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5 Things Workplaces Should Know About Asbestos

Asbestos may “appear” to be a thing of the past – it is no longer mined in Canada and millions are being spent on its removal and containment. Yet Canada is far from being asbestos-free. This cancer-causing material is still used in new construction projects and accidental exposure can pose a danger to the health of many workers. In this post we share with you 5 things employers should know about this respiratory hazard.

1. Products containing asbestos are still being imported into Canada.

Even though the last of Canada’s asbestos mines shut down permanently a few years years ago, products containing the deadly fibers are still being purchased. Cement pipes containing asbestos are being used in new condominiums, hospitals, and high-rise buildings in Ontario and across the country.

In addition to pipes, brake pads containing asbestos are installed in cars manufactured here, despite efforts to curb its use. According to Statistics Canada, over $3 million worth of asbestos brake linings and pads were imported into Canada in 2013. Three years ago, a bill that would have banned the use of asbestos brake pads in Ontario stalled at second reading and has not been passed to date.

Manufacturers say the imported material is safe because it is tightly bound and the fibres cannot be inhaled by mechanics or workers. But anti-asbestos activists say when the pads wear down or when the pipes are cut, millions of fibers are released and are putting workers’ health at risk. We recommend reviewing all products that your workplace uses or handles, especially when it comes to insulation and fire retardants, to determine if they contain asbestos.

2. Some efforts to prevent accidental exposure are falling short.

Asbestos is still present in many older buildings across Canada, but it is considered safe by Health Canada if it is properly contained. This isn’t always the case. Just last week, the Globe and Mail published an article that describes a number of recent cases involving asbestos material being disturbed in older schools and universities across Canada. In April, the auditorium at a high school in Toronto was temporarily closed after tests of its air ducts found asbestos in six out of 18 samples.

3. Just because you can’t see the fibres, doesn’t mean they aren’t present.

Asbestos has been dubbed by the media the “invisible epidemic” because often the fibres are too small to be seen with the naked eye. Because you can’t see it, workers could be putting their health at risk without even knowing it. For instance, a mechanic working on brake pads that have broken down after years of wear may be unable to tell if the pads contain asbestos.

Stopping the use of asbestos will prevent future exposure, but it won’t stop the impact of previous exposure on the health of your workers. The diseases caused by exposure progress over time (asbestosis can take 10 to 30 years to appear), which is why many of our clients have multi-year surveillance programs in place that continually monitor their workers’ health.

Some of our clients are currently testing for post-exposure to asbestos because their workers were exposed to asbestos fibers during renovations and repairs to older buildings (handling of pipes). Accidental exposure can also happen if you are a construction company adding an addition to an old building that contains asbestos. You should always be aware of its potential presence and train your workers on how to handle it properly when it is disturbed.

4. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.

Both the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have said there is no safe form of asbestos, nor is there a threshold level of exposure that is risk-free. Citing external sources, OHSA’s website says asbestos exposures as short in duration as a few days have caused mesothelioma and every occupational exposure to asbestos contributes to the risk of developing an asbestos related disease.

Health Canada has encouraged provincial occupational health authorities to adopt stringent workplace exposure limits for asbestos. Current exposure limits vary, but many provinces have adopted a threshold limit value in line with the limit set by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), which is 0.1 fibres per cubic centimeter of air. The basis for the ACGIH’s rating is pneumoconiosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

The Canada Labour Code, which is applicable to businesses and industries that fall under federal government jurisdiction, allows its workers to be exposed to one fiber of asbestos per cubic centimeter of air — a level at least 10 times higher than what is permitted in some provinces and the U.S. See the chart below for occupational exposure limits by province.

Asbestos Occupational Exposure Limits1

5. Protecting your workers from asbestos exposure is the law.

CAREX Canada, a national surveillance project funded primarily by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer estimates that approximately 152,000 workers, from builders to auto mechanics and engineers, are exposed to asbestos. Where there is exposure, employers are required to protect workers by establishing regulated areas, controlling certain work practices and instituting engineering controls to reduce airborne levels of asbestos.

In many jurisdictions, medical monitoring is required. Medical examinations and testing may include a spirogram/pulmonary function test, a detailed health history to ensure asbestos exposure has not impacted other parts of the body, a health questionnaire, chest x-rays and respirator fit testing to ensure personal protective equipment worn by the worker is effective.

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