’s fairly cheap and quick. And if all else fails, grab the appropriate PPE and use it.

There is no rule that says you can’t be extra safe, and it’s far better to grab the extra gear now than to deal with the consequences many years down the road.

As Benjamin Franklin said: “One today is worth two tomorrows.” And when it comes to asbestos and lead, taking the time today can be worth many tomorrows.

Stay safe everyone.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Michael Halliwell

Michael Halliwell, M.Eng., CESA, EP, P.Eng., is an Associate and Environmental Engineer for Thurber Engineering Ltd. in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. During his 17-plus years with the company, he has been involved with environmental site assessment, remediation, construction inspection and supervision, and project management. He also performs hazardous building material assessments for asbestos and lead paint.

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Tagged categories: Engineers; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection; Project Management; Thurber Engineering Ltd.; Emissions; Health & Safety; Health and safety; North America; Personal protective equipment; Respirators

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